Putting the Ideology Back Into Israel Education

Alick Isaacs

The question of Israel education is not simply a curricular one. Neither is the issue pedagogical in the narrow sense. The problem with Israel education—and there is a problem—is not defined by any special difficulty teachers may have coming up with interesting or creative ways to teach about Israel. Accessing information is easy, and quality essays, thoughtful op-eds, evocative movies, books and poems are everywhere to be found by any teacher with a little curiosity an Internet connection and a mouse. If there are problems of the pedagogical/curricular sort, they are neither unique to Israel education nor intrinsic to it.

So what is the issue? Why is it that I so often encounter the “Why Israel?” question? Why do educators feel the subject requires special justification? What is it about the place of Israel in Jewish education that does not simply speak for itself? I guess there is more than one answer to this and I doubt that there is an answer good enough to simply put the question to rest. But I do think there is something to be said for pointing out what must surely be one of the biggest issues especially at this time—the conflict.

Historians insist, and I believe they are right, that the State of Israel was born of an ideological movement that began in Post-Enlightenment Europe. In other words, they correctly insist that the State of Israel was and is the accomplishment of Zionism and not of the Shoah. As such Israel was the realization of an ideal, the concretization of a vision, the semi-utopian solution to a “Jewish question” that was fully articulated long before Hitler was born. Given this analysis, it seems almost unavoidable that at some stage along the way someone is going to notice that the State, even with its virtues as a safe haven for Jewish refugees, is an inevitably deconstructing force that calls into question the validity of its mythical progeny.

It might sound odd, but what I am suggesting is that the foundation of the State of Israel, rather than simply being the crowning moment of Zionist history, was in many ways the greatest of threats to the future plausibility of the Zionist idea. The materialization of Israel in reality effected a transformation and a metamorphosis that no dream of the sort that makes education easy can survive. At the same time, Zionism with its naively utopian formulae poses a relentless threat to the Israel that is. It looks at the State, as it were, over the rims of its half-mooned spectacles and lets out an agitated sigh.

My point is that the question of Israel education is difficult, not because educators need to choose between teaching the myth and the reality, but because the confusion caused by the co-existence of an ideology with its realization is blinding. This combination obstructs our capacity to honestly evaluate Israel’s standing in the world today, and hence its purpose in Jewish education is equally hard to divine.

I should add at this point that, in my view, this genuine confusion is only compounded by the widespread instrumentalization of Israel in Jewish education as part of the overwhelming effort to keep the next generation of Jews Jewish. “How can we use Israel to connect the next generations of Jews to their heritage?” is the wrong question to put to Israel in this time of confusion. The reverse effects of this strategy—the ones we tend to blame on CNN—are surely obvious. We invite the young generation to identify with a concrete reality that they have every opportunity to evaluate negatively for themselves and expect them to embrace it as if it were an unequivocally optimistic dream come true.

It is ironic, but the Zionist movement that came to give an ideal answer to the question of Jewish identity has inadvertently been responsible for inventing a society that is implicated—right or wrong, fairly or no—in one of the greatest scandals of our time. The Jewish State is perpetually embroiled in a conflict that is chronically eroding away its moral fiber while the enduring impact of Israel’s foundational idealism allows many to take comfort in ideological conceptions of political reality that isolate the “loyalist” view of Israel from the rest of the world. Today’s Zionists (and I count myself among them) are forced to stand alone against a hostile world convinced that nothing has really changed since the dark days of Crusades and blood libels because it is a law of nature that “Esau will always hate Jacob.” This is ideology gone wrong. Ideology is abused when an establishment uses it to justify, rather than to change, its ways. Ideology is only plausible when it broadens our view of the future, not when it narrows our understanding of the recent past.

The challenge of Israel education as I see it is therefore the challenge of unraveling the confusion between ideology and reality in order to begin the search for a new ideological purpose that Israel’s future can “stand for” in American Jewish life. If the point hasn’t been made clear enough…I propose we start by thinking ideologically and educationally about peace. By this I mean peace as a dream that we seek to fill with Jewish content and reinvigorate with Zionist Jewish meaning. Today’s “Jewish question” that the war in Gaza has once more made acute is: What does peace mean in Judaism? What did peace mean in the unfulfilled dreams of the great prophets, rabbis and Zionist thinkers of the past? What should it mean across the Jewish world today? How can we as educators ensure that our heritage yields as rich an answer to these questions today as it once did to such classical Zionist questions as “What is Jewish sovereignty? How does Jewish history look if we tell it as the story of a nation?”

The educational coherence of teaching about Israel’s present reality in a curriculum for Jewish education will come from a clearer sense of purpose about our ideological dreams for Israel’s future. We need not fear criticizing Israel’s part in its own wars any more than classical Zionist education feared its critical evaluations of Diaspora Jewish life. But these critiques must leverage a hopeful imagining of a future in which our tradition’s commitment to peace—like its dreams of self-determination 100 years ago—are finally given their day in history.

Just as Zionism encompassed various visions of what Jewish sovereignty would look like and stand for, a starry-eyed educational and ideological commitment to Israel’s peaceful future should stimulate vigorous debate about Judaism’s understanding of peace. The concept itself is far from simple and its meanings in Jewish texts are extremely varied. But the multi-vocal reconsideration of peace in the face of the unique historical challenges that the State of Israel faces today is the ideological opportunity of our time and, in my view, the cause that can give renewed purpose to Israel education throughout the Jewish world. ♦

Dr. Alick Isaacs, who teaches at the Melton Centre for Jewish Education at the Hebrew University and is the Director of the Advanced Bet Midrash at the Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, has just completed a book entitled Prophetic Peace which, following upon his experiences as a combat soldier in the Second Lebanon War, reevaluates the place of peace in Jewish thought. He can be reached at msaliki@mscc.huji.ac.il.
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HaYidion Israel & Zionism Education Spring 2009
Israel & Zionism Education
Spring 2009