Books Israel

Engaging with Israel on your own Terms

As The Fragile Dialogue explores, Israel has quickly become one of the most polarizing forces in the North American Jewish Community. There are those who remain curious and committed, wanting to remain connected in some meaningful way. There are those who have effected a divorce, asserting Israel has no place in their lives. And there are those who are ambivalent, filled with questions, not sure what they think and feel. Many would consider the last two categories a failure in cultivating a passionate connection to Israel. I disagree. It seems to me that any conversation about Israel that engages people in open, honest exploration of issues and expression of questions and concerns is an educational success.

Our inability to articulate a compelling vision for Israel education may lie in our unwillingness to accept the inherent ambiguity in our stance toward Israel. Rather than embrace this ambiguity, we seek to harmonize and instrumentalize Israel so that it fits with the not-so-hidden curriculum of American Jewish education, which is, in essence, how to function as an American Jew. Inasmuch as Israel education can be used as a way to reinforce American Jewish identity, it is viewed as a positive. This has resulted in a “mythic” representation of Israel that, as Jonathan Sarna pointed out, has, “for well over a century . . . revealed more about American Jewish ideals than about Israeli realities.” Jewish education has reinforced this idealization of Israel to a great extent so that Israel can remain consistent with American conceptions of “Zion as it ought to be.” This means that we keep Israel at a distance through episodic and rather superficial encounters. We teach old conceptions and old narratives about Israel, because they are “safe” and because we don’t know what else to do. Indeed, it seems that a tacit assumption is made that only by first cultivating an uncritical “love of Israel” can we hope to engage American Jews at all.

To be sure, approaches that cultivate love can be effective for some. For increasing numbers, however, such approaches lead to dissonance, alienation, anger, and outright rejection, especially when they come to realize the mythic vision of Israel they were taught is vastly different from the much more complicated and often distressing reality. And, teaching only the “lovable” parts leaves our learners with, at best, a superficial understanding of why Israel is or could be significant in American Jewish life.

I want to propose that we accept the fact that being ambivalent about Israel is a productive educational goal. This may be unsettling for some, but it is far from a novel idea. Almost a century ago, the great Hebrew poet and writer Chaim Nachman Bialik wrote that “the phenomenon of dualism in our psyche [is] a fundamental characteristic of the Jewish people.” This dualism is not a black-and-white choice between opposing forces, but rather a formative tension that allows for productive negotiation and growth. This kind of dualism is woven throughout Jewish life, belief, and practice, with manifold tensions between Zion and Sinai, sacred and profane, Israel and Diaspora, exile and redemption, religion and peoplehood, blessing and curse. Bialik claimed that the desire both to expand from the center and to contract toward it is what has kept Judaism and the Jewish people a dynamic and thriving civilization. “Because the people did not tie its fate to one of these and because they remained in equal power, the rule of this dualism in our group character has survived to this day.”

Translating a “nuanced understanding of Israel” into educational practice is a multilayered process that could start even with how the geography of Israel is taught. What maps are displayed on the walls? Do they mark the Green Line? Do we teach only about Tel Aviv, Haifa, and Jerusalem, or do we also include units on Kfar Kana, Um el Fahm, and Sakhnin? Do we focus only on the kibbutzim of the north or also teach that 50 percent of the population of the Galilee is Muslim, Christian, or Druze? When we plan a mifgash (encounter) with Israelis, whether virtual or real, do we include meetings with Palestinian citizens of Israel or only Jews? Does our investigation of social justice initiatives in Israel extend only to issues of religious pluralism that pertain directly to Reform Jews, or do we also study about educational and/or social justice organizations that are striving to attain a shared citizenship across religious, ethnic, and political differences?

These are just a few of the questions worth considering when thinking about developing an intentionally ambivalent educational approach to teaching Israel. Embracing this ambivalence does not preclude me, however, from starting with the chutzpadik claim that Israel is integral to Jewish life wherever it is lived. That sets a boundary that is clear but also flexible. For me, Israel is a key dimension of what it means to be a Jew. Like the Psalmist, I believe that forgetting Israel can be likened to losing the use of a limb. One can still live without one’s right hand, but the loss is an attenuation, a diminishment, far from desirable. But, this chutzpah is tempered with a lot of humility. Understanding Israel as integral but not central allows for and even endorses a range of different personal commitments and connections. Israel as integral means that there is no one right way or one right level of intensity to be connected. Just as with every other aspect of Jewish life, Israel education can provide individuals with the resources and experiences to become informed and then make their own choices as to the nature and extent of their involvement. Just as all would agree that God, Torah, and Shabbat are integral to Jewish experience but that different Jews have different beliefs and practices, the same can be said about Israel. There is no one right way to engage with Israel, but engaging is an essential aspect of Jewish experience. Just as educators strive to help Jews find meaning in God, Torah, and Shabbat and cultivate the motivation, knowledge, or skills that enable them to be develop their own set of practices, so should they work to help Jews engage with Israel, each on their own terms, yet as part of the collective Jewish project.

What this means is that we must accept that our communities can and need to welcome a wide range of views, understandings, feelings, and actions about Israel. This seems all the more pressing and essential today in order to build thriving Jewish life and to sustain a relationship with and connection to Israel. It means having faith and hope in the Jewish people, that expressing our differences will help us to listen more carefully to each other with open hearts, knowing that the choices we make build us up, enrich us, and allow Jewish life to continue to thrive in a multiplicity of ways.

Rabbi Lisa D. Grant is Professor of Jewish Education at Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion.

The Fragile Dialogue: New Voices of Liberal Zionism is now available to pre-order from CCAR Press.