I was honored to participate in a recent think-tank on Israel Education in Chicago organized by the iCenter in partnership with the World Zionist Organization entitled Israel in the Development of Jewish Identity: Philosophical Reflections and Educational Implications. I’ve written about the iCenter before on this blog and the important work they have done to establish pedagogic criteria and standards for quality Israel education. This think-tank though was focused on the why of Israel education and how it impacts Jewish identity. Some of the brightest minds in Jewish education from both the US and Israel were gathered here along with a cohort of young educators and graduate students who were also taking part in a larger dialogue about Israel and Israel education from their perspective. We discussed and debated numerous issues around the central topic of Israel education but I want to share just three of them that I thought were quite relevant to the Pittsburgh community.
1. What is Zionism in the 21st century? There was a real deep-dive discourse on whether the Zionism of Herzl and the founders of the state is the same Zionism we speak about today. So much of what we historically call Zionism was based on the idea of a Jewish state yet-to-be; does it still resonate in a Jewish state that has not only been established for 65 years but is a real presence on the global stage? We even debated whether the term “Zionism” still resonates with Jews today or if we needed something newer for today. There were no conclusions but interestingly there was a generational split on how to define Zionism amongst participants that cut across both US and Israeli participants. Basically younger participants saw the vision of Zionism today as something more complex in the modern existent state and felt it needed to more reflect their generation’s Israel. The older participants, while agreeing that the state that-is is different than the envisioned state of the dreamers, still saw those dreams as the guiding visions for Israel. They worried that losing those visions could mean losing the Jewish soul of the state while the younger generation seemed to advocate that evolving the vision could secure the Jewish soul of the state.
2. Israel education is not the same as Israel advocacy. There was fairly consistent agreement that in the US arguments for Israel have shut out debate about Israel and therefore shut out opportunities to educate American Jews in a sophisticated way about Israel and its social, political and cultural issues. Letting advocates, however well-intentioned from any side of the issues around Israel, co-opt the communal conversations on Israel to the point where factual discussions are seen as threatening to political hegemony has pushed away a lot of American Jews who want to seriously understand Israel from all sides as loyal supporters. Israel education has a critical role to play in objective fact-based information sharing that allows subjective opinions and viewpoints to be drawn from a place of knowledge rather than just passion.
3. Israel education is a unique sub-topic in the larger pantheon of Jewish education. There was clear agreement that American Jewish education tends to treat Israel as a subject on par with Hebrew, Jewish history, prayer and the many other subjects that comprise Jewish educational curricula which was understood to be counterproductive. Regardless of one’s Jewish theology, practice, culture or values, Israel is the center of the Jewish people and we shortchange its importance and endanger its meaning to all of us if we simply treat it as one of many subjects in Jewish education. Just as we have come to understand the value of Israel travel to Jewish identity, we have to embrace the need for more sophisticated and overarching education about Israel and our relationship to it.
These three gleanings struck me as particularly relevant to Pittsburgh, in my opinion, because we are a community that has operated on a historic assumption of Zionism without much discussion of its changing dynamics that go along with a changing Israel. This has in turn led to an understanding of Israel education that prioritizes feeling over fact and that wants it to be supportive of Israel advocacy more than informative to Jewish identity. Our community is a big supporters of Israel travel but offer relatively little in the realm of Israel education before or after our trips. Israel travel often is the catalyst to the exploration of deeper senses of Jewish self and the desire to learn more about Judaism as well as Israel. Yet we are far more likely to communally use that experience as a basis for a donation request or a lobbying effort than we are as a Jewish communal commitment to nurturing Jewish identity. Don’t get me wrong – I’m fully understanding of the value of Israel experiences to increase commitment and partisanship and the success that understanding has brought to our national efforts to secure Israel’s future. But Israel is a sovereign power and complex society in its own right now and deserves a more sophisticated understanding from American Jews of its daily life as well as its daily survival. Pittsburgh is not unique in the need to generate a deeper and more complex Israel education effort; we are fully in sync with most American Jewish communities in that regard. But Pittsburgh is where I live and where I am raising my kids as Jews and as Zionists, and we owe it to them and their peers to develop formats of Israel education that encourages them to understand its complexities as well as love it unconditionally. The Jewish identity of the next generation can best be formed by giving them the tools they need to ask tough but meaningful Jewish questions, and that includes tough but meaningful questions about the modern state of Israel. We owe it to them to develop Israel education at the level of excellence that will help them discern the answers to those questions and find their own meaningful relationship to Israel as a result.