“We have to prepare students for campus.”
“We need to teach our teens the facts so they’re ready for campus.”
“Students need to know about Israel so that they can debate the haters on campus.”
For many teens in our day schools and supplemental schools, Israel is something to “defend,” to build a case for, to do battle for on the quad, in the dorms, and in the classrooms. And yet, hearing about Israel education in the context of “campus preparation” makes me wince.
Israel education for the express purpose of standing up to the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement is not Israel education. Instead, it’s “teaching to the test,” focusing on making sure our students ace the exam. If we arm our students with enough “facts,” then, the the thinking goes, they’ll be less likely to join “the other side,” and more likely to resist the anti-Israel propaganda they may hear on their college campuses. Yet, perhaps our focus on campus has inadvertently sidetracked us from focusing on the intellectual and spiritual life of our students beyond their four years at college.
Our focus on campus preparedness leaves me with core questions: what does thinking about Israel in this way do to their Jewish souls? To their Jewish identity? To their actual relationship with Israel?
We are doing the next generation a disservice if the “need to defend” is the sole context for learning about the modern State of Israel. Instead of arming them with real and deep understanding, we limit them by focusing too much on facts and figures. There are groups, especially on certain campuses, who actively commit themselves to spouting hateful rhetoric against the Jewish state and who commit acts against Jewish students and pro-Israel students. Those facts are undeniable. Anti-semitism and anti-Israelism on campus should not be taken lightly. We need to prepare our students for these harsh realities.
And yet, to provide long-lasting and impactful Israel education, we need to change our perspective. Students must learn about Israel for the sake of creating and building holistic Jewish identities. They must learn about Israel because it’s been the Jewish homeland for 2500 years. They should learn about Israel because the Jewish people were exiled, came home, and built a modern, thriving, and democratic state. They should know that State is at once messy, imperfect, and also a glorious work-in-progress. Students should learn about Israel because we want them to have lifelong relationships with our homeland, not because we want them to stand up to people on the quad.
Yom Ha’atzmaut will be here before we know it, and with it celebrations throughout the diaspora marking 70 years since Israel’s founding. Yom Ha’atzmaut celebrations in schools are times where we celebrate Israel and our relationship to it. There are model Israeli shuks, camels, falafel, an air of triumph, hope, and joy. I am not one to advocate for only a “camel and falafel education,” however, I will advocate for bringing some of that Yom Ha’atzmaut joy into how we speak, teach, and learn about Israel. We need to model for students that Israel is worthwhile, a core piece of who and what we are.
As educators, we need to think beyond how our students will defend Israel on campus. Instead, we should focus on how their relationships with Israel will and should evolve as they themselves evolve from children to adults. We need passionate educators to help our students develop the tools to navigate that transition by fostering authentic learning opportunities, open discussions, and education that looks beyond apartheid walls on campus.