Richard Friedman
Jewish Federation director, Journalist

“Netanyahu at War” Powerful Teaching Tool for Jewish Day School Students

It was powerful. Which was exactly the idea.

I had decided to show the recent PBS documentary “Netanyahu at War” to the Israeli history class I teach weekly for seventh and eighth graders at the N.E. Miles Jewish Day School, a community day school in Birmingham, Alabama.

Since September, I’ve been teaching these students about Israel, using an assortment of approaches to acquaint them with the magic, achievements, dilemmas and tensions that characterize the country. I have especially stressed to them Israel’s ingenuity, hunger for peace, and desire to use its brainpower to benefit the entire world including its Arab and Muslim adversaries.

The class has gone extremely well as the students’ inquisitive minds have risen to the occasion, resulting in a number of thoughtful discussions. I always challenge them to dig deeper into the topic at hand and I make a special effort to avoid sharing my personal opinions.

I also have let them know that sometimes issues relating to Israel — and the world in general — are not clear-cut and that  “I’m not sure” or “the answer is not clear to me” are acceptable responses in such cases.

During the past few weeks, I have been on the lookout for something that could be used to frame the history of Israel in an interesting and powerful way, making it come alive beyond facts and historical dates.

After watching the PBS documentary “Netanyahu At War,” I realized that the show could provide the teaching tool I was looking for, despite the documentary’s shortcomings. It could be a good framework for teaching Israeli history — prior to the country’s rebirth as a modern state in 1948, 1948-1967, and then from 1967 until today, three separate and significant periods.

The documentary chronicles Netanyahu’s personal life, which spans much of the history of modern Israel, and traces his rise to political power.  It features both critics and admirers of the Israeli prime minister. The title, “Netanyahu At War,” refers to themes in his life that go beyond the battlefield, highlighting his lifelong devotion to Israel’s struggle and well-being.

So I decided to show the two-hour PBS documentary in 30-minute segments over four class sessions, an approach that would allow me to stop the video to go deeper into a particular passage, provide historical background and engender discussion.  This approach, which I tried out a week ago, worked well.

Much is touched on in the first 30 minutes of the documentary which provides an abundance of teaching moments.  Topics covered include Netanyahu’s controversial address to the US Congress opposing the Iran nuclear agreement, his military service in an elite unit and his role in a daring operation against Arab terrorists, the Prime Minister’s frayed relationship with President Obama, his upbringing in America, Israel’s territorial conquests in the Six Day War, and the emotional debate over West Bank settlements.

The discussions among the students were spirited, as they almost always are in this class.  I’m particularly taken by how much these young seventh and eighth graders care about Israel.

A major thread in the documentary focuses on the friction between Netanyahu and Bill Clinton, when Clinton was president, and now Barack Obama, exploring and explaining the viewpoints of all three leaders (Netanyahu was also prime minister during Clinton’s term).

In preparation for a classroom “Presidential candidates’ debate,” my students are researching each candidate’s position on Israel and US-Israel relations.  I want them to understand the importance of having a US President who is friendly to Israel and its prime minister and the impact that dynamic can have on the relationship between the two countries.

Teaching weekly at the N.E. Miles Jewish Day School, a major recipient of funds raised through our Birmingham Jewish Federation and Foundation, has reminded me again — even though both of my children, now adults, attended our day school — of the uniqueness and importance of Jewish day school education.

Day school education allows for a merging of Jewish content and themes with the traditional learning process, as reflected in my Israel class. It enlarges the educational experience and grounds young students firmly in their religious identity, something that I believe will be increasingly needed as Jews face the challenges of navigating a world that is becoming more and more turbulent for Israel and the Jewish people.

This particular course also has allowed me, in a whole new way, to apply lessons I’ve learned from my more than 50 trips to Israel, the hundreds of articles I’ve written, and the many talks on Israel I’ve given during my 34 years as Executive Director of the Birmingham Jewish Federation.

A few weeks ago, before winter break, I asked the students in an in-class writing assignment, to reflect on what they had learned in the class since we began last August. One student wrote: “The most important thing that I’ve learned in Israeli history is all the important things that are going on in the world that I had no idea about. Although most of the discussions involve issues concerning Israel, it is really interesting to learn about how to fix all the problems and to share all our ideas and views.”

“I feel that this class has made a difference in my life because it’s given me a new understanding of the world and how to fix it,” he added.

And then he wrote something that really made me feel good: “Mr. Friedman makes this class fun and makes learning Israeli history interesting.”

About the Author
Richard Friedman is Executive Director of the Birmingham Jewish Federation in Alabama. He also is a well-known Alabama journalist.