The case for nuance in Israel education

I serve as the director of the “Israel Government Fellows” program, a ten-month program for top Jewish graduates from around the world, run by the Menachem Begin Heritage Center in Jerusalem.

The program combines work experience in the Israeli government and NGOs with weekly educational seminars where we bring speakers from, inter alia, the worlds of politics, academia, business and the media to discuss the various issues facing Israeli policymakers, Israeli society and the wider Jewish world.

Our philosophy is that you do not take the best and the brightest and feed them the standard hasbara lines. Rather, the way to connect young Diaspora Jews to Israel is to encourage them to think critically and to understand the complexities. It should not be that young Jews in North America or Europe who are critical of this or that Israeli policy believe this means they should disengage from Zionism. Neither does it mean they should become the mirror image of the uncritical supporters they abhor, by ignoring the complexities and seeing only Israel’s faults.

The following is extracted from a speech I gave at the graduation ceremony of the 2011-2012 class of the program – comprised of 18 incredible young people from the US, Canada, Spain, South Africa, Russia, France and Brazil.

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Through our weekly seminars and our tiyulim around the country, we have tried to show you every aspect of the challenges and dilemmas that face this country. We’ve discussed successes and failures.

This is an old/new country. Altneuland was the title of Herzl’s novel about a new Jewish sovereign state in the ancient land of the Jewish people. This is a 64 year-old country, for a 3000-year old people. And we stand here in Jerusalem, a city that, every year, brings us new archaeological evidence of Jewish history going back almost to the very beginnings of Jewish life here.

Israel struggles with the weight of its history, and the pressures of modernity – of combining its Jewish character with the liberal democracy that it professes. And of course there are the threats of its enemies, who make few efforts to hide their genocidal objectives. And yet, Israel’s achievements are many and remarkable. Israel’s self-development as a modern economy, a world leader in hi-tech and medical technology, a thriving cultural life… well you don’t need me to go through the list. If you didn’t know it ten months ago, you do now.

But, despite all these achievements, we have not shown you a perfect Israel. That reality remains for the future. What I hope we have done is to get you thinking about what we have to do get there.

I recently heard a quote from a Christian religious leader in the UK. He was criticizing the nature of the theological debate within Christianity and he said: “The Church is like a swimming-pool. All the noise comes from the shallow end.”

Now, the state of the Christian theological debate doesn’t bother me too much – so long as it stays far away from blood libels and the like! However, it’s a great line and a far-sighted critique, and there is sadly cause to apply the analogy to our own national and religious debate. For what is he saying? He’s saying that the loudest voices are those telling us that it’s all black and white. That there’s no nuance. The answers to the questions are simple.

I don’t know about Christians, but this way of thinking is the complete opposite of the way we are supposed to operate as Jews. We are not the people who offer easy answers; we are the people who ask the difficult questions. Throughout our history and tradition, we are a people who have argued and debated. We have insisted on free, even skeptical, inquiry, and we have not accepted shallow explanations.

This has been the case since the very beginning of our people, when Abraham argued with God about the justice of wiping out all the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah if even one innocent person could be found among them. It is evident in the Talmud and the very means by which Jewish law developed – through different Rabbis arguing their different interpretations.

In today’s State of Israel, with so many difficult questions and challenges to face, the dangers of listening to the loud voices at the shallow end are all too apparent. To take an essential example: how do we balance our need for security, with our moral commitment to uphold human rights? If we take a shallow approach and push for human rights at the expense of security, we could end up with no state. If, on the other hand, we make security the only concern and distance ourselves too much from human rights, we will have a state, but will it be one worth having?

The same goes for questions about the role of religion in the state. Or about where our final, permanent, borders should be.

So I say to all of you –

When you are in a situation of defending Israel from its so-often ill-informed or prejudiced critics, I hope you will take with you from this program that the best way to argue is to demonstrate that you have a real understanding of the issues, and that’s why you know that they’re wrong.

When you are making decisions in a leadership capacity, I hope you will take with you from this program that the best way to do so is, yes  to apply your own values and beliefs, but not to automatically dismiss different opinions and considerations.

Most of all, I hope that you will go forward as young Jewish leaders, with ahavat yisrael, with an unbreakable, eternal connection to the State of Israel.

This does not mean believing the country to be perfect. It means appreciating it for all that it is and does that is wonderful. And it means caring enough to want to help improve those things that are not as wonderful as they should be.

And, it means feeling that as Jews, it is your home.

About the Author
Before moving to Israel from the UK, Paul worked at the Embassy of Israel to the UK in the Public Affairs department, and as the Ambassador's speechwriter. He has a Masters degree in Middle East Politics from the University of London. He is currently a Senior Fellow at the Menachem Begin Heritage Center in Jerusalem - though he writes this blog in a personal capacity. He has lectured to a variety of groups on Israeli history and politics and his articles have been published in a variety of media outlets in Israel, the UK, the US and Canada.