Sara Yael Hirschhorn
Sara Yael Hirschhorn
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Whither Israel education without Israel?

The pandemic-induced travel ban offers a chance to consider whether ​Israel trips offer not just profound feeling, but deep knowledge
Taglit Birthright participants visit at the Western Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem on August 18, 2014 (Flash90)
Taglit Birthright participants visit at the Western Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem on August 18, 2014 (Flash90)

With airports shuttered, lockdowns imposed, and complete disruptions to travel, education, and business both in the Diaspora and Israel, the year of COVID has been like no other in recent Jewish and Zionist history. Like Jews of medieval times, the land and people of Israel are but a distant memory, a screen (with a contemporary technological twist in 2021 of the mobile phone or tablet) upon which the anxious dreams of the Diaspora are projected. “Next Year in Jerusalem!” was shouted at the end of Zoom seders. Diaspora Jews continue to doom-scroll through minute-by-minute updates of Israeli elections and vaccination progress. Yet the two communities are separated, now more than ever, not only by geography but by national priority. At a moment where the nation-state, citizenship, and borders have hardened and transnational ties are mostly imagined, the Diaspora-Israel relationship is at a crossroads.

For better or worse, experiential education has in recent years become a simulacrum for Israel education. Whether a breathless ten-day trip to Israel on Birthright, a coast-to-coast coach tour with Hadassah, or the somewhat longer duree of a semester or gap-year in Israel, the pedagogical theory regarded Israel as a Diaspora playground, where knowledge and affiliation would be absorbed through the rays of sun, the grease of the falafel, or even the swapping of DNA with fellow students or the Israeli soldier at the back of the bus. Texts, classrooms, history, ideology, and narrative became passé: Israel was a place to be seen and felt – in fact, it was much like the early Zionist embrace of “Hakarat Ha-Aretz” (Knowing the Land), just without the kovah tembel and now documented on Tik-Tok. With whirlwind excursions across Eretz Yisrael now out of reach, Diaspora Jews must relate to Israel as an idea, not as a Disneyland experience.

Does it work?

Prior to COVID, there remained one question rarely asked in polite company about the pedagogy of “shlepping around the Holyland”: does it work? Abundant data demonstrates that programs like Taglit-Birthright Israel pay Jewish communal dividends in terms of in-marriage, Jewish institutional affiliation, and some religious or ritual practice. Over the past decade, however, a somewhat less clear picture has emerged when it comes to the depth of information conveyed and whether this program does more than cultivate attachment and interest in Israel in a way that will inform historical or policy debates over the long term. 

Birthright’s pedagogical emphasis on the “mifgash” (which, of late, has been limited only to Zionists, to the exclusion of many Israeli Arabs and other sectors) and the schedule of sites – Masada yes, Dizengoff Center no – suggests a kind of selection-bias of narratives provided to participants. Where Birthright does seem to intervene best in the learning experience was in the value of being on the ground in a time of crisis (like the 2014 Israel-Gaza war). At such times, access to real-time information and to Israelis (including soldiers), and even a sense of the political and emotional distance between their experience and that of the parents they were calling back home, proved to be “life-changing.” In less fraught trips, participants may have been more likely to share a news story about Israel in their social media feed or express an opinion. Yet it wasn’t clear that such Birthright trips changed students’ minds on core political issues (including ethno-nationalist ones) or gave them the tools to be able to form an opinion. 

If Birthright and other forms of pilgrimage tourism aim to prevent intermarriage and disaffiliation from communal institutions, then why not lock kids into a bungalow in the Catskills for two weeks rather than send them to Israel? Similarly, does the UJA-Federation coach tour inculcate feeling or deep knowledge? And if a yeshiva or midrasha program teaches texts that could be mastered without the journeying to an Israeli beit midrash, what good does a year in Jerusalem do?

An opportunity to re-evaluate

I don’t wish to downplay the real and transformational life experiences that some participants in experiential education may have, nor the kind of insider knowledge that comes from cultural immersion. (Not to mention the entrenched industry of experiential education that has vested interests in these programs.) Yet with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict remaining at the forefront of public concerns, we must use this pause during the pandemic to re-evaluate several pressing questions:

  • When and how is experiential education productive, and what kind of return on investment does it truly offer learners across the demographic spectrum?
  • Can the learning experience be enhanced by thinking about education as encounter – as an active appreciation – rather than as an adventure?
  • How can Diaspora-based workshops better supplement the experiential component by providing background and post-trip ongoing engagement? 
  • What pedagogy can best prepare learners of all ages to be informed citizens in a pluralistic society who not only have profound feeling, but deep knowledge, when it comes to Zionism and Israel?

There is little doubt that when the borders reopen and it is once again safe to travel, Diaspora Jews will eagerly return after a year apart. But the experiences in our separate national bubbles over the past year have also transformed us; we will encounter each other if not as strangers then as distant relatives with somewhat nostalgic recollections of one another from a world before COVID. Such gaps offer a new opportunity to reorient Israel education toward a broader set of vocabulary, values, and vision that will allow all learners to gain deeper knowledge until Israel is more than merely a vicarious experience.

This article is republished with permission. It appears in the inaugural issue of Sources: A Journal of Jewish Ideas, a quarterly print and digital journal of longform essays that promote informed conversations and thoughtful disagreement, published by the Shalom Hartman Institute.

About the Author
Dr. Sara Yael Hirschhorn is visiting assistant professor in Israel Studies at Northwestern University. Her book City on a Hilltop: American Jews and the Israeli Settler Movement won the 2018 Sami Rohr Prize in Jewish Literature Choice Award.
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