From Multiple Choice to Multiple Choices: Rethinking Israel Literacy in Our Schools

Sivan Zakai PhD

Can the students in your school name Israel’s capital? Its most populous city? A way it has brought technological advancement to the world? The religions that view Jerusalem as holy? When students can correctly answer these factual questions, it is often assumed that they have achieved Israel literacy. But there’s a big difference between knowing facts about Israel and knowing how to participate in its present and future.


The most important questions for students to consider as a part of Israel education are not factual questions, but contested, debatable, and open-ended ones: What is Zionism? How can Judaism be enacted in the realpolitik, and how (if at all) should Judaism influence political and military decision making? Why is there a conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, and what might it take to make steps towards a peaceful resolution? What responsibilities does the Jewish State have for Jews outside its borders and non-Jews under its rule? What responsibilities do Jews outside of Israel have to Israel and its citizens? These are not questions that can be answered in an Israel quiz bowl or on a multiple choice Israel literacy test. They have been answered differently in different times and places, and by those with different political and religious beliefs today. It is the very multiplicity of answers that make up the rich tapestry of true Israel literacy.


Helping students understand and engage with these big questions requires shifting from a “multiple choice” approach to Israel literacy to a “multiple choices” engagement with challenging, debatable questions. In a “multiple choice” approach, Israel education is focused on teaching students the right answers to factual questions about Israel’s geography, population, government, history and culture. Teachers ask questions that have clear answers. Student success is measured by how much they know. Teachers have done their job well when all students have the same answers.


In a “multiple choices” approach, facts about Israeli history, society and culture are not an end but rather a means to understanding that Israelis and Jews have made critical decisions, affecting their self-understanding and ways of life, in response to the ongoing questions of Zionism and Judaism. In this approach to Israel education, teachers ask questions that have no clear answers and present challenges that have no simple solutions. Student success is measured by the extent to which they can develop articulate, passionate, well-reasoned and empirically substantiated ideas. Teachers have done their job well when their students give voice to a multiplicity of thoughtful answers.


A “multiple choices” approach to Israel literacy stands upon three interrelated, underlying principles: the notion that Israel has been shaped by multiple voices, multiple visions, and multiple values.


Multiple Voices

If students are to truly understand the big questions of contemporary Israeli and Jewish life, and begin to form their own opinions and approaches to them, they must be able to hear and learn from voices from different segments of Israeli society. Many schools inadvertently privilege Ashkenazi Jewish experiences by framing Israeli and Zionist histories as a response to European anti-Semitism. Day school students should certainly be familiar with this narrative, but they must also know the stories of Sephardi and Mizrachi Jews that call Israel home, and also those of Druze, Bedouin and Palestinian communities in Israel. Students should hear the multitude of voices that constitute the spectrum of Israeli society: those who affiliate with chareidi, national-religious, secular and religiously progressive Jewish communities in Israel, as well as those from Muslim and Christian communities. Students must know that Israel’s story is a tale of sabras, but also one of immigrants and migrant workers and tourists and those with permanent residency.


A well-constructed curriculum will teach, over time, two overarching lessons about the multiple voices of Israeli society. First, each of these segments of the Israeli population has had a different role in shaping the communities and institutions of Israel. Second, no subset of the Israeli population is monolithic: chareidi Jews disagree amongst themselves, as do Russian immigrants and Palestinians with Israeli citizenship. Therefore, the multiple voices of Israel graft onto—but not always along clean lines—multiple visions for Israel.


Multiple Visions

Both Israelis and Jews around the world have differing visions of what Israel is—and what it should be. Israel, in this approach to literacy, can be framed as a place for the ingathering of Jewish exiles from around the world and/or one of multiple hubs of contemporary Jewish life. It can be the solution to global anti-Semitism and/or a magnet for global anti-Semitism. It can be a liberal democracy and/or a Jewish nation-state. It can be Yerushalayim shel ma’alah, a source of spirituality, and/or Yerushalayim shel matah, a place of gritty reality. Its importance can be found in its rich history and/or in its role as a high-tech startup nation. Its significance can be located in its standing as the only Jewish State in the world and/or in the fact that it has captured the hearts and prayers of so many religions and peoples. It can be a place that offers safe haven to Jews and/or a place fraught with violence and danger for both Israelis and Palestinians.


In some moments and for some people, these different visions for Israel are compatible with one another; at other moments, or for other people, these visions may come into conflict. Any curriculum based on a “multiple choices” approach to literacy must teach students to understand that there are—and have been since the inception of modern Zionism—multiple visions for what Israel should be. And these differing visions for Israel are driven by different ways that people prioritize among the multiple values they hold dear.


Multiple Values

As Israelis and Jews make choices about the lives they lead, the communities they construct, and the causes they support, they are driven by the many values they wish to uphold. These may include democracy and self-determination, pluralism and diversity, safety and security, Judaism and Halakhah, justice and fairness, economic prosperity, environmental protection, transnational cooperation, and more. Political hawks and doves disagree about who they believe should best lead Israel’s government precisely because they place different weight on these values that always compete for prominence in the realpolitik. Similarly, secular and religious Jews may differently prioritize among the principles that guide their decision making.


Focusing on multiple values is essential for helping students make sense of the multiple voices and multiple visions they should encounter when they study Israel. And, when taken as a triumvirate, a multiple voices/multiple visions/multiple values approach provides a meaningful thread that can be woven throughout the day school curriculum, for much of history, classical Jewish texts, literature and art can also be viewed through these lenses.


For many schools, the goal of Israel education is twofold: to help students better understand Israel and to cultivate in students a connection to Israel. A “multiple choice” approach to Israel literacy ultimately does neither. It is certainly easier—less time-consuming, less complicated, and less politically fraught—to situate the teaching of Israel in key facts about its geography, history or political structure. But such information is insufficient to help students understand the rich tapestry of people, communities, ideas, and institutions that constitute Israel. And, perhaps more damning, any feelings of connection this learning may generate are ultimately surface-level, easily uprooted in the face of difficult questions about Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, the standing of non-Orthodox Judaism in the state, or the environmental impact of its policies.


For students to have roots firmly planted in the soil of eretz Yisrael, they must be equipped to understand and participate in discussions about the big, unsettled questions in contemporary Israeli and Jewish discourse: What does it mean to be a Zionist in the 21st century? What can be done about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and what principles must be protected in an attempt to move forward? What rights and responsibilities do Israeli and American Jewish communities have for one another?


These are questions that adults have not yet settled, but that doesn’t make them inappropriate for children to consider. My research on how American Jewish children understand Israel has shown that even kindergarteners are fully capable of understanding some of the fundamental tensions embodied by the State of Israel. As early as age 5, children understand that Israel is a Jewish state and a state for its citizens, a safe haven for Jews and a dangerous place, a place at once incredibly special and profoundly ordinary. Therefore, a multiple voices/multiple visions/multiple values approach to Israel can begin even in kindergarten, establishing at the beginning of a child’s education the basic principle that Israelis and Jews have multiple communities, multiple beliefs, and multiple yearnings about what Israel can and should be.


As with all good curricula, both the ideas and the examples of how they manifest can become increasingly complex over time. But all young learners are capable of—and deserve—a curriculum that focuses on the multiple choices that Israelis and Jews have made about how they live. For only by learning about the diversity of voices, visions and values in Israel can students come to truly understand and care about what happens there.

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HaYidion Jewish Literacy and Curriculum Spring 2016
Jewish Literacy and Curriculum
Spring 2016