How we teach about Israel &mdash its walking a fine line

My 14-year-old son is headed to Israel as I write this, on a 15-day trip with his Solomon Schechter Day School eighth-grade class. His older brother is going in June for a program that combines six weeks of science, advocacy and touring.

I’ve been reading their trip schedules, and because I am way too involved with this stuff and a contrarian, I have to fight the impulse to bloviate.

They might be excited about a rafting trip on the Jordan; I want to talk about water allocation between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. They can’t wait to eat a falafel on Ben-Yehuda Street; I want them to read Jeffrey Goldberg’s interview with novelist David Grossman.

Yes, I am that kind of fun.

I’d love to recapture the innocence of my early trips to Israel.

When I arrived with my backpack in the summer of 1983, my Israel library consisted of just three books: “Exodus,” “The Source” and “Let’s Go: Israel.”

It wasn’t until a return trip a year later, when I was handed a copy of Walter Reich’s book “A Stranger in My House,” that I began to grasp the challenges that would come to define Israel for the next 25 years.

In a sense, my Israel education recapitulated the history of Zionism, from mythmaking to revisionism, from Leon Uris to Benny Morris.

And as my teenagers go to Israel, I have two conflicting worries: the first, that they’ll absorb an idealized version of Israel that will either harden their politics or eventually lead to disillusionment; the second, that they’ve already absorbed the world’s jaundiced view of the Jewish state, and have grown a cynical shell that no teacher or tour guide can crack.

So how do you cultivate a young person’s engagement with Israel so that he is neither naive to the point of gullibility nor knowing to the point of disdain?

I asked my friend, Rabbi Daniel Brenner, who makes his living pondering these questions. Brenner, who lives in Montclair, N.J., is a vice president of the Birthright Israel Foundation, in charge of education. Every year, Birthright takes thousands of young people on free trips to Israel. In a sense, Birthright has about a week to turn backpackers into — well, what exactly?

“It’s very clear that the goal is to fall in love with Israel,” says Brenner.

Birthright emphasizes classic Jewish and Zionist narratives: That Jews have returned to the ancient homeland from which they were exiled. That they struggled to do so. That it is a country created by exiles from other lands.

That it rose from the ashes of European Jewry, and that Israel has to win every war to survive.

But considering the region’s politics, do participants feel they are getting a balanced message?

“We want to make sure that this trip is not politicized one way or the other by any of our tour leaders,” he says.

“We generally do not have the extreme politicization that could lead into either way — the way of those who feel Israel has one way or the other made multiple mistakes, or lead to somebody who says, ‘Israel is infallible.'”

Participants discover nuance and complexity in their “personal encounters and cultural exchanges”— with drivers, guards and the Israeli peers who join up with each trip.

“They might meet a bus driver whose family came from Morocco, where they were part of the moneyed class, and when they arrived in Israel they were put into the fields,” says Brenner.

“From him they learn a story about discrimination during that wave of immigration.”

Similarly, soldiers share stories of incredible bravery — and incredible dilemmas. “They hear about difficult situations in regard to moral questions. When do I restrict someone’s travel? How do I search someone?

“This is a rich and very real picture of Israel.”

As for Arabs, some trips do include encounters with Arab citizens of Israel, perhaps Bedouins. “That’s certainly not the focus,” Brenner acknowledges. “But they are part of the fabric of Israeli society.”

Whether you consider Birthright a success depends on your definition of success.

For Brenner and his colleagues, it is measured in the number of participants who come away saying they are very much connected to Israel.

Compared to their peers who don’t go on Birthright, participants are much more likely to say that they think of Israel as a “source of pride,” a “lively democracy,” a multicultural society, a “refuge of the Jewish people” and a technological powerhouse.

And there’s some myth-busting going on as well. Birthright participants are less likely to view Israel as a country riven by internal strife, or dominated by religious fundamentalists.

And they tend not to regard Israel as a militaristic society.

“That speaks volumes about our programs,” says Brenner. “These kids spend days with Israeli soldiers, and come away thinking Israel is not a militaristic society.”

As I talk to him, a sort of a pro-Israel baseline emerges. And to get there, it seems, it takes more inspiration than ambiguity.

But inspiration is not the same as indoctrination. A deeply personal encounter with Israel can lead to many different conclusions except one: indifference.

“I think that we try our best as educators to make sure our personal narrative is at the center of the way we teach history,” says Brenner.

“We want our kids to connect their personal narrative to the wider picture.”

In other words, I’ll wait until they get back before I hand my kids the Goldberg article.

Andrew Silow-Carroll is the editor in chief of the New Jersey Jewish News. He blogs at

Andrew Silow-Carroll

Andrew Silow-Carroll is Editor at Large of the New York Jewish Week and Managing Editor for Ideas for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.