Israel Education: Exploring the Methodological Implications of Political Empowerment for Jewish Studies

by: Alick Isaacs

Dr. Alick Isaacs teaches at the Melton Center for Jewish Education at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and directs the Advanced Bet Midrash program at the Shalom Hartman Institute.

The New Question of Israel Education

The Jewish experience of political sovereignty over the past sixty years raises significant and deep questions about how the Jewish tradition should be understood, interpreted and taught in today’s world. Arguably, the decision to invest the future of the Jewish people and religion in a democratic, politically sovereign, secular, state is responsible for the most dramatic and epoch defining features of modern Jewish life. Such a significant change in Jewish life requires a far more fundamental curricular response from educators than it has received thus far. It is for this reason that the challenges of Israel education extend beyond the boundaries of Israel alone and into the wider context of Jewish learning today. Israel affects every aspect of Jewish life and hence of Jewish education.

In my view, in comparison to the breadth of Israel’s significance, the curriculum of Israel education is impoverished by the notion that Israel-related subject matter is confined to teaching about Israel and Israel Diaspora relations (Ukeles, Miller and Beck 2006; Cohen and Eisen 2000, Horowitz 2000). The conceptualization of the field as one dedicated to the project of building engaged relationships with Israel and teaching about Israel’s history, geography, society and culture (as important and worthy as all of these are) fails to capture the scope of the challenge that Israel poses to Jewish education. The content of field trips, camps, informal activities and formal study have all been overwhelmed by the ‘anti-assimilation’ agenda that – in our context – is geared to the restoration of love, affection and loyalty to the Jewish State and its people. This is too shallow (Grant 2008). It is necessary to imagine and articulate more complex purposes to Israel education that stretch the boundaries in the field of practice.

Israel education seems especially narrow when compared to its historical predecessor: classical Zionist education. Classical Zionism presented a broad worldview of Israel’s significance with implications that spread far beyond the question of one’s attitude to or affection for the politics, people and religion of the State at any given time. Zionism drew upon a rich variety of intellectual resources in its construction of a method for evaluating the meaning of the Jewish tradition in light of contemporaneous experience. The Zionist educational effort rested upon the accomplishments of thinkers who reconstructed the classical narratives of Jewish history and Jewish thought, bringing their particular Nationalist/Zionist perspective – with its emphases on the Hebrew language, the holy land, agriculture, democracy, messianism, secularism, self-sufficiency, military empowerment etc. – to bear upon their understandings of the entire Jewish canon. Zionist thought, in all of its varieties, had something to say about the interpretation and meaning of the Bible, communal life, law and politics. In addition, Religious Zionist thinkers developed both theological and curricular perspectives on Mishna, Talmud, halakhah, prayer, Kabballah – and the list really does go on and on.

The intellectual richness of Zionist thought and scholarship fed into educational practices that ranged from classroom teaching to national curriculum development. Ben-Zion Dinur’s view of history is perhaps the most systematic and educationally decisive example of this (Dinur 1968). The special challenges which faced those who lived in the unique years following the destruction of European Jewry and the foundation of the Jewish state made the research and teaching of the new historical narrative an ever more urgent task. He argued that living through remarkable times is in itself an experience that enriches historical research and understanding. History inspires and gives momentum to the public, equipping them with an epic sense of the past with which to go and face their finest hour. Dinur thought of the historian as a leader and an educator whose purpose it was to inspire and lead the way. For these “educational” reasons, he called upon scholars to address the research questions that their own unique historical experiences had brought to light. In his program, historians should attend to seven distinct fields of inquiry. These corresponded to the seven remarkable historical revelations of the time: The return to the land; the return to political autonomy; the revival of Hebrew as a spoken language; the new relations between Jews and non-Jews (since the Enlightenment on the one hand and the Holocaust on the other); the new awareness of the concept of Diaspora; the centers of Jewish life in the Diaspora and Jewish religious and communal life. Dinur assumed that through each of these prisms, an inherent meta-historical feature of Jewish nationality in the past could be recovered and brought to bear upon the nation-building project.

Dinur composed an educational agenda through which the Zionist historical narrative became a central feature of the emerging Israeli culture. This agenda encompassed a broad spectrum of educational encounters with the past; from scholarship through museums, public institutions, memorial days, school curricula etc. I can think of no better an example, in modern Jewish history, of how an ideology has been effectively translated into an effective educational philosophy through the articulation of an interpretive methodology. In his capacity as Ben Gurion’s Minister of Education, Dinur presented a national master narrative of Jewish history to be taught in schools which, in his words, “attempted to give the student the knowledge that our nation…maintained its religion, customs and beliefs over two thousand years of exile…and did not cease to exist as one nation in all its Diaspora.”

Dinur’s was a broad historical thesis that sought to illustrate – in a wide variety of historical contexts across the full spectrum of Jewish life – the meaning of the Jewish past. Educationally speaking, the scope of the subject matter was potentially unlimited because he translated the experience of his time into a clear set of methodological premises that could be used to analyze anything. Zionist thought gave Zionist education a way of looking at the world.

This kind of scope is no longer possible today, but not for reasons that are specific to anybody’s disenchantment with classical Zionism. A significant shift has occurred in Western thought that has had a decisive impact on methodology. The grand theses of the past have all been called to order by the post-modern critiques that have undermined the validity of both the historical positivism and the historical romanticism that were so crucial to Zionist thinkers. Contemporary hermeneutics is as suspicious of the reader as it is of the text. Romantic methodological notions of scientific objectivity in the humanities have been exposed for their ideological subjectivity. The ‘educational’ outcome of this critique is that the post-modern reader is more wary of manipulations and cover-ups. In this spirit, the classical narrative of Israel’s independence is repeatedly subjected to significant scholarly scrutiny, as are its historically reconstructed ‘mythologies’ about both the recent and the more distant past. Post-colonial and feminist scholarship, in particular, have called attention to many of the chauvinisms, prejudices, and blind spots that characterized the Zionist heyday, even though these were arguably responsible for the successes of the nation-building project in the first place.

For better or for worse, the naïve era of Zionist education seems to have come to an end and the new question now facing Israel education is what might be its replacement. With what methods might scholars today provide educators with a perception of Jewish civilization that captures the angst of the present Israeli experience while at the same time comprehensively addressing the breadth of the Jewish historical canon?

While I shall not try to give a full answer I do believe that there is value in drawing attention to its importance. Moreover, I would like to single out some examples of contemporary Jewish scholarship that, in my view, point the way forward. The books and papers that I shall mention operate with methodological (not necessarily ideological) tendencies that I believe Jewish educators in general and Israel educators should be aware of. They confront the challenge of incorporating the unique and difficult experiences of contemporary Jewish sovereignty into their readings of the past. They touch upon the painful and disturbing questions that the experience of sovereignty has raised and utilize them in the selection of both subject matter and interpretive attitudes.

You Can Compare

How does contemporary Jewish empowerment impact the way in which Jews think about studying and teaching the cultural resources of the past? One striking example of this concerns Jewish attitudes to non-Jews. The experience of empowerment has afforded Jews the confidence to confront the similarities between their historical conduct and that of their historical enemies in ways that were never possible before. This change has allowed scholars in recent generations to reconsider the assumption that Jewish history is incompatible with that of other nations. Comparison establishes connections between disparate communities that are likely to change the way a person defines his or her relationships with the world around. Let us consider the impact of Jewish Christian comparison on Israeli scholarship.

I once attended a graduate seminar at the Hebrew University taught by a Dominican monk, Professor Marcel Dubois. The seminar dealt with medieval Christian liturgy and the student body was comprised almost exclusively of non-religious Israeli Jews. Dubois left an enduring impression when he pointed at me and the only other observant Jew in the class remarking playfully, “Only religious people like us can really understand what prayer meant to people in the past.” Everyone in the room laughed; I felt as if history had been redecorated.

The idea that our shared religiousness was compatible came as quite a shock to me at the time. But, Dubois’ quip was hardly an isolated event. It reflected a significant shift of attitudes to the Jewish past that took place around me during the course of my under-graduate and graduate studies in the Jewish history department at the Hebrew University. Rather than treating the Jewish past as a unique story – incompatible with the histories of other nations – my teachers began engaging in inter-religious historical comparisons that shattered the walls dividing Christians and Jews through the discovery of relatedness and similarity. As a scholarly method, comparison is conventionally used to uncover similarities and differences that allow for a sharper understanding of what is unique about a particular historical group (Durkheim 1895; Beteille 1991; Burke 1992; Perl and Issacs 2002). However, in Jewish historiography, the application of this ‘convention’ to Jews and Christians breaks an ostensible taboo (Marcus 1996).

Comparison is what Christians have insisted upon for over a millennium and what Jews have tenaciously tried to avoid. For Christians, the comparison with Judaism establishes their claim to God’s preferential love. The juxtaposition of Synagoga and Ecclesia is a case in point. In decorated manuscripts and on Church walls all over Europe, the younger sister with her bold gaze and her crown is placed quite deliberately next to Synagoga who stands with her broken staff, bound eyes and upturned Torah Scroll. It proclaims God’s rejection of Synagoga and gloats at her loss of former glory.

With its centrifugal direction, comparison was conventionally viewed as a distraction from what Jews perceived as the central-centripetal thrust of the Jewish story. Jews celebrated the tenacity with which they held on to their faith. The Talmud (BT Yoma 69b) even proclaims that the distinctive survival of the Jewish people among the nations replaces the ancient Temple in Jerusalem as proof of God’s presence in the world. In the telling of Jewish history, contrast and disparity – not comparison and similarity – were the tools used to champion the heroic underdog. This approach to the past was proliferated by the lamentations of the classical liturgy and accepted almost without question by the founders of modern Jewish historiography.

My premise is that over-adherence to conventional binary distinctions between groups conceals similarities of behavior and belief from view while comparison blurs and complicates linear or partisan allegiances. For this reason, scholarship that establishes compatibility between Jews and Christians in the past or Israelis and non-Israelis in the present can have a fundamental effect on self-perception by drawing the reflection of ‘the other’ into view when one looks in the mirror at oneself.

Against the grain of the traditional Jewish historical consciousness, Jewish scholars who engage in comparative scholarship are feeling obliged to confront the ugliness and reprehensibility of the Jewish treatment of others, and in turn are shattering the naïve stereotype that Jews are what Sartre termed the “mildest of men” at a time when it can no longer be borne or allowed to continue exonerating Jews from subjecting their own conduct to honest scrutiny.

Comparison and Culpability

Comparison has introduced a broader notion of Jewish historical culpability into the scholarly discourse, which has ultimately led many scholars to tackle the ‘uglier’ side of the Jewish story in ways that were not previously conceivable (Morris 1999, 2004; Pappe 1992). It is this shift that allowed Yisrael Yuval (1993) to comment – in his analysis of medieval blood libel accusations – that, “Even between the persecutor and the persecuted mutual relations exist. Historians must therefore learn to take both sides into account when they write their narratives of Jewish life in Christian Europe.” The shift in attitude that Yuval’s axiomatic premise reveals is connected, at least in part, to the maturation of an ironic and complex consciousness of Jewish sovereignty without which such reflections were inconceivable. Before moving on to discuss the educational implications of this shift in attitudes to compatibility, let us consider a starker example of Jews confronting the notion of their own historical culpability.

A steadily growing number of recent studies have drawn attention to the phenomenon of Jewish violence against others in the past. I have selected Reckless Rites by Elliot Horowitz (2006) for closer attention because I think that it is an especially helpful example of Jewish scholarship about the past that openly acknowledges its own contemporary relevance.

Reckless Rites ‘rediscovers the past’ in the light of contemporary experience. This agenda is perhaps most explicit in the introduction to the book, but a fuller review of the rest will help illustrate the point in all its richness. The book focuses upon the festival of Purim and its accompanying ‘rites of violence’. The first section frames the complexity of the Book of Esther’s reception among non-Jews alongside a historical account of how the Biblical tribe of Amalek was conceptualized by Jews as an appellation for all forms of evil in Jewish history. This appellation was ultimately the foundation of a culture of violence that reverberates through the final chapters of the book of Esther, whose eagerly aggressive finale has often been ignored or suppressed by many Jewish readers. However, as Horowitz shows in some detail, this violence did not escape the attention of Victorians who read it with “bewilderment and with scorn for its sanctioning of… barbarous deeds against non-Jews.”

This allegory has occasionally been applied to such harmless struggles as the internal war with the evil inclination. But, Horowitz is clearly concerned with the ways in which it has been used to justify more pernicious forms of conflict. He closes the section with R. Shlomo Riskin’s ‘commentary’ on a sermon, delivered at the Yeshiva University in New York on Israel’s Eighth Independence Day by R. Joseph Soloveitchik. Horowitz reminds us that, “Solovietchik advanced the notion that an Amalekite was anyone, of any background, who harbored unconditional hatred of the Jewish people”. In Soloveitchik’s words, “In the thirties and forties this position was occupied by Nazis led by Hitler… today [1956] it is occupied by the hordes of Nasser and the Mufti.” Horowitz continues,

And Shlomo (a.k.a. Steven) Riskin, whose rabbinical career has taken him from New York’s West Side to Efrat on the West Bank, has recently written, on the alleged authority of his “revered rebbe” Soloveitchik, “that the spiritual heirs of Amalek include the Nazis, the Soviet communists and those Arabs who will not rest until we disappear from the land.”

In the second chapter Horowitz moves to a review of Mordecai’s refusal to bow down to Haman. Given the perilous outcome of this refusal, Mordecai’s conduct requires some explanation. Were the ancient tribal conflicts between Benjamin and Amalek at play here, or was Mordecai – as the rabbinic literature suggests – bound to stand straight rather than bow down before the idolatrous amulet that Haman kept hanging around his neck? If, as the rabbinic texts suggest, Mordecai was a willing martyr who refused to stoop before an idol, his conduct does nothing to undermine the pervasiveness of the weak Jewish stereotype that Reckless Rites is calling into question. However, if this refusal is tied to an unsettled tribal rivalry (Israel/Amalek, Saul/Agag, Mordecai/Haman), then Mordecai’s “reckless” refusal is a wild declaration of territorial war. A subsequent chapter is dedicated to the implications of the latter option in which the historical characterization of Haman as the eternal symbol of Anti-Semitic persecution is the issue. Horowitz shows how the genealogy of Esau, Amalek and Haman has been tied with the Roman Empire, The Church, Hitler and broadly speaking all those who “in every generation rise against us to destroy us”. With the allegorization of Amalek to include all forms of evil, Jews are armed with the God-given right to destroy their enemies in every generation – perpetually obliged by Biblical injunction to use violence against them in order to wipe them out.

The second section of the book is a detailed historical study of Jewish violence that ranges in its examples from violence against Christians in medieval Europe, to the Jewish legends of the boxing ring in 20th century America. In most cases, this violence is connected with the festival of Purim or with the notion that the enemies of the Jewish people are figuratively connected with Amalek. The section on “Second Purims” comes to an ironic halt with the story of Baruch Goldstein, which brings us back to the same contemporary social critique insinuated by his ironic portrayal of Rabbi Riskin.. After ‘bemoaning’ the forgotten custom of declaring a Second (or local) Purim after Jews are saved from persecution Horowitz wryly recalls,

After the massacre of the Tomb of the Patriarchs, at least one local rabbi raised the possibility of establishing a local Purim for the Jews of Hebron and Kiryat Arbah, who had been saved, many insisted, from a savage attack by their Arab neighbors on Purim 1994, through the “martyrdom of the sainted Doctor Baruch Goldstein”.

The entire book is written with the ironic consciousness of these lines that bring it to its close. They propel the reader back to the introduction in which Horowitz first mentions the Hebron massacre together with a series of chilling accounts of settler violence against Arab civilians. He weaves these stories together providing historical glosses that place the rhetoric used by the settlers into a broader historical context. Horowitz seems to feel that including these accounts in his introduction to a historical analysis of Purim ritual is somehow a personal confession or a “coming out”. He writes, “Both the Book of Esther and Purim are subjects that have impelled both apologists and anti-Semites to show their true colors, as they have impelled me to show mine in this introduction”. But Horowitz’s true colors are not those of one political party or another nor are they those of a pacifist, a lefty or a self-hating Jew. This book does not take sides. Without ever belaboring the point, Horowitz shows quite plainly that contemporary Jewish violence didn’t come from nowhere. However politicized and entangled the conflict with the Palestinians and other Arab nations might be, however deeply one might believe that the State of Israel and its civilian population use force only in self-defense, this perception is neither proved nor vindicated by the popular knee-jerk response to Jewish history that loyally insists, “we must have been provoked because Jews have never behaved like that!” Horowitz’s voice rings clear, ‘Yes, they have.’

The early years of the Jewish State were not a time for Israeli scholars to engage in complex inter-religious comparison and self-critique. The years following the Holocaust were certainly not a time for historical self-criticism of this sort. This was a time of triumphant recovery from the weaknesses of the Jewish past. Scholars then could not notice how the historical weakness of the Jewish people has been allowed to conceal certain very human questions of conduct from view. The stabilization of the Jewish State and the bolstering of Jewish self-confidence that Israel’s prosperity and power have afforded allow Jews to begin the work of conciliation with the Jewish past from a position of accountability. Driven by an honest desire to prevent contemporary abuse of a presupposed impeccable historical track record, Horowitz is determined to call historical attention to past misbehaviors. I believe that this is the deeper purpose of Reckless Rites. Indeed, I can think of no higher purpose for Zionism today and no worthier project for contemporary Jewish scholarship and education.

How does all of this affect the Teaching of Israel in Day Schools?

The discussion above does not explicitly address the conventional questions of Israel education. What it does is to indicate areas of subject matter, method and purpose that educators might think about addressing today. What I hoped to show is that contemporary experience in Israel has made certain deep concerns within the Jewish tradition apparent and urgent and that these can and have been dealt with legitimately and richly in scholarship. I propose that the curriculum of “Israel education” – as opposed to Zionist education – is one that confronts these issues taking its lead from the methodological trends set by thinkers and scholars and that this agenda might offer the practice of Israel education more of the breadth and depth that characterized its Zionist predecessor.

In the same way as contemporary experience should kick up the angst that defines the research agendas in Jewish studies tying them to the concerns of our generation, I believe the field of Israel education can be one that ceases to view the State of Israel as the answer to the Jewish problem but as the source of today’s Jewish questions. How can Jewish sources be reread today to confront such issues as the Jewish attitudes to war and peace, democracy, violence, human rights, feminism, tradition and secularism, religion and state, Jewish political identity etc.? The attempts to address these questions through the close reading of the texts that comprise the rich canon of Jewish literature from the Bible and the Talmud through Maimonides to contemporary Jewish thought can provide the inspiration for a much deeper and richer educational experience that draws upon detailed and critical study of contemporary Israeli society and culture to address the great questions of our day.


A. Beteille (1991). Some Observations on the Comparative Method, The Wertheim Lecture, Amsterdam.

Daniel Boyarin (2004). Border Lines: The Partition of Judaeo-Christianity, University of Pennsylvania Press.

Peter Burke (1992). History and Social Theory, Polity Press, Chapter 2.

Steven M. Cohen and Arnold M. Eisen (2000). The Jew Within: Self, Family, and Community in America, Indiana University Press.

Ben Zion Dinur (1968). “Hakarat Heavar, B’toda’at Ha’am Uva’ayot Hacheker Ba,” Dorot Ureshumot [Hebrew].

Emil Durkheim (1895). Suicide, The Free Press (1951), Chapter 6.

Lisa Grant (2008). “A Vision for Israel Education.” Paper presented at the Network for Research in Jewish Education Conference.

Bethamie Horowitz (2000). “Connections and journeys: Assessing critical opportunities for enhancing Jewish identity,” New York: UJA Federation.

Elliott Horowitz (2006). Reckless Rites: Purim and the Legacy of Jewish Violence, Princeton University Press.

Ivan Marcus (1996). Rituals of Childhood, Jewish Acculturation in Medieval Europe, Yale Univeristy Press.

Benny Morris (1999). Righteous Victims: A History of the Zionist-Arab Conflict 1881-2001, Vintage Books.

Benny Morris (2004). The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem Revisited (Cambridge Middle East Studies), Press Syndicate of the University of Cambridge.

Ilan Pappé (1992), The making of the Arab-Israeli conflict, 1947-1951, Tauris.

Jeffrey Perl and Alick Isaacs (2002). “Postscript on Method – Editorial Note” Common Knowledge 8:1.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Unpublished manuscript in Leon Poliakov (2003), The History of Anti-Semitism, vol. 111 University of Pennsylvania.

Yisrael Yuval (1993). “Vengeance and Damnation, Blood and Defamation: From Jewish Martyrdom to Blood Libel Accusations,” Zion vol. LVIII, 1. [Hebrew]

Jacob Ukeles, Ron Miller and Pearl Beck (2006). “Young Jewish Adults in the United States Today: Harbingers of the American Jewish Community of Tomorrow?” Report prepared for the American Jewish Committee.

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