What I would have said at J Street

April 1, 2012 by


I was invited to be on a panel about Israel education at this year’s J Street conference. Sadly I couldn’t be there, but here is what I had been planning to say…


My wonderful daughter had her Bat Mitzvah recently. She sang beautifully from the Torah, built an amazing model of her “Personal Tabernacle” inspired by the portion, and took part in a lovely service she had helped to shape.

I am overjoyed that my daughter’s experience of Judaism has been of a wise and deep tradition, fantastic stories, warm Friday nights, and inclusivity for both genders.

It wasn’t until we went with her to an exhibition on Jewish Feminist art at Ein Harod Museum that we came across a different aspect of Judaism. We walked around an exhibition created by furious female artists. Laws of niddah, modesty, and exclusion were beautifully screamed at, ridiculed, and mourned through video, photography, installation, sculpture and embroidery. From the wedding dress decorated with the hair shorn from the bride, to the photo of the disembodied hand holding a JNF box thrust through the curtain of the women’s section, there was some strong and strikingly painful work there.

Yet although my daughter must be the most Jewishly knowledgeable of all her friends, I needed to explain every single reference to her. She had had literally no idea of how aspects of Jewish tradition can be cruel to or disdainful of women.

This is because we had never taught her about them, and she’d never come across them until this exhibition. We knew instinctively that if we had exposed her to the anti-feminist narrative of Judaism at an early age she would have emerged knowledgeable about yet emotionally distant from Judaism. We didn’t want that for our kid.

I’m left reflecting on these ideological choices when addressing the topic of our panel: “How do we talk to our children about Israel?” Because you see the thing is that my wife and I have absolutely no regrets at constructing “rose-tinted spectacles” for our child’s experience of Judaism. Our choice to induct our daughter into Judaism was not related to the moral rights or wrongs of the entirety of the tradition. We wanted for Judaism to be a part of who she is.

I believe we need to take the same choices with our young children with regards Israel. Prior to and irrespective of our attitudes to Israeli policies and politics, we need to make an ideological choice. Is Israel important to a Jew, or not?

My belief is that the only reason there are so many Jews at J-Street conference, and at work for J-Street throughout the country, is because they believe Israel is important to them as Jews.

We are all busy people, we all have limited free time on our hands, and – let’s face it – quantitatively strategically and even morally there are far more important and horrific things going on throughout the world for us to get worked up about. We get worked up about Israel because it is important to us. Just as much as we wish no wrong to be done to Palestinians, and just as much as we wish no wrong to be done to Israelis, we also wish that Israel behave justly because Israel is part of us.

But as you yourselves at J Street can attest, growing up with a deep connection to Israel does not have to lead one to love everything about Israel. The fact that my kid was not just surprised but also horrified by much of what she learned at the Jewish Feminist exhibition shows that one can be brought up to identify with a tradition, a people, a place, and still continue to develop a moral stance that might be at odds with elements of that tradition.

Bringing up our children to “love Israel” should not mean we are brainwashing them or serving evil reactionary interests. Sometimes I fear that too much superficial education has given love and commitment a bad name. A knee-jerk rejection of “teaching to love Israel” is – I would suggest – mainly a response to the extent to which such a concept has been shorn of its depth. Love is crucial, but it’s not simple.

We need our children to be knowledgeable and wise enough to be able to question what they have received, and at the same time we need them connected enough to care. 

What would an education look like that seeks to establish a commitment that is strong and passionate but not blind or paralyzed? How might we cultivate the roots of critical loyalty in our young?

We at Makom would advocate for two approaches. We would take care to give pre-teens what we might call the “philosophical training” for them to embrace complexity, and we would give them a framework of “spiraling questions”.

Embracing Complexity

Rather than simplifying issues for a little kid to grasp, we should encourage them to grapple with the complexities of simple situations. For example, at the age of five, issues of “Hugging and Wrestling with Israel” are tough! But questions such as “has your best friend ever done something you thought was the wrong thing to do?” fit right in to their lives. Follow up questions can go further: Did you tell your friend they had done wrong? Did you tell them in private or in public? Are you still friends despite the wrong-doing?

Rather offering a simplistic explanation of Israel’s Separation Barrier, we might ask where there are fences in our children’s lives? (House? School?) What are the advantages and disadvantages of fences? Do good fences make good neighbors or deepen divides? Who decides where to put a fence, and why? (Our “Car Pool Conversations” about Israel are freely downloadable )

These are the kinds of conversations that can help our kids develop a familiarity with complex moral issues, and build a suitable vocabulary to begin to address them when they arise. In this way our children learn that complexity and “messiness” (Israeli characteristics if ever there were!) can be fascinating and not frightening.

Spiraling questions

At Makom we would suggest that the moral and political issues of Israel emerge from four key values expressed in the Hatikvah anthem: To Be A Free (Jewish) People In Our Land.

What does it mean and what does it take to survive (To Be)? What does it mean and what does it take to be free? What does it mean and what does it take to be connected to the Jewish People? And what does it mean and what does it take to be In Our Land? These four questions underlie every headline we ever read about Israel, and they are four questions that we can ask and explore at every age.

As little kids our questions about being Jewish and connected to other Jews will yield different answers from those we may reach today. Likewise the expansion of our understanding of freedom – its limitations and responsibilities – will grow with the years. But the more we empower our children to engage with these four “pillars of Zionism”, the more we enable them to connect to, critique, and affirm Israel at every stage of their lives.


All the above opinions have been developed and inspired by my work with Makom, and consultations with Dr Jen Glaser who first introduced me to the teachings of Vygotsky.


  1. Robbie–

    Thank you for your very thoughtful piece.

    I think you hit on a number of very important issues–perhaps without realizing it.

    The whole notion of “our land” can only be revelant to pluralistic liberal American Jews (who, despite what you might hear from Sheldon Adelson and AIPAC are still the vast majority) is if having our land does not mean simultaneously occupying the land where “we” are in a small–albeit ever-growing–minoirty.

    The real challenge going forward is to be able to get to the place where Americans have been for years. Here, the most vicious and strident critics of the government describe themselvews and are widely considered to be “true patriots” and “real Americans.”

    Sheldon Adelson and many others seem to find nothing problematic about being staunchly patriotic and at the same time donating tens of millions of dollars to groups that demonize our president and his family in the most vicious ways.

    It is pretty much a given here that to support America and connect to and embrace everything our country stands for does not preclude one from being horrified by the actions and impact from the current government.

    When it comes to Israel, for better or worse, those standards are thrown out the window by the same American Jews who feel so comfortable demonizing our own president in the name of patriotism.

    All you have to do is look to the reaction of the pro-Israel Right here to J Street and people like Peter Beinart. They are organizations and people who love Israel and want to have a discussion about politics and government actions that is similar to the one we have here in the U.S.

    But when it comes to Israel, the same self-described American patriots who vilify our own president in the strongest terms, have zero tolerance for any rational or contentios discussion about the actions of the Israeli government.

    At the end of the day, unless and until the meaning of free speech and the Jewish values of spirited and well-meaning discussions b’shem shamayim are accepted as patriotism and consistent with Jewish values and tradition, then all of your great intentions and beautiful language will fall on deaf ears and be meaningless.

    I strive every day to make that happen. But we are not there yet.

    Not even close.

  2. Helene Aylon says:

    I am one of the feminist artists in the Ein Harod Museum Matronita exhibit, the artist who bemoaned the empty Machberet devoid of women’s commentary; This could have been encouraging for your daughter as some thing open for her to transform one day. I also made that 24′ chart of “My Clean Days” over a decade; that idea was not to disrespect the tradition, but to point out that women probably brought about that tradition as Leviticus states that men should bathe if he touches a niddah – no mention of women bathing. My memoir, out by the Feminist Press, speaks of my connecting to my orthodox girlhood “dafka” through the questioning. The title: WHATEVER IS CONTAINED MUST BE RELEASED: MY JEWISH ORTHODOX GIRLHOOD, MY LIFE AS A FEMINIST ARTIST.” And the power of that show was that these feminist artists all came from orthodoxy or tradition. They are Matronitas, perhaps the new prophets who can hold contradictions as taught in the kabala. Was not Jeremiah “angry?”
    Who said “the truth shall make you free?” Women are here to stay, and with the kosher busing etc. your daughter would gravitate to a Judaism
    that loves her and respects her and honors her foremothers for they are her role models.

  3. Yonatan says:

    Yes, let us pat ourselves on the back for being right.Everyone who disagrees with us is wrong, No sense in having any dialogue with our opponents. We are so open minded that our brainshave fallen out.

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