Is Jewish education doing Israel the justice it deserves?

Israel is so deeply embedded into all aspects of Judaism that one cannot deny or sever the connection between the two. Therefore, Israel plays a starring role in Jewish education. From the youngest student to the oldest, all will be learning about Israel in school. But, unfortunately, the knowledge and conception of Israel does not seem to grow any deeper or more complex as students progress to the higher grades. From my own experience, the perspective that Jewish schools provide on Israel is all about Jewish pride, our connection to our homeland. It is completely positive, lacking in almost any nuance. The vast majority of Jewish education avoids discussing the Arab-Israeli or Palestinian-Israeli conflicts all together, and if it ever does touch on the conflict, it’s always within the context of history. We discuss what has happened in the past, but not what could happen within Israel at present or in the future.

As the BDS movement and Anti-Zionism rise, schools have been attempting to correct the lack of knowledge their students have to back up the beliefs they were taught. Before graduating, students typically learn about the Holocaust and then the creation of the State of Israel, as these are two important events in Jewish history that have had major impacts on modern Judaism and Jewish identity. Whether the student is in middle school or high school, they are given much of the same information. While knowing our history is important and having an accurate understanding of it can help in responding to anti-Zionism and staying grounded in one’s beliefs, this type of education has its limitations. Having the knowledge is one thing, but the next step is to be able to put it to use. 

Schools often fail to adequately prepare students for life outside the classroom. In a Jewish school with a Zionist philosophy, the majority of students and teachers hold similar views about Israel. Even if someone in the school does not support Israel, the school has almost complete power to make sure anti-Zionist rhetoric is not being spread, thereby making it a very comfortable and insular environment for Jewish students. This makes the adjustment to university life and the confrontation with the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement all the more difficult for Jewish students who are used to an environment that is much more homogenous in its views on Israel. 

Jewish students need to learn how to advocate for Israel. Thankfully, one organization was started with just that goal in mind: Hasbara Fellowships. Hasbara literally means ‘explaining.’ Hasbara Fellowships Canada’s High School Internship ensures that there is a way to bridge the gap between knowledge of Israel’s history and present-day reality, and the practical tools that give us the ability to utilize it. 

I have noticed two major ways that Hasbara Canada’s advocacy training differs from the traditional educational model on Israel. First, Hasbara Canada focuses more on universally accepted sources to prove the points rather than solely the Jewish perspective. Hasbara Canada’s messaging is clear, with lots of room for genuine conversation and criticism of Israel. Jewish education works towards instilling pride, connection and basic knowledge surrounding Israel, thereby developing a foundation on which advocacy can be built, however when one uses biased sources or ignores real issues, they will be discounted. By allowing students to explore multiple perspectives on important issues and verify facts using non- jewish sources, Hasbara Canada bolsters the impact of the arguments they are able to make in a way that is more widely trusted. 

Second,​ Hasbara Canada has provided me with tips for communicating for Israel in real life situations and allows me to practice them, countering the theoretical and purely informational way the school system presents Israel. The combination of practical advice and opportunity to use it and gain feedback strengthens the efficacy of the advocacy as well as the advocates confidence. Ensuring that the potential that is created by the Jewish education system is not wasted. Jewish educators need to embrace Hasbara Canada and its model of skill building as a resource that can be used with the existing curriculum to prepare students for the anti-Zionism and antisemitism they are, unfortunately, most likely to experience. 

The group of students that choose to participate in Hasbara Canada’s extracurricular programming do not apply on a whim. Rather, they are the students who understand the connection between themselves, their people, and Israel, and they want to be able to  defend it. Not every student is going to be able to recognize the need for tools or the reality of what it takes to protect the knowledge of their homeland, and they will not necessarily want to spend their free time developing these important skills. This is why the adults, mentors and educators must be willing to face that reality and work with organizations who are better equipped to teach these tools, such as Hasbara Canada, to start providing students with this crucial skillset within the regular school curriculum. 

About the Author
Paige Zaldin is a Hasbara Fellowships Canada High school intern.
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