‘Israel Warts and All?’ A Response To Rabbi Jill Jacobs

In a recent, thoughtful post, Rabbi Jill Jacobs, executive director of T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, suggests that present Israel education insults the intelligence of American children. She complains that she didn’t know anything untoward about the United States until taking AP American History in 11th grade and suggests that a similar Israel curriculum should be introduced to young children like her 8 year old.

While I am sure that some of my friends may immediately shut down any such discussion, several of Rabbi Jacobs points resonate with me. When I decided to leave yeshiva and study history in graduate school, I asked the advice of my teacher, Rav Aharon Lichtenstein. Rav Lichtenstein, a Harvard PhD in English Literature, debated the danger of studying history in university and the peril of the lack of nuance in the religious world. He remarked that “on the one hand, it is our duty to sit uncritically at the feet of our predecessors while on the other, many see only angels in the past and that can be destructive as well.” Rav Lichtenstein was the paragon of nuance and complexity. Regarding educating Diaspora youth about the goings on in the modern State of Israel, I believe that we do a disservice in the long run by creating an impossibly unrealistic and Utopian vision. Israel is a modern country in the Middle East and not a European Disneyland. Students who are only taught a false reality of mini-America or even Sweden on the Jordan River will undoubtedly be disillusioned when they realize Israel is more complex and real than that. We live and pay taxes in a beautiful but dusty ancestral homeland located in one of the toughest neighborhoods on the planet. Understanding that reality is important.

But let’s be clear, I spoke with Rav Lichtenstein about nuance as a 24-year-old college graduate with several years of learning under my belt. Age, context and worldview are critical aspects of planning any curriculum. And I believe that this is always the question at the heart of education. There are many problems which must be addressed by serious educators which I believe Rabbi Jacobs wantonly and thoughtlessly glosses over.

One thing left out is the fact that those who call for a "warts and all" version of history focus heavily on the warts. It's as if they want a curriculum designed to create hatred for the subject being taught. We've seen that in the United States with history classes that emphasize books like Howard Zinn's, A People's History of the United States. We see it from Jewish groups who want to focus on "the Nakba" rather than Israel's fight for independence.

But as Berman writes:

I am afraid that Jacobs promotes a colonial wistful view of Palestinians as the “the noble savage” who lacks personal agency. Shall our curriculum include the fact “occupied” Palestinians, led by a holocaust denier, have much blood on their hands? Is that the “reality” she is willing to say to her 8-year-old? That many of the so-called Palestinian leaders and intellectuals like Arafat, Saeb Berakat, and Sari Nusseibeh are actually not from Palestine? What about the spike in honor killings, homophobia, and misogyny among Palestinian populations? That Hamas, a murderous terror organization which kills LGBTQ folk and feminists retains popular support among Gaza Palestinians. Or that some on the Israeli left suggestthat organizations such as hers and J Street etc. actually perpetuate the violence by maintaining a sui generis definition of refugees and promoting Palestinian hopes of annihilating the State of Israel by doing so? How much “complexity” is she willing to teach?

And that's the problem with teaching a "nuanced" view of history. It nuances itself from teaching facts to manufacturing outrage. No, neither Israel nor the United States are perfect. Neither are any of us. There are no utopias. So, teach the facts about Israel, but also teach the facts about the Palestinians, an ancient people who can trace their roots all the way back to the 1960s.