In the longstanding debate over whether collective narratives should be transmitted as capital-T truth, or whether they should be challenged and problematized, there is a flurry of activity around rethinking Israel education for the next generation. As if they were speaking to each other (they weren’t – neither creative team knew of the other), a short documentary film and a new curriculum have emerged to address an apparent gap in critical thinking around Israel.
The director of the short film Between the Lines, Ali Kriegsman, was frustrated with the kind of Israel-right-or-wrong messaging she received growing up in Jewish day school. In the film, she interviews students, rabbis, Jewish educators and professors who each suggest that it’s time to allow the light of critical thought into our community’s classrooms when it comes to Israel.
As a professor who teaches Israeli-Palestinian relations, I am well aware that the kind of one-dimensional Israel education that some students receive does not make them well placed to take in the more intellectual, critical-thinking approach that is the hallmark of higher education. But where the film makes its most counter-intuitive suggestion is in the area of Israel advocacy on campus.
The film suggests that even for those who want to create effective Israel advocates, the current tone of Israel education falls short. Kriegsman, who says she “wants to see improvement and justice in Israel,” believes that “antisemitism still exists in the world” and is troubled by the fact that the Palestinians “are marginalized and mistreated and settlements continue to expand,” puts it this way. She believes that a student who has been force-fed a simplistic view of Israel and arrives on campus where the discourse is almost inevitably contentious and polarized will do one of three things.
In one scenario, the student will become embarrassed by the actions of the country they were taught to idealize and thus choose to detach entirely. In another scenario, the student will draw on the “AIPAC”-style advocacy “bubble” they lived inside during Jewish day school and will become completely closed to any alternative narratives. In this scenario, the hypothetical student might become an “exaggerated version of a day school student” – discriminatory and racist. In a third scenario, the hypothetical student may feel “duped or betrayed” by her Jewish day school education and burn her emotional connection to Israel entirely.
Having premièred at a SoHo loft in New York City, the documentary – which received seed money from the Bronfman fellows alumni fund – is slated for a West Coast première in October sponsored by a Los Angeles synagogue.
Unbeknown to Kriegsman, as the film was being made, a rabbi in Madison, Wis., was creating a new curriculum that appears to address the conceptual gaps that Between the Lines identifies. Called Reframing Israel, the curriculum is meant to address what Rabbi Laurie Zimmerman saw as a major deficiency in Israel education at the elementary and high school level: “There was virtually no published material that asks students to think critically about the conflict.”
The rabbi wants kids to think in more complex terms, to be inspired to look at Jewish texts.
How do you cultivate compassion for both Israelis and Palestinians? How do you understand Palestinian stories?
Rather than emphasize a “love” for Israel, Zimmerman uses the term “connection.” As she puts it, “We pick one of the following: Eretz Yisrael (the Land of Israel), Medinat Israel (the State of Israel) and Am Yisrael (the Nation of Israel). We ask, What does it mean to be connected to each of these?”
She has been piloting parts of the program over the last couple of years. Last year, two 13-year-olds created a debate with each other on the question of the one-state versus two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “It didn’t matter what they believed,” she said. Rather, the act of articulating the critiques was really valuable.
Some critics of this open-minded approach will claim that, to be agnostic about whether Israel remains a Jewish state (given that a one-state solution, in its democratic form, would basically spell the end of Israel as we know it) is itself a betrayal. Zimmerman, however, “trust[s] kids enough to draw conclusions that are sound and solid.”
As for what kind of Jewish student she hopes to send to campus once they have graduated from religious school, Zimmerman wants to send kids who are “inquisitive; have open minds, can evaluate an argument, apply their knowledge; research a position and make an informed choice. I guess that makes me radical since I’m not trying to send kids to campus to defend Israel. I care mostly that they go to campus and think deeply about being Jewish, about their connection to Israel, about Palestinian perspectives. The role of education is to create people who are actively engaged in their communities.”
Mira Sucharov is an associate professor of political science at Carleton University. She blogs at Haaretz and the Jewish Daily Forward. A version of this article was originally published on haartez.com.