We need to reexamine how we teach about Israel - opinion

Before critically teaching Israel, a foundation of love is necessary.

 A demonstrator holds an Israeli flag as they attend the "Day of Paralysis" protest, as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's nationalist coalition government presses on with its judicial overhaul, in Tel Aviv, Israel March 23, 2023.  (photo credit: RONEN ZVULUN/REUTERS)
A demonstrator holds an Israeli flag as they attend the "Day of Paralysis" protest, as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's nationalist coalition government presses on with its judicial overhaul, in Tel Aviv, Israel March 23, 2023.
(photo credit: RONEN ZVULUN/REUTERS)

I stood at the front of the room in total shock. 

It wasn’t the words that were used – the tiresome false accusations lazily thrown at Israel that I had heard before – but the viciousness of the student’s tone shook me to my core. 

In a tone I’d heard describing the actions of genocidal regimes like those of Nazi Germany, the student spat out false atrocities Israel supposedly committed regularly – genocide, purposefully aiming to kill children, and a complete lack of respect for Palestinian lives.

The words were peppered with four-letter curses, words that as a rabbi educating students, I never have uttered in my lectures. This student – and they weren’t alone in their feelings in the group I was addressing – had spent months in Israel learning about the Jewish state, and yet it seemed they had learned nothing from their time in the land. 

In the months following this disturbing outburst, I had a few similar interactions with like-minded groups. I tried to understand what common denominator of the groups whose participants feel the need to crudely accuse Israel of atrocities it has never committed. 

 A young woman wearing an Israeli flag. (credit: MELANIE PHILLIPS)
A young woman wearing an Israeli flag. (credit: MELANIE PHILLIPS)

Anecdotally, after talking to the program leaders and student participants, I noticed that groups that placed a premium on their participants hearing anti-Israel opinions in the service of nuance tended to have a high number of participants that would rudely spew slander about Israel. 

It's ok to teach Israel's flaws, but it needs the proper context

Israel advocates can admit and discuss areas in which Israel needs to improve, but they should do so in a supportive manner. Critical thinking is an essential tool and a crucial skill for students across all disciplines. Teachers are responsible for equipping their students with analytical skills so that they can develop into critical thinkers. Yet, we must also make sure to teach critical thinking in a manner that is grounded in and anchored by a traditional Jewish perspective. 

Jewish educators are not detached lecturers comparing and contrasting two stories that are largely disconnected from our own lives. We bear the responsibility of producing the next generation of Jewish advocates. If our own students can’t differentiate between the just claims of their own people and the terror of their enemies, how will they ever develop into Zionists who advocate for the Jewish and Israeli people? 

They will become the confused Jews we find on campuses all over America today leading the Boycott, Divestment and Sanction (BDS) campaign against Israel and its people.

A progressive value found in education today is the elevation of moral relativism to a sacred place in the classroom. It is almost taboo to teach objective values and rights and wrongs to students. Everything is up for grabs, and any wrong can be justified. This flies in the face of traditional Jewish education. 

Inculcating a love for Israel is a crucial goal of Jewish and Zionist parents. There is nothing wrong with teaching our students that Israel is a positive force in the world, and not presenting them with a blank piece of paper on which to choose what to draw. Part of Jewish education is teaching Jewish values. In addition, Jews are commanded to be rodef shalom (“pursuers of peace”). 

Israel has every right to exist, rule over its land, and dictate policy and law to those who live within its borders. 

That doesn’t mean there isn’t a different viewpoint than Israel’s viewpoint, but many aspects of the Arab perspective are false – and the only way to know how to answer their lies is to be familiar with them. However, while many aspects of the Arab narrative are false, they still represent how Arabs feel – and to make peace with the Arabs we must understand their feelings. 

Teaching the Arab perspective doesn’t contradict teaching students a positive message about Israel’s rights to exist and the benefits it brings to the Jewish people.

Irrespective of what Israel’s opponents and some of its friends say, Israel’s rule over Judea and Samaria, its immigration policies, how it treats Palestinians, and how it conducts war is just, moral, and legal. At times Israel does wrong, but it works to improve itself. It does not celebrate its mistakes. Above all, this is what makes Israel a liberal democracy. The point must be made to students that no matter how severely they disagree with an Israeli policy, Israel’s legitimacy as a state for the Jewish people should never come into question in their minds. 

Teaching about Israel doesn’t have to be a black-and-white choice of either teaching a pro-Israel narrative that ignores Israel’s mistakes – and criticism it deserves – or a highly critical view of Israel as an exceedingly imperfect state without mentioning the good it does and the crucial role it plays in the success of the Jewish people. Educators can choose a nuanced approach and teach the right to, the need for, and the benefits of the State of Israel, as well as the areas Israel needs to improve. 

To ensure that Jewish students develop a love for Israel, they must be taught the Jewish people’s right to a state, the benefit the State of Israel provides the Jewish people, and the good the State of Israel performs – before highlighting its mistakes and areas in which it needs to improve. 

Educators who don’t understand this crucial point and teach a perfectly balanced lesson in which Israel’s right to exist and its moral standing is a two-sided coin risk creating students who believe Israel isn’t a blessing, but a curse. 

Even worse, they raise students without an understanding of moral objectivity, a standard of values, and an understanding that morality isn’t relative. 

The writer is a senior educator at numerous educational institutions. He is the author of three books and teaches Torah, Zionism, and Israeli studies around the world.