(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
I was recently reminded of an informal educational activity in which a counsellor
mentioned that the jails in Israel were overcrowded.
participant asked what he had meant by the comment. Why were there jails in
Israel? The counsellor answered – as one might expect – that criminals were kept
in them. The teenager made it clear that he now understood: the jails were there
to incarcerate Palestinian terrorists.
The counsellor, a little baffled
at this stage, said no, these jails held Jewish (and Arab) criminals –
murderers, rapists and thieves.
The kid couldn’t believe it. The mythical
Israel upon which he was raised in his Jewish youth group was a utopian society,
in which crime did not exist. The Israel education he had been given was an
affective one only, based on fostering a highly charged emotive bond with
I thought about this story on the day Gilad Schalit was
While the entire country was on tenterhooks, waiting to catch a
glimpse of Schalit, a friend of mine – another product of a Jewish youth group –
sat by herself analyzing whether the deal was good or bad for the Jews. Israelis
and Jews throughout the world were reveling in a heartfelt moment – even the 20
percent of Israelis who opposed the deal could not but help feel moved at seeing
Schalit for the first time – but she was wondering whether the halachic
principle of pidyon shvuyim (redemption of captives) was applied properly in
this case, or whether it should have even been part of the Schalit debate at
all. While others shed tears, she was busy philosophizing. Her Israel education
was an intellectual one only, based on creating a cerebral connection to
The youth group counsellors, teachers, tour guides and rabbis of
these two people missed the mark.
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On the one hand, they produced students
who are emotionally detached from Israel, seeing the country as little more than
intellectually engaging subject matter and allowing them to dehumanize “the
other,” by relating to “the settlers,” “the Arabs,” or “the Haredim,” for
example, as concepts, rather than as individuals.
On the other hand, they
produced students who are detached from the reality of Israel as an actual
country, only being able to relate to it on an immature, emotional
Pursuing either approach exclusively promotes distorted views of
Israel, either by presenting an unrealistic image of a perfect Israel or an
overly critical view of Israel as damaged goods. Not only are both of these
representations false, but they also hold within them the potential to alienate
our students from Israel.
IT IS vital for Israel educators to draw a
correct line between these two approaches. The age and background of the
participants must of course guide the programming, as well as the context of the
Israel education course or trip in which they are participating and the
ideological position of the institution for which we work.
We must stop
viewing the two approaches as dichotomous.
Instead, we must view them
both as part of a continuum, as well as existing in a symbiotic relationship
with one another. The stronger one’s emotional connection is with Israel, the
more likely it is that he or she will search for intellectual avenues for even
stronger engagement. Likewise, stronger one’s intellectual connection is with
Israel, the higher the chance that one will seek out more opportunities to
connect with Israel on an emotional level.
Israel is more than abstract
subject matter, as it is more than an abstract emotional idea. For Israel
education to succeed, and be meaningful, students must be taught about both
Yerushalayim shel ma’alah (the higher, spiritual side of Jerusalem) as well as
Yerushalayim shel mata (the earthly, physical city of Jerusalem). We need to
find the middle ground.
The writer is the director of Teaching Israel.
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