The Challenges of Teaching 'Israel'

Exposing students to Israels dilemmas leads to a greater sense of commitment to Israel than does any number of hasbara-based seminars.

Ahad Haam never anticipated the possibility that the creation of Israel might have the potential to undermine Jewish identity and solidarity. Writing in the early 1900s, he thought the creation of the Jewish national home in the land of Israel would serve to reinforce Jewish life in the Diaspora.

But my own experience with young American Jews on a recent fellowship in Los Angeles, and here in Israel at HUCs Israel year program, clearly shows that the emerging Jewish religious leadership in the US is undergoing a profound change.

Young Jewish leaders are shifting away from a Jewish identity focused on Israel, peoplehood and community toward Jewishness as a personal spiritual journey, disconnected from the collective, unaware of the centrality of the land of Israel to Jewish history. A recent article by Daniel Gordis bemoans these weakening ethnic and national ties, and concludes that the implications of this reality for Israel are profoundly troubling.

Yet I can also attest that by the end of the year program, the vast majority of our students are attached to Israel. Understanding this attachment will enable us to recast the teaching of Israel in a manner that acknowledges and addresses the shift in Jewish identity, rather than merely bemoaning it and expressing fear for the future.

On arrival in Israel, our year-abroad students encounter a range of challenges that often generate alienation. Particularly disconcerting is the discovery that a stream of Judaism - Reform - that is normative back home, is barely recognized here, reviled by many, and deprived of the status and official support granted to Orthodoxy. The front door of one students apartment was daubed with the words Reform out.

There is also the dissonance between the students prior conceptions of Israel–often heavily symbolic, even mythic—and the realities, the rough-and-tumble, of daily life here. This includes aspects of daily life that are seemingly superficial: the lack of civility, the inflexibility of bureaucracy, the vehemence with which people express their personal opinions while ridiculing any and all opposing views. These experiences have a corrosive effect, especially when contrasted to the admittedly cushioned and even pampered comfort in which students live back in the US.

The more significant of the challenges posed by living in Israel are related to politics. Many of our students struggle with the legitimization of behavior that is starkly at odds with their own values. This debunking of the romanticized Hebrew school/summer tour picture of Israel is particularly painful. Israels politicians are no longer the visionaries of the pre-state and early state period. Instead, we hear of criminal charges being pressed against cabinet ministers, prime ministers, a past president.

At the end of the year, we ask our students what elements of their Israel experience they would like to recreate back in the Diaspora. Most express an intense appreciation of how Israelis live Jewish life according to weekly, seasonal and yearly rhythms. They mention Shabbat, whether experienced in Jerusalem, a simple neighborhood shul in Holon or on the beach in Eilat. The memorial days for the Holocaust and for fallen soldiers are often invoked as among the most moving experiences of the year. And many students feel thrilled by the energy, passion, and intensity of life in Israel; the sense of purpose, of meaning and of identification.

These feelings are crucial. The year in Israel provides an opportunity to participate in Jewish life, not simply at the level of family and community, but at the national level. For our students, to grasp and acknowledge the implications of Jewish sovereignty is the very heart of the Israel experience.

They come to understand the core Zionist challenge: How can we be true to ourselves while embracing the power that accompanies statehood?

We invite our students to be active learners as they experience, in real time, the transformation of the Jewish condition. How should a Jewish society relate to the non-Jews in its midst? How should it address economic disparity? How should Israel determine the meaning of Jewish public space, and navigate difference? Students should engage with the pragmatics of Zionism: how Hebrew informs our Jewish lives, the religious significance of the land in contemporary life, the place of religion in our schools.

If we acknowledge the cultural and generational context from which young Jewish leaders come, and focus on the need to help them find meaning and relevance in the land and state of Israel, we have the greatest chance of enabling them to develop and internalize a genuine connection to Israel, as Ahad Haam envisioned.

Expressing frustration with the weakening of tribal ties to the Jewish people and Israel, and insisting that Israel is a perfect one-size-fits-all solution to the challenges of Jewish identity in an open reality, is counter-productive.

Year abroad students are thoughtful and critical. Cheerleading for Israel does not resonate with them. Advocacy, or telling, rather than simply showing, does not work for them; and it doesnt work for their teachers either, whose own experience of Israel is much more nuanced, complex, and self-reflective than the hasbara slogans brandished by professional Israel advocates.

We need to present Israel as a work in progress, legitimize competing visions, and remember that machloket, debate and disagreement, has always been an integral—indeed, a defining—element of the Jewish experience.

It may sound counter-intuitive, but in my experience, exposing students to Israels dilemmas, problems, and questions leads to a greater sense of engagement and commitment to Israel than does any number of hasbara-based seminars and tours.

Dr. David Mendelsson is the Director of  Israel Studies at the Hebrew Union College and a lecturer at the Rothberg International School, Hebrew University of Jerusalem