Although Israel has been at the heart of day-school curricula for decades, we have known little about how schools teach and students learn about Israel—at least until last month, when the AviChai Foundation released its study of Israel Education in Jewish day schools and high schools across America. The report explored the following questions: What do schools hope to impart to students about Israel? What do schools actually communicate to their students? and What do students take away from their educational experiences?
To answer these questions, the authors surveyed 95 day schools and high schools about their practices in Israel education. They surveyed some 350 teachers identified by their schools as involved in Israel education about what they do and how they perceive the efficacy of their work. Finally, the authors surveyed over 4,000 students at the schools to find out what aspects of Israel resonate the most and the least with them and how Israel fits into their larger world view. The researchers visited over a dozen of the participating schools and conducted observations and interviews in order to fill out the picture of Israel education that emerged from the surveys.
The report found that schools focus almost exclusively on helping students feel good about Israel. In summarizing their findings, the authors write, “Over and over, [school’s] goals are directed towards the cultivation of emotional states: identification, allegiance and attachment.” This sentiment didn’t come just from school leaders. The report found that of teachers’ top ten goals, none had to do with understanding Israel’s history or contemporary events. “Nearly everyone interviewed agreed that it is about love and pride and a sense of ownership of Israel as a homeland that drives their Israel education efforts,” wrote the authors, Alex Pomson, Jack Wertheimer, and Hagit HaCohen Wolf. The authors recount a board member of one school saying, “Parents complain about Hebrew, English, all sorts of things—but not Israel. It’s taught in a very beautiful way, so no one is offended.”
When it came to the details, however, there was less agreement about what it meant to teach these positive emotions to students. For some parents teaching love meant producing students who will “fan out across university campuses and make the case for Israel”; some administrators, on the other hand, suspected that an advocacy approach “just won’t work for most teenagers.” Other parents were satisfied if their children “develop[ed] warm feelings toward the Jewish state.”
The report doesn’t say what kind of love it found to be present in these schools, nor what kind of love should be encouraged. As I read on, it occurred to me that this silence about what love means masks a much deeper and troubling finding, namely that, in the schools surveyed, teaching positive feelings comes at the expense of dealing with the complexities of Israel and the multiple perspectives that parents, teachers and students hold. Indeed, the authors acknowledge this: “The more a school teaches about the complexities of contemporary Israel, the more that school undermines a precious consensus point.”
Education that aims to avoid offense and provides students with little knowledge may be able to produce strong positive feelings toward Israel. But this is not love; it’s infatuation, and I’d argue, it actually masks a sense of fear. If the AviChai report tells us anything, it tells us that school communities don’t believe that they can tolerate significant and informed debate around Israel and still hold together. They are scared that Israel will only be lovable if they shield students from its imperfections. As any relationship expert will tell you, these are not the kinds of feelings that form the foundation of a strong lasting relationship.
Jonah Hassenfeld is getting his PhD at Stanford University in Education and Jewish Studies. He is a Jim Joseph fellow and Wexner fellow/Davidson scholar.