Teaching About Israel in Berkeley

(By Dr. Nurit Novis-Deutsch)

With more than a little trepidation I undertook the assignment of teaching classes at UC Berkeley in California on Israeli society as a Goldman visiting professor this year. I was all too aware of the fact that only a year earlier, the campus was racked by a series of demonstrations and protests for and against a divestment from Israel, a proposition raised by the student senate and backed by some of Berkeley’s faculty and staff. I was warned that trying to offer a balanced picture of Israeli society in this sort of climate would be tantamount to teaching evolutionary theory at a Yeshiva.
Now, one semester and two courses on Israel later, I feel that my fears have been largely put to rest. What I found was that Berkeley’s tradition of pluralism, multiculturalism and respectful dialogue are at least as strong as its anti-Israeli bent.
As I entered my first class at the beginning of the semester I was prepared to be challenged over every word I pronounced. I looked around me: The group was as ethnically diverse as I could imagine, with what I later found out were students from various South American, Asian, Palestinian, Israeli and European origins; Jews, Protestants, Catholics and Muslims all congregating together. “This can’t possibly end well,” I thought to myself, imagining the political and ethnic clashes I was about to experience.
I was wrong.
Throughout the 28-class semester we had many interesting discussions and debates, some lively indeed, but not once was the Berkeley code of respect for others broken. The religious Jew and the Palestinian Muslim in my class never once raised their voices at each other. As this was a class for psychology students, I focused my teaching on Israeli identities, both collective and personal, attempting to analyze the commonalities and differences in the identity experiences of diverse groups in Israel - from Kibbutzniks to Palestinian Arab-Israelis, from Ultra-Orthodox Jews to former U.S.S.R. immigrants.
After realizing that some of the students in my class didn’t know the kotel from a kettle, and had never even heard of dates that were seared in my brain such as the 1948 War of Independence (and why should they, I kept reminding myself; what do I know of Taiwanese or Peruvian history?) I adjusted the class accordingly, reviewing Israeli geography, history, culture and ideologies before delving into the complex identity theories on which I had intended to focus. I had never quite realized how much implicit knowledge is involved in being Israeli and how difficult it can be to make it explicit enough to understand the Israeli mindset. Small wonder that so many countries feel misunderstood and misjudged by others; the breadth of knowledge needed to grasp - albeit tentatively - what makes people from another culture tick, is immense.
And then there was the issue of multiple perspectives. Amos Oz (1997) once wrote: “Israel is not a state or a society but a collection of reasons. Six million citizens - and six million prime- ministers, if not six million prophets, messiahs and saviors, each with their own three-part formula for redemption.” Now go and explain this myriad of opinions within Israeli society to students who have never even heard of Ashkenazim and Sephardim.
This difficulty was brought home to me when I taught about the effects of post-trauma on Israeli society through a discussion of film director Ari Folman’s Lebanon war experiences in “Waltz with Bashir” (2008). Before teaching the class, I sent a copy of my notes to my friend Yossi who was an IDF commander in 1982 at the same Sabra and Shatila vicinity as Ari Folman had been. “Don’t screen this film!” He wrote back urgently, “that is not how it happened!” As the focus of the course was on the interrelation between narratives and identities, Folman’s brilliantly rendered subjective experience seemed to me no less important than the question of “what actually took place,” but how to convey this entanglement of subjective and objective to my students? I asked Yossi to write a letter to my students telling of his own experiences and explaining why he disliked the film, which he did, and we watched the movie, read the letter, and analyzed the multiple narratives and perspectives that traumatic experiences produce. But the thing that was hardest for me to explain to American students was not the multiplicity of opinions, but the mutual intolerance of the opinions that permeates Israeli society.
This part seemed somehow beyond their comprehension: Multiple narratives? Sure; conflicting collective identities? Alright; but why reject those of others? Whence the zero-sum identity formula of Israelis and Palestinians, according to which one identity can thrive only if the other is declared null and void? As my students braved the multifarious waters of Israeli society, I noted how they were willing to be empathic to each sub-group on its own terms. They understood the plight of Israeli Palestinian Arabs with their torn identities, but didn’t become angry at Jewish Israelis who would not give up on “Hatikvah” as the anthem; they could see how awful it must be to raise sons with love and care only to send them to the army at age 18, yet didn’t accuse the Arabs. Their default was to try to accept and understand, to suspend judgment and to believe in the power of dialogue and communication, against all odds. At times I felt frustrated by their naiveté, other times I pined for some of it for myself. Finally, by the end of the semester it dawned on me: deeply entrenched in our siege mentality, we Israelis feel that conflict makes the world go round, but what my students at Berkeley were teaching me was that this too is a perspective, an ethos, a narrative, and just like other perspectives, it can be changed. Margaret Meade once argued that war is not a biological necessity, but merely a bad invention: “A form of behavior becomes out of date only when something else takes its place, and, in order to invent forms of behavior which will make war obsolete, it is a first requirement to believe that an invention is possible”. The Berkeleian culture, naïve as it may seem at times to a seasoned Israeli skeptic such as myself, is doing exactly that: it is honing the invention of pluralism to replace that of war.
And thus it was that I came to teach and found myself learning. Critical as one may be of Berkeley’s liberal “save the world” brand of politics, my students had internalized something hugely important in their four years there: A deep respect for diversity, an acceptance of otherness, and a love for pluralism that we in Israel can - as yet - only dream of.