I’ve dealt with all kinds of conflicts as an Israel educator the past 25 years, from the mad parent who storms in and says, “Why do you have that map on your wall and not this map?” to the parents who get into fights in the carpool line because they don’t agree about something taking place or what somebody posted on Instagram.
Israel education could face even more pitfalls and political pressure this fall after May’s conflict in Gaza. A new survey of American Jewish voters that found 22% of all respondents believe that Israel is committing genocide against the Palestinians and that 20% of respondents under age 40 don’t believe that Israel has a right to exist.
It’s challenging to make the classroom a safe environment for such conversations if the home and community are not. That’s why we think it’s important to take the stance we have adopted at the Centre for Israel Education: educators should not use their podiums to spread their political views or launch polemics. Our job is not to tell students what to think, but rather to train them how to think, an effort best accomplished by incorporating as many primary sources and as many different voices as possible.
Taking that apolitical stance, checking your biases at the classroom threshold, is an empowering approach to the education about Israel for teachers and students. Educators can explain to parents that their job is to enable students to think critically for themselves, to assess sources, to understand the differences between history and narrative and between competing narratives, and to appreciate the ideals of a Jewish state and its realities, which are messy, complex and imperfect.
Israel educators should establish a tone of respectful discourse, incorporating listening and critical thinking at the beginning of the school year. It’s OK to disagree with somebody else’s opinions and ideas, as long as the discussion is based on stated sources.
That’s how we teach every other subject. A literature student, for example, who wants to assert that Nietzsche or Sartre was a nihilist has to provide evidence from texts, not just cite a parent, a teacher or a social media influencer.
Educators also must help students understand the vagaries of vocabulary? What words are laden and to whom? “Occupation” means different things to different people, and there are reasons some people talk of Judaea and Samaria while others speak of the West Bank.
Understanding vocabulary is a skill that needs to be taught, as are map reading and literary analysis. When we teach students these skill sets, we enable them to reach and defend conclusions based on documents they’ve examined themselves.
This educational approach is far different from the advocacy model: “If you hear X, you should say Y.” My two kids, who are now in college, would have rebelled if I had told them that. They would have done the opposite just because they were teens.
We can’t engage, empower and prepare students for tricky conversations by teaching them automatic answers or avoiding the complexities altogether. That path leads to students concluding that their teachers lied to them and to believing the worst accusations against Israel.
Instead, we educators must tackle these difficult topics by modeling respectful, informed conversations regardless of personal opinions about, say, whether Israel used disproportionate force in Gaza in May. We must provide historical context and complexity to equip our students with resilience and help them become critical consumers of information so that the slogans they encounter on campus and social media don’t resonate.
This endeavour can’t be limited to one Judaic studies classroom; it has to be embedded into the daily consciousness and experiences of everyone in the school. It requires support from non-Jewish educators and those teaching science and math, literature and social studies. It involves school administrators, board members, rabbis and parents engaging in the same respectful, informed conversations, and accepting that the best practice in Israel education is to treat it as education.
That’s how we can avoid the pitfalls and politicization of teaching about Israel and produce thoughtful Jewish adults who can engage with difficult questions rather than drown in competing narratives.
Tal Grinfas-David is the vice-president of outreach and pre-collegiate school management initiatives for the nonprofit, nonpartisan Centre for Israel Education in Atlanta and is a former Jewish day school principal.