what’s next in israel education.

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  • February 24, 2012

In this arti­cle, which ran in today’s Ha’aretz, my col­league Alex Sinclair sug­gests a par­a­digm for how we can take the next steps in Israel edu­ca­tion. As is typ­i­cally the case with Alex’s writ­ing, it’s very impres­sive and (more impor­tantly) thought-pro­vok­ing. So I’m shar­ing it here.

Israel edu­ca­tion must urge Diaspora Jews to dis­cuss hot top­ics: Israel edu­ca­tion should be a series of con­ver­sa­tions about Israel’s com­plex­i­ties, in which Diaspora Jews are empow­ered to engage in dia­logue with Israelis about a vari­ety of issues, includ­ing pol­i­tics.

by Alex Sinclair

Everyone agrees that “Israel edu­ca­tion” is a prob­lem. American non-Orthodox Jews are increas­ingly dis­tanced from Israel, and knowl­edge of Israeli cul­ture, his­tory, pol­i­tics and lan­guage is at an all-time low among much of that com­mu­nity. Yet even though dozens of com­mu­nity projects have put Israel edu­ca­tion on the front burner over the past sev­eral years, at the cost of mil­lions of dol­lars, we still don’t have a clear def­i­n­i­tion of what Israel edu­ca­tion is.

Some use it inter­change­ably with “Israel advo­cacy”; oth­ers say it’s about engag­ing with Israeli arts and cul­ture. Some say it must face head-on the issue of the con­flict with the Palestinians; oth­ers say it should avoid it entirely.

I offer here a new def­i­n­i­tion of Israel edu­ca­tion that may help us make progress. The core inno­va­tion of this new def­i­n­i­tion is that it views the respon­si­bil­ity for the dis­con­nect between American Jews and Israel, and the changes needed to address it, as resid­ing in both com­mu­ni­ties.

Rather than see­ing Israel edu­ca­tion as a purely American issue, in which the role of the American Jew is “to be impacted” by Israel, this new def­i­n­i­tion envi­sions it as a dia­log­i­cal enter­prise, which will cre­ate oppor­tu­ni­ties for American Jews and Israelis to influ­ence and be influ­enced by each other. The Israel edu­ca­tion agenda must evolve in the light of this under­stand­ing.

This dia­log­i­cal con­cep­tion of Israel edu­ca­tion con­tains four pil­lars: com­plex­ity, con­ver­sa­tion, empow­er­ment and pol­i­tics. Let’s exam­ine each of them briefly.

Complexity: Too often, the Israel engage­ment nar­ra­tive that we tell is sim­plis­tic, incom­plete and out of date. Israel is a soci­ety of incred­i­ble achieve­ments and dra­matic won­ders, as well as frus­trat­ing fail­ures, mis­guided deci­sions and some­times sheer stu­pid­ity. It’s com­pli­cated. Israel edu­ca­tion must empower Diaspora Jews to under­stand and con­front those excit­ing, com­pelling, infu­ri­at­ing, frus­trat­ing com­pli­ca­tions.

To present an image of Israel as per­fect and with­out flaws — to deny, by omis­sion, any of the prob­lem­atic ele­ments of its soci­ety — is to set up a false dichotomy that can only work against Israel iden­ti­fi­ca­tion in the long run.

Conversation: Israel never speaks with one voice about any­thing. It is a cacoph­ony of con­ver­sa­tions. It’s crit­i­cal that we make American Jews more aware of the plu­ral­ity of Israeli voices, so that, even when one voice alien­ates or repels them, they are able to find another voice that attracts them and res­onates with their own.

Empowerment: When it comes to con­ver­sa­tions about — and ide­ally with — Israelis, it’s crit­i­cal that American Jews feel empow­ered to express their opin­ions hon­estly and with­out hes­i­ta­tion. Passion for Israel and inspi­ra­tion derived from its suc­cesses, cou­pled with gen­uine anger when Israel fails to live up to its promise, together with an atti­tude of care­ful, atten­tive lis­ten­ing, can cre­ate that sense of empow­er­ment.

Politics: It’s impos­si­ble to teach about Israel with­out being polit­i­cal. Impossible, because pol­i­tics per­vade every aspect of Israeli soci­ety, from the food Israelis eat, to the music they lis­ten to, to the way they spend their vaca­tions. You can’t teach about Israel in any mean­ing­ful way with­out get­ting polit­i­cal, and it’s disin­gen­u­ous to try. Where a tour group does and doesn’t visit is an utterly polit­i­cal deci­sion. Which maps are pre­sented, what words are used in lessons — pol­i­tics enters all these deci­sions.

We would do bet­ter to embrace this aspect of Israel edu­ca­tion, and to be more hon­est about the polit­i­cal stances our edu­ca­tional activ­i­ties assume. Equally, we must encour­age American Jews to explore and express their opin­ions about Israeli pol­i­tics. Israelis, jus­ti­fi­ably, will do what they want in the end, regard­less of American Jews’ opin­ions, but that doesn’t mean that American Jews shouldn’t express them.

Israel edu­ca­tion should put American Jews and Israelis in posi­tions where they have to engage in con­ver­sa­tion about diverse issues, includ­ing some of the weighty ques­tions about the future of Israel and its rela­tions with the Diaspora: the peace process; the char­ac­ter of Jerusalem; reli­gion and state; egal­i­tar­ian Judaism.

These con­ver­sa­tions should hap­pen when Diaspora Jews visit Israel, and this means reimag­in­ing what the typ­i­cal “Israel trip” looks like. Today, for the most part, these pro­grams are designed only to have an impact on the Jewish iden­tity of the Diaspora par­tic­i­pant, and to send him or her back feel­ing inspired and con­nected. Ultimately, though, sim­plis­tic Israel trips result in a frag­ile con­nec­tion that dis­si­pates over time. If young peo­ple only get exposed to Israel’s com­plex­ity through the Western media after the trip, they’ll see the trip (jus­ti­fi­ably ) as pro­pa­ganda.

The only way to cre­ate an ongo­ing con­nec­tion to Israel is to ini­ti­ate peo­ple into Israel’s com­plex con­ver­sa­tions while they’re here. This cre­ates a con­cep­tual frame­work for nuanced love that will endure after their return home.

Israel edu­ca­tion should be a series of con­ver­sa­tions about Israel’s com­plex­i­ties, in which Diaspora Jews are empow­ered to engage in dia­logue with Israelis about a vari­ety of issues, includ­ing pol­i­tics. This reimag­in­ing of what Israel edu­ca­tion should look like will require pro­found changes to the ways in which the American Jewish com­mu­nity and Israelis relate to each other. But unless we make these changes, the two com­mu­ni­ties will con­tinue to drift apart. The need to recon­fig­ure Israel edu­ca­tion as a dia­log­i­cal enter­prise is increas­ingly urgent.

Dr. Alex Sinclair is direc­tor of pro­grams in Israel Education for the Jewish Theological Seminary. He runs Kesher Hadash, the Davidson School of JTS’s new Semester in Israel pro­gram. The views expressed in this arti­cle are his own.