Teaching Israel, Teaching Truth: A Personal View from the Front

by: Steve Israel

Steve Israel is an educator whose passion is Jewish Peoplehood. He specializes in informal Jewish education, educator training and writing educational materials. Recently he has been especially engaged in helping to develop informal educational structures in central Europe and in smaller Jewish communities around the world.

The Szarvash camp, an international Jewish camp in Hungary, is an extraordinary place. Almost 2,000 kids between the ages of 7 and 18 from some twenty different countries (central and Eastern Europe, Turkey, India, the U.S. and Israel) come for a twelve day experience (the camp runs four sessions throughout July and August). The staff is as international as the kids who come there: it is a truly fascinating young staff which, at least on the level of the senior staff, includes some very gifted educators indeed. Each year it includes around half a dozen Israelis, some of whom are veterans of other camps in the west. My connection to the camp is that I’m very involved throughout the year as an educational trainer, especially to the senior staff, which includes the Israelis.

The latter this year is almost a totally new group and one of the projects that they took upon themselves was the creation of an Israel centre in the camp to which all of the hanikhim (campers) would be exposed in one form or other through a variety of programs that the staff would run. They worked very hard creating a multi layered visual and audio experience which would serve as the introduction and stimulus to the programs. At the center of the display were seven figures (based on shop manikins), each representing a different section of the population. The activities were based on an examination of each of the figures and their complex interaction within the fabric of Israeli society. The figures included the usual variety of Israeli characters – the Kibbutznik, the Haredi, the Dati Leumi (Religious Zionist), the secular Tel Avivi, the Soldier, the Olah Hadasha and the Israeli Arab. Visually, against the background of each figure, there is a display consisting of informational introductions that will be incorporated into the activity.

The Israeli staff, a wonderful group of religious and secular youth, representing the best of the young Israeli Jewish population, worked alone under general supervision, preparing the materials and I, as a native English speaker, checked a lot of the English texts that they produced. Everything was fine until I saw the text that introduced the Israeli Arab. The first words were “Israeli Arabs have been victims of discrimination within Israel since the foundation of the state in 1948”. I sat and looked at the computer screen opposite me thinking what to do. I finally changed the text to “Israeli Arabs have felt themselves to be the victims of…” and then went off to discuss the change with the group.

Note: Personally, I am on the liberal side of the Israeli spectrum and do, indeed, view the Arab Israeli as a victim of discrimination, which expresses itself in a hundred different ways in Israel – some of which are perhaps inevitable and endemic to the fabric of a Jewish state while others are a result of politics and bureaucracy which have an interest in perpetuating the second class citizenship of the Israeli Arab. It is a subject that I have taught and discussed many times and which troubles me greatly, as an Israeli.

Back to our story. The staff is not of one stripe politically, but most fall somewhere in the liberal camp. As we discussed the issue some argued against the change on the basis that the discrimination against Arabs is a fact, and that should be the starting point of any discussion (which could go in the direction of reasons, justifications etc.). I could not accept that, in educational terms, despite the fact that I myself agree with the fact that discrimination is indeed inbuilt into the system as well as a fact of life in Israel. But I argued that to present it as a fact would be to present as truth something which should be discussed in an educational process leading participants to a number of possible conclusions from the material presented. To do otherwise would be to over simplify, to propagandize, to do injustice to a complex situation. I persuaded them and we left it at that. But I was left wondering whether my motives had been as pure as the way I had presented them.

I do strongly believe that a process is necessary and that the original formula would not have allowed that to happen. It would have started the discussion in the wrong place. However, I could not but wonder whether part of my motivation had also been to try and protect Israel – and to try and protect the participants from one of the more difficult truths about Israel. Had I not been at least partly guilty of a cover up job, a propaganda ploy in order to sweeten part of a difficult reality? I am to this day not sure, and although I feel certain that I did the right thing, I cannot be sure that I did it completely for the right reasons.

It reminds me of an article I recently came across. Yosef Aharonovich [1878-1937] was a Labor leader and intellectual who wrote an article in 1931 simply titled “Emet” (Truth). The article was a response to the historian and literary critic Yosef Klausner who had recently suggested that historical biographies of great Jewish figures should always be presented in a positive light to serve as inspiration for the younger generation. If such figures were found to have flaws, Klausner had said, it might discourage the youth from dedicating themselves to the Zionist cause with all of their strength. Thus there was a need to exercise a kind of educational censorship to uphold the image of the character in question.

Aharonovich attacked the position incisively and elegantly. He argued that far from destroying belief, a true picture was actually far more inspirational. Idealized figures on moral pedestals would seem unreachable to the youth. It would make many readers feel inadequate, leaving them with the feeling that they themselves were unable to reach the moral perfection of their role models and would actually discourage them from enlisting themselves in the cause of the Jewish People. What was needed, he argued, was a “warts and all” approach which would make them feel that they could try to attain the level of their predecessors, without seeing themselves as morally inadequate because of whatever human feelings and deficiencies they found in themselves. To present falseness where truth exists he suggested was not only morally reprehensible but educationally counterproductive.

I agree totally with his argument and have used it (without knowing the article!) for most of the last two decades when I have been intensely involved in the teaching of Israel to Diaspora students. I believe very strongly in the presentation of Israel as a fascinating and extremely complex society. Israel is not perfect; my students are not stupid (I work principally with ages from eighteen to adulthood) and should not be patronized by the presentation of a mythic reality which has no connection with the difficult reality of this most difficult of states. The duty of the educator is to present an accessible picture of the society as it is – vibrant, complex, conflicted and deeply troubled.

There are those who complain that this will have the effect of alienating Diaspora Jews and making them care little for a society afflicted by the same ills with which their own societies are full. Why should Diaspora Jews know about an Israel where there is racism (Jew against Arab, Jew against Jew), family violence, trafficking in women, drug addiction and abuse etc.? They get that at home. We must present a picture of Israel as an alternative, a different kind of society attacked from the outside but suffused by a golden glow from the inside. Only in this way will we get them to care. So goes the argument.

I don’t buy it. I believe that it is ineffective and ultimately counterproductive. You can not and should not educate through lies. I believe that from the bottom of my educational soul.

A second anecdote: On a working trip to New Jersey a few years back, I was invited to speak to an audience of male middle school students at a large prestigious Jewish school. As I was introduced to the students in the large auditorium, the Rabbi who was in charge of my visit mentioned that I had come to talk to them about the Israel that they loved. He then went out of the hall (to my relief) and I put aside my prepared talk to engage them in conversation. Is it true they all love Israel? I asked them. They all answered unanimously “yes” and when I probed, they told me that it was school policy to love Israel. I asked how many had been to Israel and a minority said that they had visited. I then asked the majority if they could ever love a girl that they had never seen. Most, emphatically, said “no”. So I asked if they did not think it strange that they could love a place they had never seen and when I made it clear that they could really speak their mind and asked them how they really felt about Israel and whether they really loved it, many “broke down” and confessed that these were things they had been taught to say and some said that they felt guilty that they didn’t really love Israel the way they were “meant to”.

In the ensuing discussion, which was good and fruitful, I told them my own story, what I saw in the Israel I had lived in for almost thirty years, and what I believed about the country. I would be most surprised if that was not the first honest discussion they had ever really had concerning Israel and it would nice to think that perhaps, here and there it left a mark.

What is the mark that an honest approach to Israel education could hope to leave? Let me give one final anecdote to try and explain.

Recently I finished a course on Israel and Zionism with a group of Australian and youth movement madrikhim with whom I had been working for a number of months. We had started the course, as I always do in such courses, by looking at the Zionist dream of the New Jew and a series of Zionist thinkers all of whom had articulated different Utopian visions and had then moved on to a comparison of the dreams with the reality that has developed in Israel through the last six decades. On the internal level, we looked at subjects such as ethnic tension and poverty, the problematic relationship with the Arabs of Israel and with the way that the society had dealt with Holocaust survivors. We constantly bounced backwards and forwards from theory to reality and it was a rocky road for madrikhim who had been educated principally within the confines of their Zionist youth movements. When we came to the last class, we engaged in a discussion of how they felt towards the society. Had they been turned off? Did they want to disassociate themselves from the difficult reality which they had encountered in the classroom? What if any relationship did they want with Israel in the future? I settled back anxiously – I am not indifferent to the answers – I love Israel with all of my being.

It was fascinating. It was not the first time I had experienced the answers I heard that day but every time I wait with intellectually clammy palms, nervous about the outcome. The vast majority wanted active engagement with the country. Many talked about aliyah and many spoke movingly about wanting to come and to try and contribute something to the ills and problems that they had witnessed and which we had talked about in the classroom. Many said that the discussion of the difficulties had motivated them and they felt the need to try and do something about it. Aharonovich affirmed! Some of them steered very close to a post-Zionist position, while others were firmly in what they would define as a critical Zionist position. A few professed themselves to be non-Zionist and said they felt little for the State of Israel and would not commit to any real involvement or even support in the future.

How should we assess such a result? What would have been the response had they been taught a conventional Zionism and Israel course which was less critical and which put everything into a far more heroic light? I believe that they would have been stuck – stuck with a picture of Israel whose distance from the reality was great and which threatens to get ever greater as time goes on. I also believe that this would be harmful both to them and to Israel. Uncritical praise and a refusal to confront the real problems of society do no-one any good. The phrase “my country, right or wrong” does not represent an approach which the educating public should try and foster. We are right when we are right (which is often), but when we are wrong we should be prepared to acknowledge that. Positive and active involvement can come from an approach which educates towards accepting that there is plenty to improve and that there is room for the individual to involve him or herself in this less than perfect country of ours.

But in order for this approach to work, I believe that two extra elements are missing. One is a context of idealism – an idealism that aims to connect on the emotional level rather than just the level of thought and belief, an idealism which tries to incorporate elements of caring and connection. We need to allow the criticism to be expressed within a framework that explores and recognizes the idealism that lies behind Zionism. The mistake is made when that idealism blocks out reality and substitutes a gilded mirror for the true one that we need in order to view the country as it is. The reality needs to be viewed against a larger background of what the country was meant to be like, what we would like the country to be, and what we hope that it can indeed be at some time, but we must face the reality as it is.

The other element is a context of complexity. I firmly believe, for a whole host of reasons, that Israel is the most complicated society in the world, and I believe that those reasons can be explained. I believe that what we are in the process of creating is a drama on a very large scale indeed. It is impossible to create the great omelet that we are creating without breaking a great deal of eggs. It is impossible to bring Jews from over a hundred communities, which have gone through very different cultural and historical experiences over sometimes thousands of years, without a great deal of tension and trauma. It is, in other words, possible to explain the reasons for much of the terrible ethnic tension which sometimes plagues this country with reference to the enormous difficulties in closing the great cultural and social gaps which are the heritage of these different histories. It is a far more dramatic and engaging story in my view, than a story which merely portrays the different groups of Olim as so many pieces of multi-colored cloth all playing their happy part side-by-side in the great Israeli quilt.

I would suggest that if we can equip our students (young and old) with these two lenses (or perhaps others which can fill a similar function), we can indeed enable them to reap the rewards of a genuine confrontation with reality.

In the old question of how to dance in front of a bride, Bet Hillel and Bet Shammai argue over what you say about a bride (who might not be so beautiful) on her wedding day. Bet Shammai wants to hold up the mirror of truth and “to tell it like it is”, but Bet Hillel is prepared to shower the bride with compliments, even if, it seems, they are not all justified. It is, I think, a metaphor which could be applied to educating Israel, and obviously my main point supports the former course of action. However, there is no question that Bet Hillel has a point. This position must also be expressed. It seems to me that on the wedding day, we can side with Bet Hillel and say that the bride can dwell happily in her illusion for that one happy day or even the whole week of Sheva Berakhot.

But in Israel this marriage is already sixty years old. Our bride is old: she has varicose veins and she wheezes when she walks too fast. If the educator as Shadkhan, trying to make a love match between this old would-be beautiful sixty year old bride and a whole host of young and potentially ardent suitors, presents the bride as young and beautiful when the suitors are thousands of miles away, what will happen under the huppah when the time comes to remove the veil, or a little later on the wedding night itself? Do we blame Ya’akov for feeling anger when he realized that he had received Leah instead of Rahel? Are we educators really willing to take on in good conscience the role of Laban? Are we willing to educate towards a hoped for love affair through the lens of a distorting mirror which can only promise disappointment and perhaps disillusionment when reality breaks through?

We will always select and attempt to manage the viewpoints of our students regarding Israel as we do in every ideological educational task that we face. But I would argue that this must be done responsibly and openly. It is not for us to be censors of truth. Let the great poets of the world take responsibility, if they must, for the production of myths. Let us take the responsibility for the production of truth – and an engagement with that truth.

Does that truth have to be taught carefully and prepared for different age groups? Absolutely – in the same way that effective education must always take age and capacity into consideration. It must be accessible and meaningful; complexities must be introduced slowly. But they must be introduced and from the very beginning of our introduction of the subject of Israel, we must be aware of the fact that the story is complex and provide hints that it is not an easy story that we intend to unfold.

Returning to my opening anecdote, among the reasons that I opposed the suggested statement about discrimination were the fact that some of the kids who would see it might be young, and the fact that as a statement without nuance, it has none of the context that is genuinely needed to understand it.

With hard work and luck, we can make many of our students into those who are committed to Israel. The question is: which Israel we really want our kids to commit to?