HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal

Between History and Memory in Israel Education

by Alex Sinclair Issue: Teaching Jewish History

Sinclair splices conversations with four other leading Israel educators to reflect on the purpose of Israel education, what it should be and what it is capable of.

I was once with speaking with a group of American students and, as an introductory activity, asked for each to tell the group about his or her “Jewish journey.” Nobody began before they were born. Their stories all began with themselves. I found that very strange and disturbing—if I had done the same activity with Israelis, they would always begin with their parents and grandparents…

I was told this story by Dr. David Mendelsson, professor of Jewish history at Hebrew Union College and director of its year in Israel program. The story captures the essence of the challenges facing those who would teach Jewish history and Israeli history to today’s Americans. In an era of “now-ism,” how is history relevant? Can history speak to young American Jews today? How, if at all, does it affect their identities, their ways of understanding themselves as Jews? If these questions are relevant when it comes to American or American Jewish history, how much more so is the case when it comes to Israeli history. Put simply: why teach Israeli history?

I posed these questions to Mendelsson and three other colleagues in the preparation of this essay: Rabbi Josh Feigelson, head of strategy and field building at the iCenter; Dr Yehuda Kurtzer, president of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America; and Dr. Kenneth W. Stein, professor of contemporary Middle Eastern history and Israeli studies at Emory University and president of the Center for Israel Education.

Can history build identity?

Suzanne Wilson and Sam Wineburg, in chapter 6 of the latter’s landmark book Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts, analyze four different history teachers and the disciplinary goals each of them has in teaching history. One teacher wants children to “love and appreciate history”; another is interested in “politically empowering students”; a third in “developing conscientious citizens”; and the fourth teacher wants kids to become “mini-social scientists” who look at the key concepts of culture in the past as in the present.

None of the teachers suggest that the study of history should make students “feel more American” or “enrich their American identity” or “connect them with other Americans.” Substitute “Jewish” for “American” and the problem becomes clear: is the teaching of Israeli history the right tool to use if we’re looking to carve out Jewish identity, to sculpt a connection with modern day Israel or the Jewish people? Can the study of history build identity?

Stein and Feigelson have faith that history can be that tool. For Stein, the teaching of history is essential to understand Jewish identity. “We as a people have become ahistorical,” he tells me. “If we don’t go back to learn where we came from, we can’t have pride in who we are.” Stein has deep faith in history as a subject matter, in the power of history, in the power of stories of the past to shape present identity. For him, “our journey through history is our Jewish identity… without it we are not a people.” Feigelson’s approach is similar, although he stresses the idea that history and the present are in dialogue with each other. “We have to help kids to write the story of their lives in dialogue with the story of the Jewish people and Israel. History is inseparable from that dialogue.”

Between history and memory

Of the four informants for this essay, Kurtzer’s position was unique. He’s much more skeptical about the value of history as an identity builder. He makes the distinction between “history” and “memory,” borrowing the famous notion from Yerushalmi’s Zakhor that Jews always used to interact with the past through memory, and that we only began being “historical” in the post-enlightenment world. For Yerushalmi, and for Kurtzer, history and memory are not the same, and are sometimes in opposition to each other. And they both agree that history is a poor substitute for collective memory.

Kurtzer argues that if you were born into a particular historical time (1948, 1967, Entebbe), then Israel captures a sway over you, and nothing that Israel can do today can undermine that historical experience—that memory. But “hearing the story of 1967 or Entebbe is not the same as living through it,” Kurtzer says. History, in other words, can’t build identity in the same way that memory can. Values build identity, not history, and he tells me that he is “much more interested in an ahistorical conversation about values.” Kurtzer argues that in conversations about meaning, values precede data, and history is a form of data.

Stein is probably the most opposed to Kurtzer’s position. Stein’s faith in the power of history, especially in the educational power of the stories of history, has a remarkable fervor. If we return to the history/memory distinction, it’s almost as if Stein believes that you can plug that chasm between memory and history by telling history in a captivating and compelling fashion: as if history can become memory if it’s really taught right.

Mendelsson’s approach feels like it might bridge between Stein and Kurtzer. Like Kurtzer, he’s interested in values and the compelling questions of how Israel today should be. The issue of Jews and power, for example, is one that Mendelsson keeps returning to: throughout much of Jewish history, Jews have been powerless, but now that we have power and sovereignty, how should we use them? This feels like a very Hartman-esque kind of question; indeed, it’s one of the core questions that is referred to in their iEngage project. But whereas Kurtzer would probably suggest that we answer the question primarily through the prism of Jewish values, Mendelsson wants to see how that question has played out in Jewish history. He argues that looking at this kind of question historically “takes the individual and makes him less central.” It “links you to the trials and tribulations of the Jewish people.”

Feigelson is also interested in teasing out the “big questions” of history, the big questions that Jews have always grappled with, and making them questions for ourselves today. His is, in some ways, an appeal to the Understanding by Design school of thought, building curricular units around essential questions and having them drive student motivation, discussion, learning and assessment.

When history and memory collide

Not all of Israeli history is easy to digest, though. As we learn in Ari Shavit’s much-praised new book, My Promised Land: The Triumphs and Tragedies of Israel, some of Israel’s actions in history were deeply disturbing. Should we teach these less stellar moments of Jewish history? And if so, how?

Most of my interviewees were adamant on this point. Stein: “You have to teach everything that’s part of who we are. History is usually in the gray area. Gray areas require effort to teach and nuance to understand.” Mendelsson: “I like to think that I deal responsibly with complicated and difficult periods of Israeli history. I want to put the dilemmas [that Israel faced] before my students, I want to teach with integrity. I can’t imagine teaching anything without a commitment to integrity.”

Feigelson was more ambivalent about this issue, though, and wondered about how nuanced history can be taught to younger children. “We’re not there yet. We want to present things in such a way that we don’t undermine the effort to strengthen children’s Jewish identity. But when the time is right we don’t want to be dishonest about history.”

This debate takes us back to where we began the paper. To argue that teaching Israeli history impacts Jewish identity is not a slam-dunk. Indeed, when it comes to the darker sides of history, it could even be argued that the teaching of history is counterproductive to the engendering of identity (Stein, as can be seen from his position above, firmly disagrees). In my recent book, Loving the Real Israel: An Educational Agenda for Liberal Zionism, I make the analogy between the teaching of Israeli history from the perspective of the “new historians” and the teaching of the history of the biblical text, also known as source criticism. For some, the teaching of source criticism should be avoided at all costs, or at least kept quiet as much as possible, because seeing the Torah from the perspective of history, as opposed to collective memory, has the potential to damage Jewish learners’ relationship with the Torah. So too, some argue that the teaching of the more problematic aspects of Israeli history has the potential to damage Jewish learners’ relationship with Israel.

From a Jewish perspective, I firmly believe that we have an obligation to teach the history of the biblical text, within the framework of deep and core commitment to Jewish life and Torah study. I appreciate the danger of biblical criticism, but I can’t imagine teaching Torah without, to use Mendelsson’s term, integrity about its historical origins.

So too when it comes to the teaching of Israeli history: like Mendelsson, I can’t imagine a curriculum on Israeli history that doesn’t take into account the insights of the new historians. Ari Shavit’s chapter on Lydda, which was excerpted in the New Yorker in October, and is perhaps the most harrowing of his book, can’t be ignored. As Zionists, we have to find ways to contain it within our identity.

Nevertheless, I wouldn’t want to downplay Feigelson’s concerns. Integrity as an adult who is already committed to the Israeli story is all well and good; but how do we translate that integrity into our curriculum and pedagogy for young American Jews who don’t have an a priori relationship with Israel? What do we do as educators when, as in the case of Lydda, the gap between history and memory is so vast?

Wineburg elsewhere suggests that history is taught in order “to prepare students to tolerate complexity, to adapt to new situations, and to resist the first answer that comes to mind.” This definition might be our best bet in situations when history contradicts our collective memory so sharply. It’s a mistake to reject history when it violates our collective memory; but it’s also a mistake to discard memory in favor of history. To be a Jew today means to live in what Shavit calls this “epic motion picture whose plot we do not understand and cannot grasp.” To be an Israel-engaged Jew today means to find ways to live with that vast chasm between history and memory, and, despite the temptation, to discard neither. ¿

Dr. Alex Sinclair is the director of programs in Israel education for the Jewish Theological Seminary and the author of Loving the Real Israel: An Educational Agenda for Liberal Zionism, a finalist for the 2013 National Jewish Book Award in the category of Education and Jewish Identity. He lives in Modiin, Israel. alsinclair@jtsa.edu

Israel Bookshelf

Here are the “top ten” books on Israel recommended by the people featured in this article.

Gershom Gorenberg, The Accidental Empire

Yossi Klein Halevi, Like Dreamers

Benny Morris, Righteous Victims

Michael Oren, Six Days of War


Amos Oz, In the Land of Israel

Itamar Rabinovich and Jehuda Reinharz, Israel in the Middle East

Avi Ravitzky, Messianism, Zionism and Jewish Religious Radicalism

Howard Sachar, A History of Modern Israel

Anita Shapira, Israel: A History

Ari Shavit, My Promised Land

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Teaching Jewish History

Is Jewish history the linchpin to Jewish identity formation, the weak link in day school Jewish studies, or perhaps both? Jewish history provides students with critical links to their past and gives them the context for their own experiences. Discover insights in this field from senior scholars and educators, and find creative new initiatives being used by teachers in day schools today.

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