What does it take to transform the Israel education landscape?
Audacity, certainly. Risk-taking, absolutely. Willingness to engage with controversy, undoubtedly.
Several months ago, my colleague Dina Rabhan and I wrote about Jerusalem U’s vision for engaging Israel education. As an organization, we had evolved to understand that, rather than talking points, “[s]tudents need education that engages them in complex, nuanced discussions regarding Jewish peoplehood and its relation to Israel, Zionism, the founding of the State, and Israel’s contemporary history and role in the world today.” We decided to focus on authentic education, not advocacy. We retired one well-known program in favor of rolling out our Media Lab, which was at once bold, dynamic, and in keeping with the needs of both students and educators. We highlighted our belief that quality digital education makes a huge impact when it comes to meeting students where they are, by educating them in their preferred learning medium.
We also said we had a lot of content to create.
In the months since our initial piece was published, Jerusalem U has released its latest documentary film, When the Smoke Clears: A Story of Brotherhood, Resilience, and Hope. It’s the story of three young Israel Defense Force veterans, all suffering from various stages of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder from their military service. Their pain, and the pain of their families, is palpable and heart-wrenching. It is not an easy film to watch.
When the Smoke Clears is not typical of the feature documentary films Jerusalem U has produced in the past, and we have received quite a bit of push-back because of that. It’s heavy, it’s intense. It may make students question the standard Israel narrative. They may not be comfortable showing the film on campus. Some have suggested that it should come with a trigger warning.
We welcome the criticism. Indeed, it highlights the great strides Jerusalem U has made as we seek to develop content to meet the needs of our target market. Our students crave authenticity: they are smart, sophisticated and eager to learn. War, even Israel’s wars, leave terrible scars on those who serve. Israel was not handed to us on a “silver platter;” engaging our students, truly engaging them, in discussions of commitment, sacrifice, trauma, and redemption provides a platform for deeper, richer, and more nuanced learning. We are confident that this deep engagement with a too-often-forgotten aspect of the Israeli story will lead to a stronger understanding of Israel and the Israeli people.
To that end, we’ve merged film, digital education and social media to create a program designed to fully engage Jewish high school students around the world with the core concepts featured in When the Smoke Clears. On April 18, 2018, Jewish students from New York to Sydney, Los Angeles to South Africa will participate in the Yom Hazikaron High School Global Screening Day. They will view When the Smoke Clears with their peers, discuss the film in a facilitated program by teachers at their schools, and will participate in an innovative Instagram campaign, posting messages of support to wounded and fallen soldiers and their families. On a day like any other day in the diaspora, these students will engage in a visceral way with the heavy cost Israelis pay to defend their State for Jews around the world.
The Yom Hazikaron Global Screening Day will do something that has never been done before: bring together Jewish teens from all over the world in a unifying social media campaign to show support for Israel’s wounded and fallen. We are educators with a mission: we fundamentally believe in the power of authentic storytelling to connect students with Israel. Without this deep and visceral connection, our educational efforts will be for naught. Enabling those students who wish to express their solidarity with soldiers who have put their lives on the line, suffered deep trauma, and paid the ultimate price will allow teens to both connect to peers across the world doing the same, while actively embracing their Jewish and Israel identities.
We also seek to elevate the dialogue around Israel education. We will engage both teens and educators in deep discussions about a profound piece of the Israeli experience. It’s a bold and perhaps controversial programmatic choice. We, as filmmakers and educators, have decided that high school students are mature enough to handle some hard truths about the Israeli experience. We trust our Jewish teens, and we trust our fellow educators to broach this subject with them sensitively, intelligently, and with respect for those who’ve given of themselves for the Jewish State.
Israel is not Disney World, and serving in the IDF is not like playing color war at camp. Just as our students search for answers on the Palestinian question, desperate to know who the “other” is, our students also seek answers to the questions raised by the Zionist narrative. The price of the Jewish State is a high one, and the youth of Israel, teens their age, are expected to pay it. How high is too high? What does it mean to give one’s life for one’s country? Does sacrifice lose meaning when service is compulsory? Our Jewish teens should be discussing these questions, debating the answers, and growing Jewishly and in their Israel identities.
Those who participate in our Global Screening Day will have the opportunity to do just that.