Am I less nuanced than a 10th grader?


By Saul Golubcow

A recent article in Washington Jewish Week, “When (Jewish) day schools teach about Israel, the name of the game is ‘nuance,’” examines the challenges facing educators teaching about Israel. One teacher maintains that for my baby boomer generation, the narrative of Israel’s enemies wanting “to push Jews into the sea” has been enough “to tell a student all he or she needed to know” about Israel, but today this narrative is insufficient as schools must teach the subject more complexly.

The piece made me wonder where my views would place on a “nuance meter” in responding to three questions another educator poses to high school students: “After the Holocaust, should Israel have a moral or ethical obligation to help people who are in similar situations?” “On Israel declaring independence in 1948, knowing that it would trigger a war: would you have made that same decision if you knew that people
could die?” “Has Israel lived up to its Declaration of Independence?”

In responding to Question 1, I must work through my discomfort with the linkage between Israel and its Jews who suffered from the Shoah and how Israel responds to genocides. Why do I feel the question plays into a trap set for Israel in creating moral heights beyond the expectations for any other country, thus exacting predictable failure?

Further, what do we mean by “Israel” owning the moral or ethical obligation? Is it any given Israeli government? Its Jewish citizens? All citizens including non-Jews? How do we assess “similar situations?” Are Cambodia, Rwanda, Darfur the obvious examples? The world did nothing to prevent those genocides.

How might Israel with its special moral status have helped on its own when the rest of the world failed?
While Israel may have had its conscience sharpened as a result of the Shoah, its Jewish inner voice has
always spoken in keeping with the talmudic saying of “whoever saves a life of Israel, it is considered as if he saved an entire world.” As such, Israel was among the first nations in 1949 to ratify the United Nations Convention for the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.

Through the years, Israel has aided others throughout the world blighted by atrocities, most recently along the border with Syria and the Kurds, who face mortal danger from many of Israel’s hostile neighbors.

In reacting to Question 2, of course, I want to cry out: the Jews in Israel in 1948 made the right decision to fight for independence knowing people would die. What else could they have done? But I must take into account the then recently experienced terrors, multiply ingrained doubts and struggles with conscience that encased the Jewish will as it faced the Arab armies.

I see a small-numbered, scantily resourced, poorly trained, body-weary, and spirit- brutalized collection of Jews in their tenuous homeland who weighed the price of death, injury and trauma as they made the decision to desist from fleeing. In doing so, they created a new Jewish narrative for us to inherit.

Were I there in 1948, I hope, with tears mourning the losses around me, I would have been swept into the creation of this new Jewish narrative and have decided to fight against another slaughter and for what was rightfully my people’s lost possession over the previous 2,000 years.

I feel confidence and pride in responding affirmatively to Question 3. Israel’s declaration of independence avers that its statehood is based on the “natural right of the Jewish people to be masters of their own fate, like all other nations, in their own sovereign state.”

With legitimacy established, the declaration commits to six provisions vouchsafing Israel to be “open for
Jewish immigration” and protecting various expressions of “freedom, justice, and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel.”

As much as there have been turmoil and tensions roiling Israel’s democracy, the declaration’s guarantee of “freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture” has never been extinguished. If an Arab member of the Knesset such as Hanin Zoabi can call for the dissolution of Israel and remain an MK, is not such representation of political, ethnic, and cultural tolerance indicative of Israel’s living up to its

If I were working on the Israel curriculum, I would include a fourth question: The declaration calls us to “rally round the Jews of Eretz-Israel … to stand by them in the great struggle for the realization of the age-old dream – the redemption of Israel.” How well are we American Jews responding to this call?

Am I less nuanced than a 10th grader? I think I will now take a look at the “meter.”

Saul Golubcow writes from Potomac and can be reached at [email protected]

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