My summers as a child were spent in a bungalow colony in the Catskill mountains. Almost completely cut off from civilization (there was one pay phone for 28 families), we delighted when movie night came. Some entrepreneur would show up with a 16mm projector, and a few large reels of some feature film from a bygone year. Between the children’s hour and the film for the parents were a series of “shorts” – 5-10 minute films about Israel. We loved to watch the modern miracle unfold before our eyes, the pioneering spirit, the dedication.
Those films inspired me. During the school year I would wait outside my local subway station and collect money for the JNF. The euphoria of the Six Day War swept over all of us. During the Yom Kippur War I stood on a street corner with a large Israeli flag to collect money; we all danced and cried hearing about the dramatic rescue operation at Entebbe. Later, we beamed at the airlift of thousands of Ethiopian Jews and cried watching Natan Sharansky sing Hinei mah tov umah na-im upon his arrival in Israel. And I always knew that I would one day make aliyah.
Freeze the scene around my 18th birthday. I got off the plane in Ben Gurion for the first time and was whisked into a rickety van that wound its way through the rundown, squalid city of Lod and onto a narrow winding road. There were no horas, no kibbutz campfires, no modern miracles. The Yeshiva in which I was studying for the year had no paved paths, frequent power outages, no heated buildings, and hot water for showers only six hours a week. My dream was shattered; how could I ever live in this backward place?
Fast forward to the early 1990s. I had learned to love Israel all over again, but very differently. After years of teaching in a day school, I noticed that few of my students shared the same visceral connection to Israel that I did. Many couldn’t distinguish between Israel and Jerusalem, and most could not articulate a single sentence about either the war in 1948 or 1967. Israel, for them, was a place in which bombs blew buses apart, which invaded Lebanon and massacred civilians, which was occupying someone else’s land who was resisting by throwing stones. It was a place to go on vacation if there would be peace and/or if Disney was already booked. Their images and gut reactions were formed by the carefully controlled sound bites and video clips they saw in the mass media.
We were living different realities. And what was true in the 1990s is even more true today. Israel’s existence is taken for granted; Diaspora Jewry has grown increasingly self-confident. Whereas once Diaspora Jews studied Hebrew to identify with Israel, Israelis today study English. And Israel itself has changed. The idealism and collective responsibility which once (may have) pervaded the society have been replaced by mighty doses of individualism. The myths that once inspired dreamers turned into a reality that was more complex than any of us were prepared to admit.
I recall a conversation in 1988 in which I asked one of the great Torah luminaries of our generation how to inspire a love for Israel in an era which seemed much more complicated than the one in which we grew up. He acknowledged the challenge, and humbly acknowledged that he had no easy answers.
Our challenge is enormous, and it is to that challenge that we dedicate this issue.
Sociologist Steven Cohen lays important groundwork by demonstrating the alienation of the younger generation of American Jews from Israel. Shalom Berger and Lisa Grant, from different angles, address the question of what should be the content of Israel education, Daniel Margolis challenges us to reevaluate what we want in a Zionist education, and Alick Isaacs probes further by suggesting an old/new paradigm for Zionist education. Francis Nataf and Susan Handelman debate teaching the Palestinian narrative, while our applications section presents a number of efforts designed to provide students knowledge and background with which to debate Palestinian activists.
Rounding out the issue is our features. David Breakstone, a veteran Zionist educator, features on our Perspectives page, and Levi Cooper’s Classics highlights a Zionist hasidic Rabbi. Finally, in this issue we introduce a new feature, an action research project done by a participant in The Lookstein Center’s Principals’ Program. Our first report is from Lee Buckman, who currently serves as a mentor in the program.
Don’t forget to check out our web-exclusives, including a sample lesson of a new Israel curriculum being developed at The Lookstein Center.