The Challenge of Teaching Modern Israel

by: Shalom Berger

Rabbi Shalom Z. Berger, Ed.D. moderates the Lookjed List for The Lookstein Center. He is the founding editor of JEL and teaches graduate level courses in Israel and Zionism at Gratz College and Yeshiva University’s Azrieli Graduate School.

Once upon a time teaching about Israel and Zionism in a Jewish day school was the equivalent of Mom and apple pie. Who could object to recounting the story of the Jewish return to Zion after almost 2000 years of exile? What could be more inspiring that hearing about the brave soldiers who defended the Jewish State from the onslaught of the neighboring Arab states who were intent upon pushing it into the sea, and in the face of disaster recovered the Jewish people’s biblical heartland?

Yet, while celebrating Israel’s 60th anniversary, these positions that were so clear in the recent past are now open to question. Anyone who reads their local newspapers knows that concurrent with Israel’s Independence Day celebrations come the Nakba (catastrophe) commemorations of many of its Arab citizens and that Israel’s government is actively negotiating the establishment of a Palestinian State in territories captured during the Six-Day War. Furthermore, it appears that there has been a falling-off of interest among the Diaspora Jewish community in the contemporary Jewish State.

Thus, the teacher on every level of Jewish education is faced with a much more difficult challenge when teaching about modern Israel than virtually any other subject. Should it be taught at all? Should only its successes be portrayed? Is the emphasis political? Geographical? Cultural? Historical? Religious? Should we be encouraging students towards Israel advocacy? Towards Aliyah?

There are no “correct” answers to these questions, which are dependent on a wide variety of factors and should be answered differently depending on the vision of the school and community. What is clear, however, is that if we hope that our students will grow up to be knowledgeable adults who feel a sense of connection with Israel then we must develop age-appropriate educational programming that goes well beyond participation in the local Israel Day Parade.

I recently attended a Hebrew University seminar on “Teaching Contemporary Israel” together with a group of graduate students who I was teaching, and the presenter opened with a basic ­– and important – question. “Why do we teach about Israel?” My students had ready answers for that question:

“According to the Ramban it is a mitzvah to live in Israel.”

“It is the land where our forefather, Avraham, Yitzhak and Yaakov lived.”

“So many of our tefillot focus on Israel and on returning to it.”

“Almost all of the Tanakh takes place there.”

After his presentation, the lecturer admitted to me that he rarely meets with teachers who come from an Orthodox perspective, and he was surprised by the answers that he received. His experience was that educators from the Diaspora rarely knew why they were teaching Israel; it was something in the curriculum that they knew intuitively was important, but had trouble explaining. In response to this, the approach that he had developed was to connect students with the modern State of Israel by finding points of linkage that would encourage them to develop a sense of understanding and relationship with it. Thus, during national elections in their own country, students are taught about Israel’s political system, when studying about women’s issues students are introduced to the status of women in Israel and when issues of ecology are discussed, Israeli efforts in developing innovative irrigation and solar power techniques are presented.

The sense that he had from meeting with the students that I had brought to the seminar – most of whom were either studying in a Rabbinic ordination program or were married to Rabbinical students – was that the religious community had an important advantage when teaching about Israel. The emphasis on a historical narrative beginning with Biblical texts that is the centerpiece of traditional day school education offers a foundation of connection to the land of Israel that offers a powerful segue to contemporary Israel.

In truth, every school and community needs to set its own goals and agenda with regard to Israel. No single curriculum could possibly respond to the needs of unique educational settings. The suggestions that follow do not aim to offer a specific syllabus, nor do they recommend developing a course in Israel and Zionism. Their aim is to raise consciousness of the importance of Israel education and point to its place as part-and-parcel of a day school education.


If we want to educate our students to be knowledgeable about Israel and have a sense of connectedness to it they need to understand its history and its centrality the Jewish people throughout the generations. At the same time, if we leave them with a simplistic understanding of modern Israel we will be sending them into the world ill-equipped to deal with the challenges that they will face when visiting, discussing or defending Israel.

As is the case with any subject, we must begin with basic foundational concepts that become more complex as the child’s ability develops over time. This age-and-stage method offers the possibility of building up familiarity with the history and factual information about the land of Israel and the modern state of Israel, moving on to issues of the values, politics, culture and tensions that make are part-and parcel of the prickly sabra-story that is Israel today.

Primary School

In day school settings, even if there is no formal class offered in “Israel and Zionism,” there are ample opportunities to transmit to students a sense of connection with Israel. Classroom walls can be postered with a variety of maps of Israel (biblical, medieval, modern, within the context of its neighbors, etc.), its people (contemporary and historical) its produce, its landscapes.

Many elementary schools include in their curricula the study of the Bereshit and early prophets. All too often the narrative is taught without connecting it to the geographical locations in which the stories take place. Repeated references to maps of Israel and the surrounding area will not only raise the level of student comprehension, but will also serve to reinforce familiarity with the geography and topography of the land.

Sensitivity to the meaning of the Jewish prayer book also offers constant reminders of traditional Jewish connections to the land of Israel. Whether it is the blessings referring to a return of Jewish sovereignty in the amidah prayer or the focus on Israel that appears throughout Grace after meals (including Tehillim 126, the Shir ha-Ma’alot that serves as an introduction to birkat ha-mazon that celebrates a return to Zion), the opportunities to raise our students consciousness about this issue are manifold.

Music and art classes are obvious opportunities to connect with Israel by utilizing compositions and themes that are connected with the topic. Beyond that there are other opportunities for such associations. If a student travels to Israel with his or her family for a vacation or other event, the expectation should be that the student offers a report on his or her travel. What trips did he take? What did she see? What was different than “home”? What was the same?

By the end of fifth grade students should have a strong sense of the connection between the Jewish people and the land of Israel and have a good sense of its physical and geographical layout. Within the context of modern history they should be aware of the creation of the State in 1948, of its development as a modern state, its military success in 1967, its ongoing battles with its Arab neighbors and its peace treaties with Egypt in 1979 and with Jordan in 1994.

Middle school

While primary school was an opportunity for students to familiarize themselves with the reality of historical and modern Israel, middle school is a good time to compare and contrast. If schools are willing to develop Israel focused programming across the curriculum, students can learn about shekel-dollar exchange rates in math class, about the Israeli political and judicial system in tandem with their examination of the American system in social studies and the concept of an official Rabbinate when studying about “separation of Church and State.”

Humash classes will likely focus on the later books of Bamidbar and Devarim which are replete with references to the potential of the land as “flowing with milk and honey” or as the place where agricultural commandments of tithing and charity are in force. These ideas are wonderful springboards to discuss contemporary “milk and honey.” What is the economic base of Israel today? While people of a certain age still remember the ubiquitous Jaffa orange, agriculture is no longer the driving force behind Israel’s economy today. Don’t miss Israel in the World: Changing Lives Through Innovation (Davis and Davis, 2005), a book that documents the original contributions that Israel has made to the world in medicine, science, technology and agriculture – as well as its social and cultural innovations.

Even a trip to the museum to a concert or to watch the local baseball team can be used as opportunities to discuss cultural parallels and differences between Israel and Diaspora communities. Technology has made this a relatively simple task, with websites of Israeli museums, its symphony and its sports teams readily available on-line.

A spiral curriculum – one that recognizes a need for building on previously learned information on a higher developmental level as children grow and develop – would also make use of holidays such as Yom ha-Atzma’ut and Yom Yerushalayim to present ever more challenging concepts to students. What is the significance of an autonomous Jewish government in Israel after 2000 years of exile? How might a return to the biblical heartland of Israel affect Jews in Israel and around the world?

By the end of eighth grade the student should have been exposed to a wide variety of experiences that will help him grasp the parallels that exist between the world that she is familiar with and Israel, as well as some of the differences that are present. Part of the challenge is to help students recognize the unique period of history that they are a part of – one that their great-grandparents could only dream of – even as Israel is now a reality on the ground.

High school

If elementary school offers an opportunity to present a concrete, black-and-white picture of Israel as the sacred homeland of the Jewish people and the contemporary State of Israel as the miraculous return home, high school is an opportunity to add shades of gray and challenge the students to question the certainties with which they grew up. While muddying the pristine picture may appear at first glance to be a rejection of basic Jewish values, in fact it is an essential inoculation against the challenges that they will face when experiencing the world that they will face when leaving a Jewish day school setting. Just as we encourage high school students to study “problems in American democracy” after they have been taught to understand and value the democratic principles upon which America was founded, similarly questions about Israel can – and must – be raised for discussion.

Our general goal of helping students develop a sense of relationship with the land and state precludes teaching that they must agree with all Israeli policies, believe that everything that goes on is ideal and view the state through proverbially rose-colored glasses. After all, Israel’s greatest critics are committed Zionists who live in Israel.

Some of the thornier issues that may be raised for discussion include:

  • Exile and redemption – The Jewish People lived in the Diaspora for almost 2000 years, yearning in their daily prayers and supplications for a Messianic return to their homeland. Today, a modern Jewish state exists in Israel. Is it the answer to 2000 years of prayers? Must we wait for a Messiah who does not appear to have arrived yet? Does contemporary reality obviate the need for such a state? Students should be made aware that the very concept of a modern Jewish state was initially rejected by many Jewish leaders – in both the Orthodox and Reform camps – and remains an open question for many.
  • Homeland and Diaspora – Given the existence of Israel, should every Jew go to live there? What place does a Jew – or a Jewish community – have in the Diaspora at a time when their ancestral homeland beckons?
  • Land for peace – If the establishment of the State of Israel was a modern day miracle reinforced by its victory in the Six Day War that allowed the Jewish people to return to its biblical heartland, how can we imagine reversing those events? On the other hand, if true peace can be attained by arriving at compromises with the Palestinians, are we not obligated to pursue such an accord, even at the cost of painful concessions?
  • Was Israel’s victory in the Six-Day War its greatest success, with a return to the Old City of Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Hebron, or was it Israel’s greatest catastrophe, leading to the revitalization of a Palestinian nationalist movement that has forced Israel into the role of an oppressor and awakened a sense of Palestinian identity among Israel’s Arab minority?
  • How long can a modern Jewish state retain the trappings of a religious state, when the official rabbinate is trusted neither by the Orthodox community, which sees it as an arm of the secular government, nor by the secular community which chafes under perceived religious oppression. This plays out across the spectrum of Israeli life, from questions about closing streets on Shabbat to issues of marriage and divorce and defining “Who is a Jew.”
  • How is a Jewish State defined? How can a mix of immigrants from across the globe – from Europe and Arab lands, from America, the former Soviet Union and Ethiopia, join forces and build a country that can be durable, robust and a light unto the nations? Where do non-Jewish citizens, who are a significant minority of the population, fit in to this mix?

These are the tip of the iceberg, and any high school student who reads the paper will become aware of the ongoing tensions with Hamas, Hizbullah and Iran, the recurring scandals among Israel’s political leadership, the continued strength of the Israeli economy and so forth.

By the end of high school the student should have a sense of the complexity that is the modern State of Israel, which is the Jewish homeland and the center of Jewish life today. Israel’s successes and challenges, its achievements and hardships, its place among the nations of the world, should be issues that are of crucial significance to our graduates. By building a solid foundation and building on it throughout the years of schooling, introducing layers of complexity over time, we can play an important role in making that happen.


Davis, H. and Davis, D. (2005). Israel in the World: Changing Lives Through Innovation. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson.

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