New Urgency To How We Teach About Israel


The State of Israel is currently facing one of the most daunting and serious challenges in recent history. There is a war against organized state-sponsored terrorism, exacerbated by increased negative world opinion, propaganda, political posturing and harsh rhetoric that threatens the physical and political reality and stability of the Jewish state.

The shocks and aftershocks of recent converging events present major challenges to the American Jewish educational community, unsurpassed in decades. Over the next several months, there will be a proliferation of opinions expressed on the crises, from the diplomatic gaps between Washington and Jerusalem (though last week’s Obama-Netanyahu meeting seemed to smooth over some of the tensions) to reaction to Israel’s blockade of Gaza. 

How should we respond as Jewish educators passionately committed to promoting and supporting Israel? We are faced with the daunting challenge (and opportunity) of providing our youth and their families with leadership, insight and guidance anchored in Jewish tradition, values, morality, culture and history. We need to do a far better job in teaching, communicating and inspiring our youth (elementary through college-age) to understand and appreciate the centrality of Israel and its relationship and relevance to our lives as a Jewish community and as a Jewish people.

Yes, there have been a wide variety of serious attempts to position Israel education at the top of the diaspora Jewish educational agenda on the local and national levels. But if one begins to analyze short-, mid- and long-range impact, based upon desired goals and outcomes, many of these programmatic/silver bullet attempts have fallen short of their objectives, especially in the absence of comprehensive follow-up and serious analyses. 

This sad reality also takes place against a backdrop of recent empirical research strongly suggesting that Israel does not occupy a central role in the lives of our Jewish youth or young adult population.

The summer break from the school year gives us the chance to prepare ourselves for the fall semester and to disseminate appropriate educational and curricular material as well as identify effective and meaningful venues and opportunities for student and teacher discussion, learning, dialogue, debate and reflection.

In addition to the development and/or identification and dissemination of “teachable moment” materials and activities, it would be appropriate for Jewish school leaders to take a far more serious look at the ways in which they teach about Israel.

Two significant opportunities demand leadership responses.

The first is to make Israel a dynamic and living force in the personal lives of every modern Jew. Consequently, great energy as well as human and financial resources must be invested in making Israel “speak” to every Jew. This vision and commitment would hopefully create meaningful collaborative partnerships between the educational establishment and the best thinkers (and doers) in the commercial marketing and business world.

Other potential strategic and tactical challenges and opportunities may include:

– The creation and dissemination of new, innovative, multimedia curricular materials;

–  The development of desperately needed talking points and reference materials for Jewish communal leadership;

– The creation of retreats and adult study opportunities in Israel;

– The promotion of a well-coordinated national Israel education/advocacy speakers’ bureau;

– National, regional and local think tanks for reflection, debate and understanding;

– The creation of a North American Israel resource center and website for young adults and families;

– The creation of a North American Israel education multimedia network, which would include cable television and real time broadcasting from Israel and about Israel, via the Web;

– The establishment of an Israel volunteer corps for Jewish educators and social workers;

– The creation of a national young filmmakers’ institute, with Israel as the central theme;

– Professional exchange programs for Jewish educators and Jewish communal workers;

– Ongoing and intensive in-service teacher training and leadership development for heads of schools relating to the teaching of Israel.

The second challenge is to significantly increase the number of Jews — particularly young Jews — who visit and study in Israel. 

We should aspire to bring more high school and college youth to Israel, within the framework of meaningful, well-planned educational programs. 

Key to the success of these programs will be the creation of innovative, engaging and meaningful pre- and post-educational follow-up programs and activities. These programs must provide participants with meaning and depth, anchored in Jewish literacy; they must be continuous; and they must be offered over an extended period. In addition, these programs must be staffed by the most knowledgeable, engaging, dynamic and well-trained educators and youth workers resources can afford. The current paucity of these professionals will require a major investment in recruitment and training, as well as career ladders for full-time Israel educators.

Finally, effective Israel education will foster a new context for moral support for Israel. Israel must be viewed as central to Judaism, as a sustaining force in developing and maintaining Jewish identity and Jewish peoplehood and in many respects, Jewish survival. 

The more prepared, knowledgeable and informed the American Jewish community is about Israel, the more effective it will be in interpreting to the world Israel’s actions, contributions and significance. 

In the final analysis, we really have no choice. 

Dr. Chaim Botwinick is president/CEO of the Center for the Advancement of Jewish Education in Miami.