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.

Dr. Alex Sinclair
Alex Sinclair
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Dr. Alex Sinclair
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Complexity: Too often, the Israel engagement narrative that we tell is simplistic, incomplete and out of date.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.

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