« All Work

A (Post)Modern Israel Education

Dr. Rivka Press Schwartz
May 3, 2018

The Lay of the Land
In our Modern Orthodox community, and indeed in the broader world of Jewish education, there is a great deal of anxiety about Israel education–specifically, those precincts of Israel education that prepare our kids for The World Out There as they will encounter it on college campuses. Whether it goes by Israel advocacy or another name, the goal of that curriculum is to prepare our students to parry attacks that they may confront, and to enable them to remain firm in their Zionist commitments in the face of the charges leveled against Israel in contemporary campus discourse.

These threats are understood to emerge from the academic left, and from the translation of that academic scholarship into the arena of campus advocacy. (Whether or not right-wing anti-semitic or anti-Israel sentiment will continue its resurgence as an issue remains to be seen, but in the communal discourse at this point, it looms much less large.) At the pinnacle of the threat-pyramid are those who turn their opposition to Israel’s actions or policies against all Jews around the world. Below that is the BDS movement and those advocating for a one-state solution or an end to Israel as a Jewish state; and lower still are those who credit Palestinian claims to rights and resources and denounce Israeli violations of those claims. There is something of an industry educating around the apex threat, producing films that capture footage of the most horrifying and egregious campus incidents (such as students chanting anti-Jewish slogans at protests) to warn against resurgent anti-semitism emerging from or masquerading as the anti-Zionist left.

And yet, when we talk to our alumni, we hear a very different story. Granted, they are a self-selected group: those who choose to come back after graduation to speak with their high-school administrators. They do not describe feeling beleaguered or under siege by hostile campuses–indeed, most report no negative interactions of the sort that command Jewish communal attention and provoke Jewish communal hand-wringing. Conversations with OU-JLIC educators at campuses attended by significant numbers of our students confirm this. Anti-Israel campus activity is not a defining feature of most yeshiva-educated, secular-college-attending students’ campus experience. A recent list published by one Jewish newspaper of the “Forty Worst Colleges For Jewish Students,” on the basis of purported anti-Israel activity, included many schools that considerable numbers of SAR alumni and other Orthodox students very comfortably attend, further highlighting this disconnect.1The Algemeiner, “The Algemeiner’s First Annual List of the US and Canada’s Worst Campuses for Jewish Students” https://www.algemeiner.com/the-40-worst-colleges-for-jewish-students-2016/

Instead, when our alumni talk to us about their campus interactions around Israel, and about their concerns about the Israel education that we provided them and continue to provide to our students, it is about our not preparing them, not for hostility or accusations, but for intellectual and emotional landscape that they will encounter in college, and in which they will be participants. When they say “I really wish someone told us” or “I really wish someone prepared us,” it is for complex and nuanced ways of thinking about the world that challenge some of the simple verities that they have been taught.

This contrast–between the communal anxiety around students unprepared to defend Israel in the face of attack, and the students asking us for an education less focused on attack and defense and more focused on nuanced and gray-shaded understanding–was highlighted by a conference sponsored by the Avi Chai Foundation and the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies at Brandeis University. Called “From Anti-Zionism to Anti-Semitism: Preparing Our Students for the New Campus Realities,” the conference focused on preparing our students to confront the left-wing antisemitism of Israel delegitimation, BDS, and the claims that penetrate from those movements into the broader consciousness.

The opening day of the conference presented an epistemological and ontological sandwich. It began with a senior professor of Jewish studies (whose area of expertise is not Israel/Palestine but who has long since established a position as an outspoken public intellectual in this area), and concluded with a presentation by another academic active in the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies working on campus issues. The presentations were different in important ways, and yet both suggested that on college campuses, our children’s minds were being infected by ideologies that would make them less sympathetic to Israel, less able to be frankly and unabashedly Zionist. The second presentation actually included a list of the ways of thinking and knowing that might pose this threat. The list included:

Multiple narratives

Each was explained in a few brief sentences, conveying nothing of why it might be a meaningful lens for thinking about or studying history. Instead, the emphasis was on how each of these modes of thinking might contribute to hostility to Israel. (Thus, for example, Orientalism was defined as “the idea that the West can never criticize the East, because that’s Orientalist.”)

In between those two presentations, the conference was addressed by four young adults active in Israel advocacy on their respective campuses. A number of them expressed their acknowledgment of multiple narratives, of the validity of others’ point of view, of the importance of learning to engage around Israel in a more complex way. The generational contrast was striking. The young adults, while strongly and vocally pro-Israel, even in the face of significant campus pressure and challenges from other activist groups, had sufficiently absorbed what their colleges were teaching them to want to advocate from within a deep understanding of the context, others’ experience and narratives, and empathy for the range of premises at play.

Indeed, the “adult” speakers both attempted to preempt the students by asserting that students who adopt these perspectives, and engage with these ideas, reveal that their commitment as Zionists has been compromised and undermined by their privileging of contemporary academic fads above their Jewish and Zionist identity. The college students nevertheless maintained their poise and their positions, arguing for a mode of engagement that can be at once profoundly Zionist, engaged with academic discourse, and attuned to others’ realities and experiences.

Sitting through that conference, watching this generational divide play out in real time, solidified and clarified our thinking that if we are to provide meaningful Israel advocacy education for our students, it will have to be responsive to the issues and challenges they will engage with and confront, and not solely to the issues that the adults and institutions in the community have been focused on. We will have to do so while honoring our fundamental commitments to Zionism, to the Grand Conversation, and to intellectual honesty and openness.

Who We Are; Where We Stand
As an institution, SAR High School is deeply committed to Zionism, and deeply committed to a broad and thoughtful engagement with the wisdom of the world. We want to educate students to a heartfelt concern about Israel and its wellbeing, as well as to be able to understand and appreciate others’ experience and, indeed, tzelem Elokim. We serve that by grappling with challenging questions and issues, not turning away from them to embrace simplified or artificially tidy narratives.

But we do not engage in this learning with the sense that we are compelled to by our values, fearful nevertheless that it may diminish our students’ commitment to and support of Israel. Instead, we feel strongly that a nuanced and thoughtful understanding of the issues and questions raised will help our students deepen their connection to and support of the state of Israel.

The American analogy is both informative and challenging here. In our American history classes, we are very forward about the complexity and indeed ugliness of America’s racial history, as well as past discrimination against women, the poor, labor organizers, and political dissenters. We do not sugarcoat or prettify that history–and do not worry that it will diminish our students’ ability to engage as patriotic and committed Americans. Yet as Jews, we worry that giving our students a similarly complicated warts-and-all understanding of Israel’s past and present will undermine their connection and commitment. This is so even though Israeli Jews express a wide range of opinions about these issues, many of which would be challenged or even found unacceptable within the American Modern Orthodox community.

Tamara Cofman Wittes, a scholar at the Brookings Institution, comments that this is a pattern common among diasporic communities: that the diaspora proves its continued commitment to its identity by remaining engaged with conflicts in the “old country” and that, indeed, the diasporic populations establish their bona fides, despite their having left the country of origin, by taking more hard-line views than does the population back home. Whether it is Irish-Americans in Boston funding terrorist operations by the Irish Republican Army, or Cuban-Americans in Miami holding onto hardline stances about the US embargo opposed by most Cubans in Cuba, the pattern in consistent.2Tamara Cofman Wittes, “American Jews, American Muslims, and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict,” (presentation at Jews and Muslims in America, convened by Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, New York, New York January 16, 2017). That American Jews fit into this pattern when it comes to Israel may give us a framework for understanding, but it also highlights the scope of the challenge. In seeking to provide our students with a more complex and shaded way to think about Israel today, we are seeking to educate them to see themselves as insiders to a complex national narrative, not as a diasporic population whose very fervor serves as a demonstration of ongoing connection and commitment.

The question thus becomes one less of curriculum–what sources should we teach about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; what questions should we engage–and more one of identity formation. What community are we educating our students to identify with, and how does that community identification shape the parameters of acceptable discourse around Israel and, particularly, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? Discussions of identity formation in education frequently proceed from the assumption that identity formation is antagonistic to critical thought. One can educate towards identity and buy-in, the argument goes, or one can educate towards critical thinking and dispassionate analysis, but there is an implicit and inherent trade-off to be made.

But if we return to the American example, to Dr. Cofman Wittes’ insight about diasporic communities, and to the contrasting states of discourse around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in Israel and in the American Orthodox community, it is clear that that trade-off does not fully capture what is at work here. It is less about identity vs. intellectual detachment than it is about which identity. North American Modern Orthodox Zionist schools and summer camps are not educating their students towards an identity as citizens, but towards an identity as advocates, and that is a whole other thing entirely–one far less likely to be critical, but also not equally invested. We as American Jews know that we do not have the same skin in the game as those who send their sons and daughters to the IDF, and ironically that keeps us from engaging with some of the ideas and questions that those who do are more than willing to ask.

Framed this way, it becomes clear that we are circling back to an essential work of historical analysis, Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities.3Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origins and Spread of Nationalism. (London: Verso, 1983) 5-7. In that canonical work about nationalism, Anderson defines the nation thus:
In an anthropological spirit, then, I propose the following definition of the nation: it is an imagined political community–and imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign.

It is imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion….With a certain ferocity Gellner makes a comparable point when he rules that “Nationalism is not the awakening of nations to self-consciousness: it invents nations where they do not exist.”…In fact, all communities larger than primordial villages of face-to-face contact (and perhaps even these are imagined.)

The nation is imagined as limited because even the largest of them, encompassing perhaps a billion living human beings, has finite, if elastic, boundaries, beyond which lie other nations. No nation imagines itself coterminous with mankind….

Finally, it is imagined as a community, because, regardless of the actual inequality and exploitation that may prevail in each, the nation is always conceived as deep, horizontal comradeship. Ultimately it is this fraternity that makes it possible, over the past two centuries, for so many millions of people, not so much to kill, as willingly to die for such limited imaginings.

Anderson’s framing shifts us from talking about what the Jewish or Zionist community is, to talking about what community we imagine ourselves to be part of. The community that Jews in Israel see themselves as part of is very different than the imagined community of North American Modern Orthodox Zionist Jews, which is very different still than the “klal Yisrael” that might be the imagined community of the American haredi world (which talks not about Israel, but about Eretz Yisrael.) The imagined community that Israelis are part of is not threatened in the same way by encompassing a broad array of political positions and commitments that North American Orthodox Zionists’ community is.

What We Teach–And How
Let us return to the concern that our students’ Zionism will be threatened by their encounter with 21st century intellectual developments on college campuses. What is the fear there? What is at stake?

The approaches that characterize contemporary academia (sometimes loosely, and not entirely accurately, lumped together as “postmodernism”), differ in significant respects, but share some essential analytical points of departure. Taken together, these academic approaches and fields of inquiry:

  1. Challenge the notion of a unitary, objective, ascertainable Truth.
  2. Recognize that power operates in subtle and distributed ways, and that claims of authority, objectivity, precedent, and expertise can all be manifestations of power.

There are politics associated with these positions, and those politics can be problematic–deeply, pervasively problematic. There is a difference between what “intersectionality” means in the seminar room, and what it means out on the quad–and to the extent that on the quad it has sometimes meant rejecting Jewish student groups from participating in other events because of their Zionist commitments, it must be challenged. But before we get to the quad, let’s spend some time in the seminar room, which concern with the former often keeps us from reaching. Concern about the politics often precludes engaging with the ideas, and it is worth doing that before we get down to talking about the very real, and potentially very troubling, demands made of Jewish and Zionist students and groups in the name of intersectionality.

To be plain:
To a Zionist enterprise whose claims and legitimacy derive either from Biblical texts (religious Zionism) or from claims of 19th-century European nationalism, these ideas can seem very threatening. If we admit that we have our narrative of right, possession, and inheritance; but that Palestinians have a different narrative of right, possession and inheritance, no less true to them than ours is to us–are we rendered incapable of being Zionists, of believing in and defending and caring about a Jewish homeland in Israel?

Further: if we, as Modern Orthodox Jews in the North American Diaspora, identify as Zionist, and perhaps even assuage our discomfort at remaining in the Diaspora or prove our bona fides as not having lost ourselves in the Diaspora with the full-throatedness of our support for the government and military of the State of Israel, then the contours of our own imagined community can be threatened by entertaining these ideas. Resisting engaging with these ideas, then, becomes an act not only of supporting Israel, but of marking the boundaries of our imagined community and situating ourselves within it.

Thus, our communal shrinking from entertaining certain ideas about Israel is deeply rooted in our desire to mark our own identity as committed members of a community, our desire to transmit identity and commitment to our students, and our fear that thinking deeply in certain ways can potentially threaten that identity formation and transmission.

But fundamentally, as Modern Orthodox Jews, the stance that contemporary knowledge and understanding in the humanities and social science are threatening and not to be studied or attended to undermines the foundational claims of our enterprise. If we really believe that, we should send our students to college exclusively in sheltered, safe environments, and stop claiming to believe in the strong version of the Grand Conversation between Torah and the world. And if we do hold those claims, and continue to send our children off to campuses to engage in that Grand Conversation, we should be preparing them to do so with a thorough, thoughtful Israel education before they go.

What we seek to do in this Israel education, then, is to craft a different community that students can imagine themselves as members of. In this community, our students are not the diasporic outsiders, proving their sustained commitment and lack of alienation with doctrinaire views and nationalist fervor, but are insiders into a community that can comfortably encompass some of the wider range of opinions that are part of the political debate in Israel.

But the identity that we are seeking to create is not, ultimately, an Israeli identity. We do not seek to have our students imagine themselves as part of an Israeli community, for they are not Israeli and most of them will not be. We will seek to have our students engage more meaningfully with the fullness of life in modern Israel, not only with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but that is not the sole goal of this study. More than that, we seek to craft a new imagined community–one of American Modern Orthodox Jews, of Diaspora Zionists, who combine their intimate understanding of the Israeli scene and their immersive exposure to a broader world to provide them with unique intellectual frameworks and perspectives with which to think about Israel.

What would educating towards that identity, and towards that mode of thinking about and engaging with Israel, look like?

  • Helping our students understand themselves as members of a different Israel-supporting, Zionist community than the one they may have been acculturated to in elementary school and summer camp, one that admits more of the complexity and contention that is part of the national discourse in Israel itself.
  • Introducing students to ideas and approaches to understanding national narratives, histories, and claims that they might encounter in college, and doing so with a real desire to understand those approaches, what light they can shed, and what their limitations are (not just equipping students with talking points to parry the claims.)
  • Helping students see that ability to hear others’ truths does not negate our commitment to our own, and understand that accepting that there can be multiple truths does not mean that there is no truth.
  • Helping our students understand that the contemporary Israeli experience is not solely defined by the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, and educating them more broadly about Israeli society, politics, and culture.
  • Teaching our students to recognize and call out genuine anti-semitism (“all Jews everywhere are responsible for the actions of the Israeli government” “Jews cannot be part of campus government because they are all Zionist”) and delegitimation of Israel as a Jewish state; to appreciate that there is room for legitimate criticism of Israel from within and without the Jewish community; and to talk about the hard cases that exist on the boundary.
  • Eschewing the “foot-soldiering” (to use Wajahat Ali’s term)4Wajahat Ali, “Jewish and Muslim Media, Reporting, and Storytelling,” (presentation at Jews and Muslims in America, convened by Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, New York, New York January 16, 2017). of our children. We are not arming them with facts, we are not sending them off to do battle, the campuses are not the front lines.

This last point is important enough to merit some elaboration. So much of how we talk about engaging around Israel on campus relies on martial metaphors. As Lakoff and Johnson explain in their powerful book Metaphors We Live By, the metaphors we use to describe our lives not only reflect but shape our thinking.5George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live By. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980). Indeed, the metaphor of “argument as war” is one of the central ones they discuss in the book. As much as this may be true about any argument, it is particularly true when the subject is Israel: when we frame what we are preparing students to do as war or combat, we are conveying messages about what tactics to use, what goals to pursue, and what outcomes to expect. (War is, at best, a zero-sum game, and its aim is defeat of the foe, not greater mutual understanding.) What we prepare our students for shapes the experiences they will have, what they will bring to them and what they will get out of them.

Educating Towards Identity Formation: Building our Imagined Community
Often, when we think of our goals for Jewish education, we frame identity formation as an affective goal substantively in tension with the intellectual goals of the curriculum we want students to master. Thus, teaching students about 1948 is seen as a struggle between giving them the heroic perspective of “the many in the hands of the few, the mighty in the hands of the weak” that will help form the core and foundation of the Zionist identity; while teaching them about the origins of the Palestinian refugee crisis is vitally important to ensure that they have an honest accounting of the history, but may work against those affective and identity-forming goals. (See the Israel Education paper by Ms. Laura Shaw Frank and Ms. Adina Shoulson.) But if we reframe the American Zionist identity that we are educating towards, thinking along the lines of Rabbi Tully Harcsztark’s paper to articulate a diasporic Zionism that is not simply a failure of aliyah but is an alternative vision that sees the diasporic community as having something unique to contribute to the conversation with Israel and about Israel, then these two goals are no longer in tension, but are mutually reinforcing.

In this vision, the identity that we seek to educate towards in our students is precisely one that approaches Israel with love and rigor, support and analysis. By educating our students to think about their own identity as diasporic Zionists, learning about the breadth of the conversation in Israel and contributing their own particular perspective to that conversation, we hope to help our students imagine themselves as members of a distinctive community that benefits from a closer, clearer understanding of contemporary Israel, and enriches the discourse around it.

  • 1
    The Algemeiner, “The Algemeiner’s First Annual List of the US and Canada’s Worst Campuses for Jewish Students” https://www.algemeiner.com/the-40-worst-colleges-for-jewish-students-2016/
  • 2
    Tamara Cofman Wittes, “American Jews, American Muslims, and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict,” (presentation at Jews and Muslims in America, convened by Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, New York, New York January 16, 2017).
  • 3
    Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origins and Spread of Nationalism. (London: Verso, 1983) 5-7.
  • 4
    Wajahat Ali, “Jewish and Muslim Media, Reporting, and Storytelling,” (presentation at Jews and Muslims in America, convened by Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, New York, New York January 16, 2017).
  • 5
    George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live By. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980).
Dr. Rivka Press Schwartz

Dr. Rivka Press Schwartz

Dr. Schwartz serves as Associate Principal, General Studies at SAR High School, and as a research fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America. She earned her Ph.D. in the history of science from Princeton University.

Other Work by this Educator