In the current kerfuffle over Israel education at summer camps and in other settings, a dominant position holds that kids need to learn to love Israel unconditionally before they can see its warts. My own experience, learning both American and Israeli history, suggests that this approach will backfire.
In our first years of high school, my friends and I used to joke that if we didn’t know the answer on a multiple-choice history test, we should just pick the answer that made the United States looks the best. This all changed junior year, with an AP American history teacher who shattered all of our assumptions. He respected our intelligence sufficiently to assign academic books and articles instead of textbooks, and to force us to ask critical questions as we read. Nor did he shy away from current issues — he was the first adult I encountered who spoke up for LGBT rights, a taboo issue in my suburban Massachusetts high school in the early ’90s.
I’m sure that my earlier teachers believed that they were teaching us to be good citizens and proud Americans when they glossed over some of the more difficult episodes of our history. For most of my early education, the Pilgrims and the Native Americans cheerfully shared Thanksgiving together. Manifest Destiny constituted a necessary step toward modernity. Slavery was terrible, of course, but we just faulted the Southerners, and saw ourselves — Northerners — as the enlightened ones who saved the day. We never talked about the Vietnam War, ongoing structural racism, U.S. interventions in Latin America, or other historical or current events that might have made us question America’s purity of motivation.
At first, I was alarmed and confused: it was easier to hang onto the simple myths of my childhood than to absorb the complexity now being presented. Then I became angry at the teachers who had sugarcoated American history in the past. Ultimately, my AP history class didn’t weaken my commitment to the United States; rather, it made me more aware of my responsibilities as a citizen. And it paved the way for later critical engagement with both history and current events. It also made me feel cheated of what could have been years of age-appropriate critical engagement with history, rather than a sudden shock.
Such education doesn’t need to wait until high school. In her public school, my third grader has already learned about the genocide of Native Americans, the racist terrorism that drove freed African-Americans north, and changes in immigration laws that shut out refugees after 1924. She and her classmates have discussed the Muslim ban and police shootings. These conversations make her want to change this country, not abandon it.
Hiding reality — in the United States or Israel — insults the intelligence of our children, and in the case of Israel, may even drive them away from engaging at all. I remember raising my hand in a Hebrew high school class, toward the end of the first intifada, to ask who the Palestinians were. The teacher answered, “There are no Palestinians. They’re Jordanians.” As a teenager, I sensed I was being lied to but didn’t have the knowledge or skills to respond. Like many young people today, I eventually learned what had been hidden from me, and had to rebuild my own relationship with Israel, in large part through connecting with those working to change the country for the better.
Even elementary school children are capable of understanding that countries and leaders don’t always do what is right. My own 8-year-old feels deeply connected to Israel, and also knows that Israel is currently occupying another people. She has spent time inside of Israel and has also planted trees in a Palestinian village in the West Bank. Her awareness of the occupation does not, in any way, diminish her love for Israel.
We can help our children build a strong connection to Israel by immersing them in Israeli music and culture, introducing them to Israelis, and teaching them Hebrew. But that doesn’t require hiding the realities of occupation, the experiences of Palestinians, or the current Israeli government’s attacks on democracy.
Let’s talk to our kids in depth — and without easy slogans — about what motivated the Zionist movement; the historic Jewish connection to the land of Israel; the rise of racially based anti-Semitism in post-Emancipation Europe; and the growth of the minority rights and nationalist movements in the 19th century. Let’s teach about the multiple approaches to Zionism — from political to religious to cultural — as well as about the experience of Palestinians under the British Mandate, and the emergence of the Palestinian national movement in the same period.
Camps and other Jewish educational institutions love to highlight the diversity of Israeli society. We should be proud that Israel’s population and leadership includes Ashkenazim, Mizrahim, and Ethiopians; Jews, Muslims and Christians; immigrants and people who have lived there for generations. We also need to be brave enough to not whitewash structural and societal racism against minority communities. Kids who are capable of understanding racism in the United States can engage with the history of discrimination in Israel, while also learning from and about people trying to change this reality.
Nor should we shy away from talking about the military occupation of the West Bank, the annexation of east Jerusalem and the legal status of its residents, or Israel’s continued control over Gaza’s borders. For years, Jewish summer camps and youth groups have carried out mock army drills and spoken in vague terms about “enemies” and “terrorists.” Instead of turning warfare into a game, let’s talk honestly with kids both about the wonder of creating a Jewish state in 1948, and about why Palestinians experienced this event as a “nakba” — catastrophe.
Introducing hard questions need not frighten our kids or turn them off from Israel. In fact, the best approach to their education will involve introducing them to Israelis, Palestinians and Americans who are working hard to protect human rights in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories.
These voices will help our kids develop a thicker — and ultimately stronger — connection to Israel, just as my AP history teacher taught me about citizenship and love for America precisely by introducing me to its challenges.
Rabbi Jill Jacobs is executive director of T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights.