Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Teaching Israel, Warts and All

Peter Eckstein
Friend and colleague Peter Eckstein posted this in the Jewish Educational Change Network before new year's. I think it tells an important story. I invite your thoughts on how we can do a better job bringing Israel to our students and our students to Israel.

I have the good fortune to be working with a nationally based group of educators and teens associated with the iCenter’s MZ Teen Israel Internship. The purpose of this program is to follow up on teens’ Israel summer experiences, through a framework consisting of a series of yearlong educational and social activities. The young people meet with mentors and educators to collaborate on Israel oriented projects, and to study. As “the teacher”, I meet with a small group of high school students, usually in a coffee shop, and together we learn about the reality of modern Israel. We’ve focused on how being a Jew in America relates to being a Jew in Israel. We have explored the diversity that makes up Israeli society, comparing it to the multi-faceted nature of North American Judaism. We’ve thought about Israel being characterized by the people, not just the stones or the conflict. In the future, we will be discussing the role of religion in Israel, as well as the dynamic that exists between Israeli Jews and Arabs. We are trying to make real connections with the Jewish State, drawing from the teens’ experiences in the context of a more in-depth exploration of Israeli society. All of these elements are meant to get these teens to think seriously about how Israel relates to their lives, and how they can educate their peers about the real Israel, by getting past the headlines and beyond the myths.


This is all about education, not advocacy. Back in September, I attended an inaugural conference that kicked off this program. It was attended by almost 40 teens and about a dozen educators. In conversations I had with teens and my colleagues, I was struck by how important it was to the teens to have the “right answers” to defend Israel. Many of them had difficulty understanding the difference between knowing about Israel - being educated about the land and the people; and defending it against its detractors. As we educators in the program develop the curriculum, we struggle with how the tensions that exist in Israel can in fact be tools to foster deeper engagement with Israel and the Zionist enterprise.


In the past week, as we collaborated on developing future sessions for the teens, we have been working on how to teach the significance of the recent “price-tag” attacks that have occurred in Israel and in The Territories. Can the phenomenon of the “Hilltop Youth” provide a nuanced view of the intersection between the role of politics and religion in the life of The State? How can the extremes reflected by current events help us gain a better understanding of what Israel is all about, and what its promise and potential can be? I am not talking about whitewashing a situation. I am talking about understanding it so that it can become a tool for engagement.


In my mind, at least, the political, cultural, economic and ethnic tensions that characterize life in Israel are a mere reflection of Jewish history, both in Israel and in Exile. We have always been one people, but with many voices. This idea of Jewish diversity can be used as a tool to help our young people understand that being Israel is all about struggle. We should provide the tools to our teens, to empower them to joyfully enter into the fray that is the Jewish conversation about Israel. When we teach Israel, we mustn’t ignore the warts.

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