‘Israel Warts and All?’ A Response To Rabbi Jill Jacobs

VILLAGER #1: We have found a witch, might we burn her?

CROWD: Burn her! Burn!

BEDEVERE: How do you know she is a witch?

VILLAGER #2: She looks like one.

BEDEVERE: Bring her forward.

WITCH: I’m not a witch. I’m not a witch.

BEDEVERE: But you are dressed as one.

WITCH: They dressed me up like this.

CROWD: No, we didn’t — no.

WITCH: And this isn’t my nose, it’s a false one.

BEDEVERE: Well?

VILLAGER #1: Well, we did do the nose.

BEDEVERE: The nose?

VILLAGER #1: And the hat — but she is a witch!

CROWD: Burn her! Witch! Witch! Burn her!

BEDEVERE: Did you dress her up like this?

CROWD: No, no… no… yes. Yes, yes, a bit, a bit.

VILLAGER #1: She has got a wart.

(Monty Python and the Holy Grail, The Witch Scene)

In a recent, thoughtful post, Rabbi Jill Jacobs, executive director of T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, suggests that present Israel education insults the intelligence of American children. She complains that she didn’t know anything untoward about the United States until taking AP American History in 11th grade and suggests that a similar Israel curriculum should be introduced to young children like her 8 year old.

While I am sure that some of my friends may immediately shut down any such discussion, several of Rabbi Jacobs points resonate with me. When I decided to leave yeshiva and study history in graduate school, I asked the advice of my teacher, Rav Aharon Lichtenstein. Rav Lichtenstein, a Harvard PhD in English Literature, debated the danger of studying history in university and the peril of the lack of nuance in the religious world. He remarked that “on the one hand, it is our duty to sit uncritically at the feet of our predecessors while on the other, many see only angels in the past and that can be destructive as well.”  Rav Lichtenstein was the paragon of nuance and complexity. Regarding educating Diaspora youth about the goings on in the modern State of Israel, I believe that we do a disservice in the long run by creating an impossibly unrealistic and Utopian vision. Israel is a modern country in the Middle East and not a European Disneyland. Students who are only taught a false reality of mini-America or even Sweden on the Jordan River will undoubtedly be disillusioned when they realize Israel is more complex and real than that. We live and pay taxes in a beautiful but dusty ancestral homeland located in one of the toughest neighborhoods on the planet. Understanding that reality is important.

But let’s be clear, I spoke with Rav Lichtenstein about nuance as a 24-year-old college graduate with several years of learning under my belt. Age, context and worldview are critical aspects of planning any curriculum.  And I believe that this is always the question at the heart of education.  There are many problems which must be addressed by serious educators which I believe Rabbi Jacobs wantonly and thoughtlessly glosses over.

First, education is never politically neutral. I believe that Foucault was right when he said,

 “Education may well be, as of right, the instrument whereby every individual, in a society like our own, can gain access to any kind of discourse. But we well know that in its distribution, in what it permits and in what it prevents, it follows the well-trodden battle-lines of social conflict. Every educational system is a political means of maintaining or of modifying the appropriation of discourse, with the knowledge and the powers it carries with it.” (The Archaeology of Knowledge and The Discourse on Language p. 227)

In other words, every educational enterprise is an act of triage; the teacher must decide what to include and what to omit. Indeed, I imagine Jacobs is arguing exactly that. Yet, again, her decision of which “warts” to teach is politically motivated.  Is the goal of “Israel studies” courses and events in youth groups, synagogues, and camps to achieve the holy grail of teaching disinterested information as if Israel is not central to the Jewish experience of the last one hundred years? If it’s true, and I believe it is, that all education is biased, what bias should one choose?  The answer to that question is critical.

Jacobs proclaims, “we can help our children build a strong connection to Israel by immersing them in Israeli music and culture, introducing them to Israelis, and teaching them Hebrew. But that doesn’t require hiding the realities of occupation, the experiences of Palestinians, or the current Israeli government’s attacks on democracy.”  What “realities” does she mean? Apartheid roads which don’t exist? That roadblocks do exist or why they exist — that Palestinians have been caught smuggling weapons in ambulances and in backpacks.  That the Irgun massacred villagers in Deir Yassin or that the massacre never happened?  That NGO’s which she works with are fighting for Palestinian freedom or that some of the workers at those same organizations are holocaust deniers, have handed Palestinians over to be killed by the P.A., or that some of their leaders have been accused by the Israeli legal system of lying about the IDF to gain publicity?

Jacobs has a particular political view an axe to grind and suggests that everyone join her in promoting her political agenda; an agenda at odds with the perspective of the majority of Americans. More and more I believe, liberal Jewish leaders, in general, are at odds with the views of the majority of Israelis, Americans, and many U.S. governments regarding Israel.  Her interpretation of facts is simply not shared by most Americans.

I am afraid that Jacobs promotes a colonial wistful view of Palestinians as the “the noble savage” who lacks personal agency. Shall our curriculum include the fact “occupied” Palestinians, led by a holocaust denier,  have much blood on their hands?  Is that the “reality” she is willing to say to her 8-year-old? That many of the so-called Palestinian leaders and intellectuals like Arafat, Saeb Berakat, and Sari Nusseibeh are actually not from Palestine?  What about the spike in honor killings, homophobia, and misogyny among Palestinian populations? That Hamas, a murderous terror organization which kills LGBTQ folk and feminists retains popular support among Gaza Palestinians.  Or that some on the Israeli left suggest that organizations such as hers and J Street etc. actually perpetuate the violence by maintaining a sui generis definition of refugees and promoting Palestinian hopes of annihilating the State of Israel by doing so? How much “complexity” is she willing to teach?

This is just the tip of the iceberg when one questions the meaning of “reality”. Who gets to define which “truth” and what “facts” to emphasize?  Education is not simple in the least. Which “warts” are real, which should be visible, and which would she keep hidden?

Second, it is important to understand educational objectives and student ages. She praises her AP teacher because, “He respected our intelligence sufficiently to assign academic books and articles instead of textbooks, and to force us to ask critical questions as we read. Nor did he shy away from current issues. ” This quote is fascinating when it is compared to what she suggests. While she was introduced to the complex narrative described above by an instructor who deviated from the curriculum to teach what he, but not the authors of the textbooks, felt was important in a college level course, she wants to address these same issues with eight-year-olds  “Even elementary school children are capable of understanding that countries and leaders don’t always do what is right. My own 8-year-old feels deeply connected to Israel, and also knows that Israel is currently occupying another people.”

I don’t know if her 8 year old, or other 8 year olds, spend as much time learning about the history and politics of Israel as A.P. history students do. When I took A.P. American History we spent an hour a day, every day, over the course of a year studying the history of the United States in depth and still had to speed through the Vietnam War. Can one expect lower school students at afternoon Hebrew school or even in day school to sift through the arguments of Benny Morris, Ilan Pappe, and Efraim Karsh and compare and contrast these versions of the events of 1948? Are 8 year olds up to understanding the reasons behind Israel building the security barrier which has prevented numerous terrorist attacks? Can an 8 year old even understand the meaning of the murder this week of the father of two little children by a 17 year old Palestinian terrorist?  Or is that part of the “reality”, the Palestinian “warts”, we don’t teach?

Third, context is critical. At a camp like Ramah or Moshava, how many hours during 4 or 8 weeks are dedicated to real curriculum dealing with Israel? 3 hours a week? 5 hours a week? In 12 to 40 hours over the course of a summer, camps are supposed to cover the Israeli context and Zionism in a way which can deal with one of the most complex political situations in the world today and do all this with middle school students? Yes, I imagine having a few fun activities around Israel is focused towards instilling in campers good feelings towards the only Jewish State. I’m not sure one can honestly ask for more than that.

In the 25 years or so that I have been teaching high school and college age students in Israel and in the United States, I have been disappointed by the lack of basic knowledge of Israel and Jewish history. A recent poll of Americans millennials claimed that 2/3 don’t know what Auschwitz is. If asked, I wonder, how many of the protesting If Not Now students know anything about the Chmielnicki Uprising , Kishinev pogrom, the pact of Umar, the Balfour declaration, Camp David, the Olso Accords, where the Jerusalem neighborhood of Gilo begins or ends, the destruction of the Jewish communities in the Arab world, that at the end of the 19th century only 400,000 people lived in an area which now houses 12 million, etc. etc.

How much information about Israel do the students know? With the exception of a few intellectually curious and politically active students, my impression is not much. And I teach the cream of the crop – those going to the best colleges throughout the world most of whom have day school and yeshiva high school backgrounds. Rabbi Jacobs wants to teach about the occupation to 8-year-olds from public school!? Can they even find Israel on a world map? Perhaps it’s better to start with the Cat In The Hat before introducing students to The Brothers Karamazov.

Lastly, the claim that teaching in this manner will instill a greater love of Israel rings hollow. As I wrote above, I do think that setting up Israel as a utopia is misguided. In this, I agree with Rabbi Jacobs. Students will crash as soon as they realize that Israel is a real country.  But suggesting that pushing a particular negative political agenda will bring our students to love Israel is disingenuous.  There are only so many times someone who promotes a one-sided view of Israel can repeat that she loves her before we get the impression that she isn’t really telling us the truth. “[immerse] them … [in]Israeli music … and the realities of occupation” Rabbi Jacobs wants to replace the pro-Israel agenda with a, particularly anti-Israel bias.

Rabbi Jacobs asks that camps and Hebrew school programs teach Israel, “warts and all.” I believe that we need to make sure the warts are real and that they can be shown in full context and in ways which are understandable to the ages, educational level, and experience of the audience. Otherwise, we are just dressing up a false and misleading reality to fit a liberal anti-Israel political narrative.

About the Author
Rav Berman is the Associate Director at Yeshivat Eretz HaTzvi. In addition, he has held numerous posts in education from the high school level through adult education. He founded the Jewish Learning Initiative (JLI) at Brandeis University and served as rabbinic advisory to the Orthodox community there for several years. Previously, he was a RaM at Midreshet Lindenbaum where he also served as the Rav of the dormitory.
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