As recently as 2014, the research team of Pomson, Wertheimer, and Wolf, found evidence that while teaching about Israel in Jewish day schools is far more difficult than it was 25 years previously, “Israel serves as “the glue” bonding the school community together, a reality completely at odds with the presumed divisiveness of Israel within other Jewish institutions in North America.”
My experience both aligns with this finding and also sharply diverges from it. As the researchers note, anyone visiting a Jewish day school would “be struck by the omnipresent physical reminders of Israel in classrooms and the hallways;” maps of Israel, photographs of Zionist and Israeli heroes, the singing of Israeli songs and dancing the Israeli Hora, modern Israeli Hebrew as the preferred pronunciation. Add to this special activities on Israel’s Remembrance Day and celebrations on Yom Ha’atzmaut (Independence Day), the flying of an Israeli flag, and the study of Israeli history and culture and you understand the central role Israel plays in the curriculum of the contemporary Jewish day school in North America.
At the same time as Israel is ubiquitous in day schools, I see significant signs that it is also a source of stress and tension. In a pluralistic community, there are diverse opinions and views on Judaism and Israel (how could there not be!?). Families representing different views often ask if we are doing service to their opinion/stance on Israel. For the most part we see this toward the end of middle school and particularly during the high school years, where students engage with Israeli history and the Arab-Israeli conflict. As much as the complexity of the subject matter being studied, students bring to their classes their own viewpoints that challenge their fellow classmates.
In his recent book, Trouble in the Tribe, Dov Waxman explores the differences among American Jews when it comes to Israel. He observes that growing numbers of American Jews have become less willing to unquestioningly support Israel and he finds that American Jews are arguing about Israeli policies and treatment of Palestinians. He suggests that today Israel is a source of disunity for American Jewry rather than a cause to bring the community together.
I have seen that disagreements about Israel that exist beyond the school walls are making their way into the building. The topic can be especially emotional or sensitive for families, and they often accuse the school of favoring one position or another, of painting a perfect picture of the country or challenging the sincerity of the school’s Zionist commitments. My discussions with colleagues around the country reveal similar challenges in other schools.
A pluralistic school committed to intellectual rigor, openness, and critical thinking must foster an environment where students can jump into the complex discussions of Israel that those who care deeply about the country are invested in. Day schools are the perfect venue to engage thoughtfully on issues related to Israel and to not shy away from the different perspectives that exist in the greater Jewish community. If this learning does not take place in the pro-Israel environments of day schools, where will it take place? I don’t believe day schools should seek to solve the differences between Americans Jews or between American Jews and Israeli Jews – schools are educational institutions that highlight the complexities and nuances of life and provide students the opportunity to grapple with these issues and develop their own opinions. The very prominence of Israel in day schools demonstrates that care and concern for the country, it’s people, history, and culture is abundant in day schools in ways that are not true of the larger Jewish community.