Meaningful Israel education: Engaging today’s college students

Students are on a large spectrum of Israel knowledge, from knowing virtually nothing to having a full understanding of the creation and modern politics of Israel.

 GRADUATE STUDENTS from The iCenter’s degree program in Israel education at George Washington University experience Israel during their eight-day academic seminar in June. (photo credit: The iCenter)
GRADUATE STUDENTS from The iCenter’s degree program in Israel education at George Washington University experience Israel during their eight-day academic seminar in June.
(photo credit: The iCenter)

I moved to Charlottesville in July of 2018. I was excited to be the new assistant director at the Brody Jewish Center – Hillel at the University of Virginia. I knew that the job would come with its challenges, but I was unprepared for conversations surrounding Israel. Almost daily I spoke with students about Israel and the various ramifications of the “Unite the Right” rallies that took place the year before on August 11 and 12, 2017. Through these interactions I realized something: I was uncomfortable speaking about Israel.

To grow out of this discomfort, I had to learn how to navigate conversations that made me incredibly anxious, especially as I worried that I would say the wrong thing. As I gradually became comfortable in my role, actively sought out opportunities to further my own Israel education, and owned that anxiety, I grew more comfortable as an Israel educator. 

Israel education is a challenging space to be in, especially in the collegiate system. Students are on a large spectrum of Israel knowledge, from knowing virtually nothing to having a full understanding of the creation and modern politics of Israel. In the back of my mind, I always worried about a Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions resolution through the student council.

Everything that happens in Israel, positive or negative, has the chance to impact my organization and the conversations that I have with students. In many ways, Israel education must be designed for each campus, each organization, and each student.

We have to understand where students are, where they and we want them to be, and how to get them there in an accessible way. If we approach Israel education through the lens of identity formation first, we have an opportunity to help a student create a personal relationship with Israel as we influence their Israel educational journey.

 Education looks bright with Masa Israel Teaching Fellows (credit: MASA ISRAEL JOURNEY) Education looks bright with Masa Israel Teaching Fellows (credit: MASA ISRAEL JOURNEY)

The ongoing challenges

An ongoing challenge in this work is how to create learning opportunities for students to connect with Israel while providing students with ways to explore Israeli culture, history and conflicts through time. As challenging as the conversation can be, we must embrace the anxiety surrounding all of Israel’s complexities; this includes the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

While students oftentimes want to jump straight to the conflict, we can provide an education, using multiple narratives, that also brings to life other dynamic, beautiful, challenging, and wonderful aspects of Israel. Israel is more than the conflict, and educators have to own that while recognizing that we also must educate about the darker moments in Israeli history. 

AUTHENTICITY matters to Generation Z students. Educators must find ways to bring themselves into the conversation in a way that is authentic to them, and encourage students to open their minds and engage in sometimes difficult conversations that are authentic to them. There may be clashes at times. We must sit in those moments, sit in discomfort, and find a way to move forward as a group. 

Israel education, however, must encompass more than conversations. Students should be exposed to Hebrew, different groups of people in Israel, including the Palestinians, Israel as a Start-Up Nation, and Judaism within Israel as more than a religion. 

Not all students thrive in formal educational settings. We have to create opportunities for students to connect with Israel on multiple levels, including movies, art, music, food, educational courses before and after Birthright Israel trips, and opening spaces that say that wrestling with Israel is not just okay but embraced. 

The future of Israel education is up to us, which is incredibly exciting. However, as I’m learning in my current graduate degree program from The iCenter at George Washington University, Israel education must include Israel’s challenges and triumphant victories. As students and young adults trend left politically, we must recognize this political shift and create intentional learning opportunities for students that meet them where they are in their lives at this moment. 

This generation is experiencing Israel in a dramatically different way than their parents or grandparents. We must rise to the challenge of Israel education, embrace all of its complexities, and educate a generation of students that is looking to experience education and life in an authentic way.

The writer is associate director at the Brody Jewish Center – Hillel at the University of Virginia.