The crisis of content

How important is knowledge to Israel education? I’m talking here about facts, figures, dates, names, definitions, terminology, etc. — the basic stuff on which broader education about Israel (connection to Israel, the complexity of modern Israel, advocacy for Israel, and so on) relies upon. Answers vary, and as someone who grew up on a diet of youth movement ideology, informal educational ethos and a pretty liberal worldview, I used to sit very much in the “less than we think” camp. But now, I’m not so sure.

As part of the UJIA (United Jewish Israel Appeal) informal education team in London, I talk about Israel to diverse groups of young people several times a week. I must have run sessions for thousands of individual young people in the past year. Let me give you five recent anecdotes that have caused me concern. I’ve anonymised the particular settings but suffice to say they cover a spectrum of educational organisations, from a range of religious and political perspectives.

  • I’m with a bunch of 17 year olds. They have all chosen to come to a session I am running about the Peace Process. I ask who knows what a settlement is. Within this self-selected group, a single hand goes up.
  • I am in a session for 13 year olds. The session leader says the word “Zionism.” One of the young people asks, “sorry, I’m confused — what is Zionism?” The leader flounders for a minute before another young person cuts in and says, “It’s being pro-Israel” — and that is the working definition of the group from then on.
  • I’m with a group of 12-15 year-olds. They are pretty heavily invested in Jewish communal life and all speak articulately about their Jewish identities. When asked, all, bar none, say they want to learn more about Israel. We start talking about the Peel Commission of 1936-7. I ask what was going on in the Middle East in the mid-1930s. Nobody answers for a while, and when they do, the first hand up asks if this is when Israel was founded.
  • I’m with some engaged young Jews who have voluntarily come to a talk about Israel. I’m talking about Israeli culture. I ask if anyone has ever read an Israeli book. No takers. I ask if they know any Israeli authors. Silence…until one person offers up Philip Roth as an option.
  • I’m training a bunch of committed young Zionist leaders. I am running a session about early Zionists. Of the twelve figures we look at, none of the participants has heard of all twelve, most have just about heard of half, and perhaps a quarter have ever read anything more than a short quote by any of them.
  • I could go on.

    Now let me be clear. I believe there is much more to a holistic Israel education than knowledge. Really, really, really I do. And I am sure that many young Jews are knowledgeable about Israel — I’d suspect that a good number of the readers of this blog were factual geeks as young people (!).

    UJIA's Robin (check shirt) with British youth leaders he trained for summer camp 2015.
    UJIA’s Robin (checked shirt) with British youth leaders he trained for summer camp 2015.

    But there is an important point here, and one that all Israel educators, whatever our personal politics or institutional affiliation, need to take seriously. How can you have a serious discussion about what Israel means to yourself if your perception of the country is that it was founded in the mid-1930s, pre-Second World War? How can you begin to engage seriously with Israeli culture if you have never actually read an Israeli book? How can you begin to educate others within a Zionist framework if you do not have a clear, concise understanding of the meaning of the word yourself? How can you advocate on campus (for whatever solution to the conflict you believe is right) if you do not even know the most basic terminology surrounding the core issues?

    Conversation is at the heart of informal education, and I believe in informal education as the best way to build enduring engagement with Israel. But conversation without content is vacuous. And I fear that at the moment there is a crisis of content.

    What might we as educators do about this? UJIA is soon launching the Centre for Israel Engagement, which I’ll be heading up. We’re planning in the coming months to look strategically at Israel education across the community, and improving educators’ ability to convey compelling content will be a high priority. I propose three crucial steps to help to resolve this crisis:

    1. Admit it is happening. We should all have the humility to acknowledge that the system thus far has not always worked when it comes to content. None of the various educational spaces — youth movements, Jewish day schools, university J-Socs, synagogues, advocacy groups, etc. — has a proven and consistent track record of serious success at transmitting Israel knowledge.
    2. Raise the profile of content and those who can convey it. We should see knowledge about Israel as much more than an optional extra, a “nice to have,” something only for the geeky or the clever. Just as we do not accept English illiteracy or mathematical innumeracy, we must not accept Israel knowledge impoverishment. We should seek out those who have had success in telling the story of Israel in a way that builds knowledge and understanding, learn how they do it, and train other educators to replicate their success
    3. We must work and learn together and leave our disagreements at the door. Of course, content is far from value-free. The name you give to the area across the Green Line is fundamentally tied to your narrative of the conflict. But knowledge is certainly less prone to politicisation than, say, arguments for or against a certain Israeli government policy. As such, 90% of the solutions to the crisis of content can and should be collectively sought. The last 10% will depend on one’s ideology, but we should not let that 10% block collective efforts to educate about the first 90%

    These are easy words to type and hard actions to follow through with. But perhaps the collective wisdom of the many talented educators within the British Jewish community can help to overcome this crisis of content.

    About the Author
    Robin Moss is Head of the UJIA Centre for Israel Engagement and a former movement worker for LJY-Netzer. He's also a keen Limmudnik and an Officer (Trustee) of Liberal Judaism.
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