What Does It Take to Teach Israel?

More and more Jewish day school teachers are asked not only to teach their subjects, but also to be Israel educators. But Israel education differs from most of what teachers teach in two fundamental ways. First, Israel education is necessarily interdisciplinary. It cuts across a number of academic disciplines including Hebrew language, literature, history and social studies. Furthermore, it naturally extends into informal contexts such as Yom Ha’atzmaut celebrations, meet-ups between Israelis and Americans and trips to Israel.

Second, the outcomes of Israel education go far beyond those of traditional subjects. Certainly, they include academic skills and knowledge, but the purpose of Israel education, as Bethamie Horowitz writes, “is to build a relationship between the learner and Israel” (Defining Israel Education). To place relationship-building at the heart of Israel education distinguishes it from courses like history or even Talmud. While most Talmud teachers see relationship-building as part of their work, most would probably not list it as the central purpose. In order for teachers to become successful Israel educators, therefore, they must master a new set of pedagogical approaches specific to achieving the particular goals of Israel education.

What does a pedagogy of Israel education look like? The intrinsically interdisciplinary nature of Israel education implies that Israel educators must possess both breadth and depth of knowledge of Israel’s history, society and culture and the ability to make creative connections across disciplines. For this reason, Israel education seems to beg for team teaching.

But it is the second aspect of Israel education, that is, its aim of building relationships, that provides the greatest insight into what teachers must be able to do in order to teach Israel. The metaphor of relationship-building that lies at the heart of Israel education can be misleading. Generally, when we build something, we start from scratch. The construction team can pick a suitable site and can prepare the ground however they like.

When it comes to building Jewish day school students’ relationships to Israel, however, Israel educators almost always find a preexisting structure on the site. Students do not come to Israel education without any relationship to Israel and they certainly do not all enter it with the same relationship. Above all, therefore, Israel educators require the pedagogical expertise to mediate students’ relationships to the varied disciplines and contexts in which they encounter Israel.

For several years, I taught 10th grade Modern European history at a Jewish day school. The last third of the year was devoted to a unit on the history of Israel. I was always surprised by the diversity my students exhibited in their relationships to Israel. Some read Israeli newspapers each day, listened to Israeli music, and had strong opinions on all aspects of life in Israel. Other students loved debating the history and politics of Israel. These were the students who used to ask me, “So how many of us are AIPAC and how many J Street?” Other students had extended family in Israel and visited once or twice a year. They didn’t care about politics or culture, but they would excitedly tell me stories of the places they visited and the experiences they’d had.

Some students felt Israel fatigue. On the first day of our Israel unit they would groan, “Israel?... Again???” Finally, there were many students with no family in Israel and no background studying Israel. These students were confused about the difference between the Independence War and the Six Day War and wondered why they had to learn about Israel at all. “After all,” they protested, “we’re American!” And this was in a class of eighteen.

The diversity of students’ relationships to Israel represents the central pedagogical challenge that Israel educators face. I believe that it is this challenge that makes the “myth-busting” or “myths and facts” approach to Israel education seem so appealing. Both these approaches, though they tend to occupy different ends of the political spectrum, assume that the central task of a teacher is to help students learn how to discern what is true and what is not. And in many subjects, it is.

However, when the goal is relationship-building, truth may not be the ultimate criterion of educational value. Just as teachers recognize that every student is in a different place in his or her Jewish journey, teachers must recognize that students are in different places in their Israel journey as well. Students enter their Israel education with perspectives shaped by their background knowledge, level of maturity, their life experiences, and their families and communities. Even the most thoughtfully designed Israel curriculum or program will leave many of these students out in the cold unless there is a teacher capable of tailoring it to meet the needs of individual students.

Some students, perhaps those with only a vague connection to Israel, may need opportunities to identify with Israel, to learn powerful stories, and to feel that they are a part of a grand project bigger than themselves. Other students, beginning to doubt the stories they grew up hearing, may need a little more complexity. The Israel educator who knows his or her students will know what they need from their Israel education and provide it for them. At the heart of the pedagogy of Israel education is the capacity to assess where each student is at any given moment and then to differentiate the curriculum to enable as many students as possible to engage.

The differentiation of Israel education can be as simple as providing multiple pathways for students to engage with Israel in the classroom. When I taught the history of Israel to high school students, I recognized that my students had different religious and political points of view. I wanted to give my students the opportunity to find an approach to Zionism that resonated with them, while encouraging them to develop their differing perspectives in conversation with their peers.

During our study of the Mandate period, I distributed selections from Ben Gurion, Jabotinsky and Szold to students and asked them to extract the ideological principles from each. Each student was then able to choose the set of principles that most resonated with him or her. The students sat in groups based on the principles they had chosen and discussed the principles and the reasons motivating their choice. We proceeded to hold a mock Knesset in which students debated some of the most difficult challenges facing the Palestinian Jewish community during the Mandate period. Over the course of this project and others, students had choices that empowered them to find ideas they saw as meaningful and inspiring.

For this activity to be successful, I had to know which sources to choose and where to find them. The process of choosing and locating the sources required me to draw on my content knowledge. Yet far more important to the success of the activity was the recognition that my students were in different places in the process of building their relationship to Israel. I did my best to provide them with a number of different pathways to develop their relationship to Israel and the history of Zionism.

But teachers cannot do this alone. Building a relationship between learners and Israel is a task that takes place in many different venues and over many years. It is a process that must be overseen at a schoolwide level. If schools are serious about Israel education, they must begin collecting data about the evolution of their students’ relationships to Israel over time. In most research about students’ relationships to Israel, students are asked to answer a number of multiple-choice questions about how close or distant they feel from Israel. While this data is certainly valuable, it can be reductionist. Schools should develop qualitative tools for assessing where their student bodies are in relationship to Israel at any given time. This data will provide teachers the information they need to implement effective Israel education.

To assess my students’ initial relationships to Israel, I asked them each to write the history of the State of Israel in a page or less. This homework assignment provided me with a tremendous amount of information about what my students believed and how they felt regarding the State of Israel. Some students began with God’s promise to Abraham; others began with the Holocaust. From the endings of their narratives, I could tell whether they felt mostly optimistic about the future or whether they saw a never-ending cycle of violence. Some focused on the Arab-Israeli conflict; others didn’t even mention it. Reading those paragraphs closely offered a deeply textured insight into my students’ relationships to Israel.

If schools collected paragraphs like these on a yearly or bi-yearly basis, and coupled these paragraphs with occasional interviews and focus groups with students, they would begin to accumulate a tremendously rich resource for teachers to draw on when implementing Israel education. If teachers and departments could see the evolution of students’ relationships to Israel over the course of years, they could thoughtfully design curricula and programming tailored to particular groups of students. It would enable schools and teachers to better serve the needs of individual students.

If relationship-building is the ultimate goal of Israel education, then it will necessarily require intensive differentiation. Because relationships are so personal, each student will experience a different journey towards Israel. Supporting teachers in developing both the content knowledge and pedagogical expertise to mediate students’ diverse journeys is the most pressing challenge facing the field of Israel education.♦

Jonah Hassenfeld is a former history teacher and current doctoral student in education and Jewish studies at Stanford University and a Wexner/Davidson Scholar researching the nature of high school students’ historical understanding. Jonah.hassenfeld@gmail.com

Jonah Hassenfeld
Day School Teachers
Knowledge Topics
Teaching and Learning