Israel education needs history, not rhetoric

To prepare students to cope with college campuses increasingly hostile to Israel, Jewish schools across the country are renewing their efforts to teach teenagers about the Jewish state. In many instances, students learn about Israel by memorizing an arsenal of facts they can fire off in response to anti-Israel protestors.

After all, any good Jewish education will teach students rhetorical strategies for defending the Jewish state, right?


Students need a deeper understanding of Jewish history far more than pat responses to propaganda. Israel education in Jewish schools should focus on history, not rhetoric.

Teaching students about Israel by asking them to memorize pro-Israel fact sheets is shortsighted for three reasons.

First, it teaches students only how to reply to a set number of attacks against Israel. When a classmate insists Israel is like apartheid South Africa, Jewish students can point out that the Deputy Consul General of Israel in San Francisco is Ismail Khaldi, an Israeli Bedouin. They can say that Arabic — like Hebrew — is an official language of Israel. But when anti-Israel protesters stray from the script that Jewish students have practiced, these students are at a loss for what to say.

Second, canned rhetoric hides the spectrum of Jewish opinions about Israel. Students may learn to spout the current Israeli government’s policy on the “security fence” or Law of Return, but they often don’t realize that these are highly charged issues in Israel itself. Without knowing it, students mimic the arguments made by Kadima or Likud or Labor, but they have never even heard of Shas or Meretz or Yisrael Beytenu or Balad.

Third, this educational approach teaches students to talk with a Muslim or Christian classmate but not an anti-Zionist Jewish peer. It assumes that when students get to college they are most baffled by Arab demonstrators. But what often flusters students — as much as, if not more than, encountering their first anti-Israel rally on campus — is meeting their first Jewish friend who is a member of the campus chapter of Jews for Justice for Palestinians.

Students who are taught pro-Israel rhetoric can parrot that Israel’s Arab citizens have full legal rights, unlike Jews in Arab countries. But students who learn Israeli history can engage in sophisticated dialogue about the current state of affairs in Israel.

For these students, the recent disengagement from Gaza is reminiscent of the 1982 evacuation of Yamit. Attempts to link Israel to apartheid South Africa recall the 1975 United Nations General Assembly Resolution 3379 equating Zionism with racism. When called upon to talk about Israel, they can draw from a wealth of information — not only predetermined answers to a set of questions.

Students who memorize fact sheets might be able to recite 10 ways that Israel is a bastion of enlightened democracy. But students who study the history of the Jewish state understand the events that have shaped Israel’s borders and molded the country’s political parties. When these students take a political stance, their beliefs are well informed and their historical knowledge enables them to recognize grey areas and complexity.

Students who learn about Israel only in the context of current events assume — erroneously —that all anti-Zionist Jews must be either self-hating or ignorant.

But students of modern Jewish history know that since the late 17th century secular and religious Jews alike have challenged supporters of a Jewish state. When talking about Israel with a non-Zionist peer, historically literate students can call upon the rhetorical strategies that Theodor Herzl and Ahad HaAm and Ze’ev Jabotinsky and Abba Hillel Silver employed against the anti-Zionist Jews of their day.

Catchy slogans do not provide students with the understanding necessary to engage in dialogue about a complex political issue. Only deep knowledge of history does.

If we want to prepare students to talk about Israel, we should teach them Jewish history and toss the fact sheets in the recycling bin.

Sivan Zakai of Palo Alto is a Ph.D candidate in curriculum and teacher education at Stanford University.