An intellectual pursuit and a love story

Israel education has to focus on emotional and intellectual vibrancy. It is the combination of the two that leads young people to develop a strong connection to this country.

education 311 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
education 311
(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.
One 12th-grade 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 Israel.
I thought about this story on the day Gilad Schalit was released.
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 Israel.
The youth group counsellors, teachers, tour guides and rabbis of these two people missed the mark.
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 level.
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.