'We teach our kids to be thoughtful, inquisitive, nuanced and intellectually critical – and when we teach Israel, we model the precise opposite,’ writes the author.
(photo credit: ILLUSTRATIVE: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
The Israel-focused social media world came alive last week when American Jewish historians Hasia Diner and Marjorie Feld wrote joint columns in Haaretz titled “We’re American Jewish Historians. This Is Why We’ve Left Zionism Behind.”
They were raised, they write, on a Zionist myth that was simply not true. Israel is a colonialist power, not a beacon of justice in a wicked Middle East. The Law of Return is not a symbol of Jewish refuge, but a fundamentally racist law. What it all adds up to, Diner writes, is that “I feel a sense of repulsion when I enter a synagogue in front of which the congregation has planted a sign reading, ‘We Stand with Israel.’ I just do not go and avoid many Jewish settings where I know Israel will loom large…” One of the most thoughtful responses came from Jonathan Sarna, professor of history at Brandeis University. Part of the problem, Sarna noted with his inimitable class coupled with clarity, is that the writers had “venture[d] far from their area of expertise.”
Yet Sarna notes that the issue is much greater than these two scholars, for they are hardly alone. “Where Diner and Feld do reflect larger currents,” writes Sarna, “is in their admission that they grew up loving Israel more than they actually understood it.”
That is true of many Jews throughout the world. What the American Jewish Left and Right have in common, what the largely pro-Israel community shares with the often hostile-to-Israel community, is that their Israel education was nowhere near as sophisticated as their English Literature or American History AP courses.
Decades of educational sloppiness have come home to roost. We teach our kids to be thoughtful, inquisitive, nuanced and intellectually critical – and when we teach Israel, we model the precise opposite.
What we teach is that Israel can do either no wrong, or no good. Israel’s position is so just that the plight of Palestinians merits no attention, or the occupation is so evil that it is the cause of Muslim unrest throughout the world.
There is much we need to rethink about how we teach Israel. Why has American Jewish life not produced – for decades now – a single history of Israel that tells Israel’s story the way we would want it to? When it comes to teachers of Israel studies, why must we choose between Israelis who have left the country and thus teach nostalgia, and young Americans who lack the command of Hebrew necessary for reading an Israeli novel or teaching Israeli music as a window onto the Israeli soul? And this week in particular, we ought to recall that the story of Israel cannot be told outside the context of the story of the Jewish people – which we hardly teach.
We commonly hear thoughtful questions about whether or not the Nine Days and the observance of Tisha Be’av still make sense when Jerusalem is inhabited by Jews and the city is largely rebuilt.
The questions, though, are better than most of our answers. The response that we mourn because the Temple has not been rebuilt may speak to those who would like to see the Temple cult restored. Yet how many Jews fall into that category? What shall we say to the rest of the Jewish people that shudders at the thought of that restoration? What we fail to note is that in addition to all the events said by the Mishna to have taken place on Tisha Be’av, we mourn because of the ongoing vulnerability of the Jewish people. While the security that America affords today’s young Jews often obfuscates the fact, Jewish life is not without its dangers. Ask Jews from France, fleeing Europe by the thousands for the safety of Israel. Ask Jews of Eastern Europe, where the potentially fascist Right is rising again.
There is a reason that the traditional liturgy is replete with references to the precarious condition of Jews around the world, and the reason is as much educational as it is theological. When traditional Jews recite tahanun each morning, saying “Look down from heaven and see how we have become an object of scorn among the nations,” they are reminding themselves of that vulnerability. When they begin the grace after meals on Shabbat by pleading, “Bring back our exiles… like streams in a dry land,” they are reminding their children that no matter how comfortable we may be, Jewish vulnerability is hardly a thing of the past.
There is Europe. There is Israel in the crosshairs of a potentially nuclear foe.
There is a Republican nominee who was coy, at best, when asked to dissociate himself from David Duke and the Ku Klux Klan.
Because conversations about the Jewish State without that historical context are by definition stilted, it is worth noting that neither Diner nor Feld bespeaks any awareness of Jewish vulnerability. They say nothing about a sense that the Jews first sought a state because history taught them that there was no alternative. Nor do they reflect any awareness that not very much has changed.
The reasons for today’s shallow Jewish discourse about Israel are complex. But much of the fault is ours. That, coupled with the fact that we have not yet decided to make any changes, is in and of itself more than adequate justification for our mourning. The writer is Koret Distinguished Fellow and Chair of the Core Curriculum at Shalem College in Jerusalem. His new book, Israel: A Concise History of a Nation Reborn, is forthcoming on October 18 from Ecco/Harper- Collins.