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The Challenge of Dual Narratives in Education

Rabbi Mitch Malkus

Today marked a milestone for Israel and Jews throughout the world as the United States officially relocated its Embassy to Jerusalem. Politically, this move has been controversial with supporters suggesting it recognizes an important fact without predisposing the parties to any final resolution. Critics claim it positions the United States as partial to one side of the conflict while unnecessarily provoking Palestinians and many in the Arab world. This move also reveals tensions that exist for Jewish educators around how we engage in Israel education.

Unlike seventy years ago at its founding or after the Six Day War, Israel is no longer a unifying element in Jewish life. Avraham Infeld, a giant in Israel and Zionist education and former CEO of Hillel International, told Ha'aretz newspaper earlier this year that he found "that Israel had become the most disunifying force in the Jewish community." We see the truth of this statement as rabbis feel they can no longer speak to their communities about Israel without fear of backlash.

In Jewish education, we experience the lack of unity around Israel in discussions we have with parents and at the higher grade levels with students. In schools with a commitment to Israel, we often articulate that value by promoting a "love of Israel" or "developing a relationship with Israel." Some parents feel that educators should mostly promote Israel's many accomplishments, while others express the need to share the complex reality that Israel faces. Among students we hear questions about the narratives we are teaching and the lack of diversity within the curriculum. What is an educator to do when facing questions of how to teach about events like the relocation of the US Embassy?

Yossi Klein HaLevi, a senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem recently penned an op-ed piece in the Los Angeles Times that holds promise for educators who want to engage students around difficult issues relating to Israel. He observes that today's move is part of the war of competing narratives. "This week," he writes, "Israelis celebrate 70 years of victory over repeated attempts to destroy the miraculous rebirth of Jewish sovereignty, and Palestinians mourn 70 years of defeat, displacement and occupation." HaLevi goes on to say that each side must acknowledge and accept the other's narrative.

Jewish educators outside of Israel need to consider HaLevi's approach. As Jews, we are proud of Israel, recognize its historical significance and celebrate its existence. We have our narrative even as the situation is complex. At the same time, Palestinians have their narrative. HaLevi challenges us to understand both our narrative and the Palestinian narrative. He believes that only when the two groups embrace each other understanding of the history, something he believes majorities of both societies are prepared to do, will we reach a reconciliation. As Jewish educators we have the opportunity to begin this work with our students.

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