How To Teach Israel In The Academy?

How To Teach Israel In The Academy?

In politically complex times, figuring out an approach can be challenging.

A seminar at the 
Brandeis Summer Institute
for Israel Studies.
A seminar at the Brandeis Summer Institute for Israel Studies.

First off — who ought to be teaching Israel and Zionism in the academy?

Israeli academics are of the view that Americans have no business teaching the history of Zionism or the history of Israel — or anything else “Jewish,” for that matter. In the words of a Hebrew University professor who requested anonymity: “Unless you are an Israeli — or have been educated at an advanced level in Israel or at the least have come to Israel on aliyah — you are not qualified to teach ‘Israel.’”

One would think that the idea that no American can — or should — teach about Israel is patently foolish, and isn’t worthy of a response. But Professor David Myers of UCLA and the Center for Jewish History asked, “Would one say the same thing about Americans teaching French or German history? The idea that only Israelis can teach Israel is absurd.”

Jerome A. Chanes

The fact is that the teaching of Zionism and Israel in American colleges is relatively new, 50 years old at most. Is there a model? What should students (and faculty) be reading?

The consensus among the teachers of Zionism and Israel is that there is one must-read work: Arthur Hertzberg’s classic from 1959, “The Zionist Idea.” This iconic work, after 60 years remains THE source for primary materials on the history of Zionism, on the development of Zionist ideology and Zionist thinking. The book consists of a comprehensive collection of source materials, from pre-Herzl writers to 1948, in which Hertzberg (who was a distinguished historian of the Jewish experience as well as a gifted teacher) introduces each selection with a sharp essay. But the true strength of “The Zionist Idea,” is in the book’s introductory essay, in which Hertzberg, in 100 exceptionally concentrated pages, presents a comprehensive review and historiography of Zionism. The essay — a masterpiece — reads as well in 2018 as it did when it in 1959.

“The Zionist Idea” should be used in every course on Zionism and Israel. But for teaching purposes, there’s a lot missing in the book. Zionism and Zionist thought since the creation of the state is not covered. A contemporary classroom, then, would want to consider the following: the implications of conflicts over the past 70 years, especially the Six-Day War in 1967 and the 1973 Yom Kippur War; the changes to Religious Zionism, which is now less defined by its classic inclusive ideology than by the settler movement; the influence of the visionary religious leader Rav Kook in order to understand the post-Six-Day War religious phenomenon; and especially, the controversy over “post-Zionist” thinkers, and the conflicts generated by their writing.

Why this emphasis on ideology in the teaching of Israel? The fact is that the Yishuv — the pre-state Jewish community in British Mandate Palestine — and the early years of the state were all about ideology and ideological conflict, a tradition inherited from Zionist roots in Eastern Europe. “Ideology” and “movement” are concepts foreign to most students today, but they are crucial to understanding the development of Zionism and of the political development of Israel — and therefore must be included in curricula.

Additionally, there is the question of Zionism itself, and what Zionism means in 2018, that is central to the teaching of Israel. The best example of this question is the emergence some two decades ago of “post-Zionism.”

“One would think,” mused Steven Bayme, national director for contemporary Jewish life of the American Jewish Committee and one of the more insightful observers of American Jewry, “that the return of the Jews to sovereignty and statehood would inspire pride in Israel’s creation and history, and for many years that was the case. But beginning in the 1980s post-Zionist historians tried to overthrow the ‘heroic’ narrative of Israeli history in favor of an ‘Israel born in sin’ history; but, thankfully, post-Zionist historiography largely has been discredited in recent years in Israel.” It was the “post-Zionist” analysis that challenged some of the foundational notions, the “mythologies,” of the creation of Israel. Some post-Zionist thinkers have stepped back from their earlier critiques; some have become more staunchly anti-Zionist and anti-Israel. This arena needs to be taught with care.

But the teaching of Israel is not only about ideology, about the underpinnings in Jewish thought of the events leading up to the creation of the state. David Myers said that life in pre-state Palestine, and later, in Israel “was and is about ideology AND praxis — a series of experiments to see what worked,” and thus real-life Israel ought to be taught.

Analysts note that there are problems with Israel finding its appropriate place in the curriculum. Bayme asserted: “Israel is the greatest success narrative in Jewish history; this success narrative has penetrated the Jewish (and general university) curriculum well.” Having said this, Bayme cautioned that “the teaching of Israel is often secondary to the other seminal event in Jewish history — the Holocaust, which has become THE dominant narrative of modern Jewish history. Is the dominant theme to be that ‘Jews are the people who suffer,’ or that ‘Jews are the people who built a modern nation-state”?

Where does all of this take us? Myers said that teaching about Israel, whether in Israel or in America, needs to be inclusive: “There is a moral imperative to take stock of all groups that defined the collectivity of present-day Israel: Israeli Arabs, Palestinians, settlers, charedi sectarians, secularists, the non-religious Jewish majority and women.” In doing this, one most certainly does not need to be Israeli; indeed, Myers and others suggest that being an “outsider” can afford one insights not available to “insiders.”

“From this point forward, I think the most historically textured and responsible way to teach it is in complex interaction with Palestinian nationalism.”

The central question in the teaching of Israel today, given the turmoil on a number of campuses in America over Israel and Palestine, is contextual. “I’ve taught Zionism in various ways — as a Zionist thought course, as a Jewish nationalism class, as a history of the Yishuv/Palestine,” Myers said. “From this point forward, I think the most historically textured and responsible way to teach it is in complex interaction with Palestinian nationalism.”

Myers’ experience reflects, of course, the dilemma of every teacher of Israel and Zionism: that of “squaring the circle” when it comes to addressing questions of the West Bank settlements, Palestinian nationalism, “one state” or “two states” and the present and future of Israeli Arabs and Palestinians. My own approach is to begin with the very beginnings, in the early 20th century, of what ultimately became known as Palestinian nationalism (it began as “Greater Syrian” nationalism”) and with Arab perceptions in 1917 of the Balfour Declaration, and continue the parallel narratives to the present. This approach has the advantage of setting a historical context; students (especially Jewish students) learn that the conflict did not come out of nowhere. Along these lines, a good model for teaching of Israel is the holistic one taught at the Brandeis University Summer Institute for Israel Studies.

The bottom line on the teaching of Israel is, then: Look what the Jews did when they started thinking about Zionism, and when they started figuring out, in the context of a host of geopolitical and religious challenges, how to create a nation-state of their own.

Basic, maybe — but not simple.

Jerome Chanes is a senior fellow at the Center for Jewish Studies of the CUNY Graduate Center.

read more: