Challenging Israel Course Background & Syllabus


For decades, academic research and Jewish communal discussion has identified Israel education as a mechanism to decrease distancing from Israel and strengthen Jewish continuity. With such a goal in mind, Israel education seeks to help emerging Jewish young adults answer the question of “Why Israel?”, when there are so many other competing and compelling values and interests in their lives, both in and outside the Jewish world. Even with the success of many Israel education initiatives, many Jewish students see Israel either as a Disneyland where Diaspora Jews come to escape reality and find inspiration, as too controversial to even engage with as a positive value, or as something that does not matter at all. Unfortunately, because of this three-layered reality, many choose to avoid the tough questions, which results in not engaging the complex reality of Israel.

Our Challenging Israel Course seeks to address the challenge of Why Israel for students by facilitating a course that enables students to gain knowledge about Israel, while encouraging inquiry and inquisitiveness. In turn, this allows students to come to autonomous conclusions with regards to Israel and its relevance to them. Our course is rooted in the values of sacredness and difference. While acknowledging our normative position regarding Zionism as something sacred, we equally value teaching what is different by learning about the legitimate national claims and political identity of Palestinians as an equal narrative of human importance. In addition, and at the core of our course, we work to define terms such as Zionism, the Jewish People, and Judaism not as historical phenomena, but rather by how these terms shape our identities.

Once we help students come to an understanding about both the Zionist and Palestinian narratives, we confront in an honest and open fashion the most difficult points of conflict between the two narratives, such as Refugees, Occupation, and Jerusalem. As opposed to advocacy courses, we focus less on knowing what to answer in a debate and more on understanding the source of conflict and the political identity of both Zionists and Palestinians to help students come to their own conclusions about Israel, the conflict and their own identities


“I once called Zionism an infinite ideal, and I truly believe that even after we attain our land, the land of Israel, it will not cease to be an ideal. Zionism, as I see it, entails not only an aspiration for a piece of land legally ours, but also for moral and spiritual integrity”.

– Benjamin Zeev Herzl -1904


This course provides an in-depth understanding of the Zionist narrative and how it conflicts with the Palestinian narrative. Topics covered throughout the course include Jerusalem, Palestinian refugees, settlements, border disputes, security concerns and the struggle for peace. By addressing these complex issues head on, students will gain the knowledge to effectively articulate an informed position regarding one of the longest running modern political conflicts.

Goals and Objectives

The goals of this course are threefold: To provide the students with greater context and comprehension of Israel and the Arab-Israeli conflict, to encourage each student to develop his/her own understanding regarding the conflict, and to develop the skills necessary to articulate their understanding to others.


Lectures, in addition to classic texts, will include the latest multimedia educational resources, maps, images and video, in order to create a dynamic atmosphere. As an integral part of the learning experience, the course will include interactive workshops and lively class discussions. Current events updates will be a critical feature throughout the term of the course as well.

Overview of Course Units

Unit 1: Introduction

This unit introduces the Enduring Understanding, which frames the big idea of the course and provides meaning and lasting importance to the overall facts and skills we will develop. It will include an honest discussion on the importance of studying the Arab-Israeli conflict in the context of current academic trends.  We will distinguish between legitimate criticism of Israeli policies, overt anti-Israel bias and the more subtle pervasive negativity relating to Israel.  Finally, students are introduced to the general framework and the big questions we will be asking throughout the course.

Unit 2: The Modern Middle East

A key aspect of this unit is zooming out. We will introduce this important concept by examining the conventional framing of the conflict regarding land, resources, and people. Through a comparative study of maps, graphs, and analysis, students learn about the complex nature of the modern Middle East, in order to examine the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in its regional context. Students are acquainted with current geopolitical changes in the Middle East: the turmoil in the region as a result of the so called “Arab Spring”, tensions between moderates and radicals, the Sunni-Shiite divide and the multi-ethnic nature of the greater Middle East.

Unit 3: The Zionist Narrative

This unit examines the core principal of the Zionist narrative: Jews are a Nation indigenous to the Land of Israel and from the end of the 19th century set in motion the Zionist political movement, to re-establish sovereignty in their ancient homeland. Students will review both ancient and modern political movements to understand the legitimate legal rights of the State of Israel.  Critical documents such as the Balfour Declaration, the League of Nations Mandate for Palestine, the White Paper of 1939, and the 1947 UN Partition Plan will be considered and analyzed to gain a deeper understanding of the political process of State building in the 20th century.  In addition, we will discuss the Jewish people’s emotional & religious ties to the land, the history of modern Zionism, immigration patterns of both Jews and Arabs, and the legitimacy and necessity of a Jewish homeland.

Unit 4: The Palestinian Narrative

This unit examines the core principal of the Palestinian narrative: Palestinians are indigenous to this land by virtue of being born here and therefore, historically, anyone born in the land is Palestinian, i.e. Jesus, Canaanites etc…. This unit will begin by a discussion of the Palestinian people’s historical, emotional, and religious connection to the land.  We will address some of the challenging topics through the narrative promoted by the Palestinians. Topics will include the Balfour Declaration, the League of Nations Mandate for Palestine, and the 1947 UN Partition Plan. A critical aspect of this unit is a discussion on the role of accepted facts in developing historical narratives.  A Palestinian speaker will be invited to present an authentic personal perspective on living under Israeli rule.

Unit 5: Refugees 

How did the Palestinian Arabs become refugees and why are there so many?  What is presently perpetuating their suffering? Class discussion will compare the conditions of other refugee populations, the Partition Plan of 1947, as well as the circumstances of the Independence War, and the competing narratives of this war. We will also address the plight of Jewish refugees from Arab lands, the state of the Arab population in Israel, and the role of the UN, Israel, and Arab countries in governing the Palestinian refugee situation.

Unit 6: Occupation

We will begin with a discussion on the semantics of the conflict with an analysis of the various terms used for the areas Israel conquered in the 6 Day War: Occupied Territories, Disputed Territories, Administered Territories, West bank or Judaea and Samaria. A crucial aspect of this unit is an in-depth lesson on the issues related to the Six Day War and its ramifications, including Israeli and Arab responses, as well as UN Resolution 242. Particular focus will be placed on the Israeli government’s policies regarding Jewish settlement and the Palestinian decisions and responses to Israeli policies. To reinforce this unit’s material, students will be challenged to defend the various positions on occupation   through an in-class debate.  In addition, the ongoing struggle for peace will be considered; its accomplishments, Egypt and Jordan, as well as its challenges, the Palestinians, Lebanon and Syria.

Unit 7: Jerusalem

As the political capital of the State of Israel and the center of the Jewish world since antiquity, Jerusalem has always represented the sovereign political rights of the Jewish people in the Land of Israel. Jerusalem is also a major religious site for Islam and Christianity. As such, Jerusalem is a microcosm of all the political issues facing Israel vis-a-vis the Palestinians; e.g. borders, occupation, religious sites, right of return, historical connection, etc. This unit will delve into the complicated world of the politicization of Jerusalem both on the local level and in the international forum.

Unit 8: Israel as a Jewish & Democratic State Today

For two thousand years, the Jewish people longed for and prayed to reconstitute national sovereignty in their historic homeland.  Throughout the ages, leaders, scholars, and people debated what the elements of a renewed Jewish state would be. Today we are living that reality. This unit discusses the Jewish state and how it has evolved in the modern era.  We will address questions such as:

  •         How does a Jewish democracy work? How should it?
  •         What is the Law of Return and how does it work?
  •         What type of State are we working towards?
  •         What is the role of social justice and tikunolam?
  •         What is the role of Judaism, the religion, in the modern state? And is modern Israeli culture an expression of Jewish culture?

In this way we will be framing the big idea of the course, which is the importance of understanding the return of the Jewish people to their homeland.

Unit 9: Conclusion – Contextualizing “Israel” as a campus issue

In these lessons we will review the enduring understandings, analyze Israel as an issue on campus and brainstorm ways to facilitate and lead nuanced discussions of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict within and outside our community.