What I would have said at J Street
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”.
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.
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.