When Is the Right Time to Tell My Truth About Israel?

On a recent trip to Israel I was faced with a dilemma: Am I, as a rabbi and an educator, supposed to be a spokesperson for Israel, or someone who engages with tough questions on the Jewish state?

For five days last May, I traveled to Israel as part of a delegation of 30 Orthodox, Conservative and Reform rabbis. It was a pilot program called “Rabbis Engaging with Israel,” organized by the World Zionist Organization and the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

When we arrived in Israel, we noticed something strange. The Hebrew title for this program was different. It was called “HaRav K’Masbir L’eumi”, or “The Rabbi as Israel's Spokesperson.”

Western Wall

The discrepancy between these two titles is obvious. Were we there to engage with Israel – to participate in a give and take about the successes and challenges facing the country? Or were we to learn how to be a better spokesperson for Israel – to download information and share it with our communities back in North America?

The truth is that we were there to do both, which provided us with a model for how to teach Israel back home. There is a debate about Israel education. Some advocates teach Israel in black and white.

For these educators, Israel is a country of the halutzim (pioneers) who built the land from nothing, that always justly battles its enemies, and that is the fulfillment of the centuries old dream to return to Zion.

Others, however, prefer to portray Israel in shades of grey. They respond to the black and white approach by saying that “things are not so simple.” What about the Palestinians who were living in Israel pre-1948? Asymmetrical warfare is complex – is Israel always right? There are many inequalities and injustices in Israeli society – is the dream really fulfilled?

Despite the differences in these educational approaches to teaching Israel, I believe that, for most people, the ultimate goal is the same: to instill a deep love and connection between Jews of the Diaspora and the people and the land of Israel.

The mistake that Israel educators sometimes make, however, is to teach Israel from only one of these orientations. Either Israel is right all the time or things are complex. Either we are spokespeople for Israel or we engage with it critically.

The truth is that our educational orientation for teaching Israel should depend on our context. Who is our audience? Where is the conversation taking place? Have these students been to Israel before? Knowing the answers to these questions allows us to better foster that deep love and connection with Israel for which we all strive.

But how do we determine our context? Let me share an example. Every December, I lead a group of 15-year-old students on a two-week trip to Israel. For most of these students, this is their first trip. Inevitably, when we ask them to write about the most meaningful part of their trip, they write about praying at the Kotel on Friday night.

Unfortunately, the Kotel is one of the most divisive places in Israel. Its administrators’ ultra-Orthodox policies lead to discrimination against non-Orthodox groups and leave many Israel-visting veterans (and Israelis) with a negative view of our holiest place. But on their first visit to Israel these students don't realize this yet.

Is it my job as an educator to make them aware of these issues before we go there? I don’t think so, because the context is not right. Who am I to take away from the incredible experience of encountering the Kotel for the first time? Does it really accomplish my goal as an Israel educator?

For me, this is a time to be a Masbir L’eumi, a spokesperson for Israel. Though I may have my own conflicting feelings about the Kotel, it is unfair to impose those feelings upon my students. It is a once in a lifetime opportunity to experience the Kotel on Shabbat for the first time – and it is a potentially transformative moment.

It is not the time for politics, but for passion. It is an inspirational moment that some will remember for the rest of their lives. Marring it with legitimate but poorly-timed concerns does not help instill a deep love and connection between us and the land and people of Israel.

This is not to say, however, that there is never a good time to address these political injustices. Timing is the key.

The year after this trip many of these students take a class called, “Standing with Israel: Israel Advocacy.” Here I feel is the right context for “engaging with Israel.” They have been on the trip, they have had the experiences. They have a solid foundation of love and connection to Israel upon which to introduce some of the complexities of Israeli society today.

Understanding our context when teaching Israel applies not only to teenagers, but to adults as well. There are times to be a “Masbir L’eumi” and times to “engage with Israel.” It is hard to define these situations precisely, but generally it has to do with frequency and connection.

A one-time lecture or short-term class with people who have never been to Israel and/or know very little about it is a time to be a“Masbir L’eumi.” A sustained class with people who have been to Israel and/or have a strong connection allows for a foundation upon with to “engage.”

Understanding the context allows us to better foster a strong connection and love between the Diaspora and the land and the people of Israel.

Rabbi Micah Peltz is a conservative rabbi at Temple Beth Sholom in Cherry Hill, New Jersey.