When day schools teach about Israel, the name of the game is ‘nuance’

In Phil Jacobs’ class, students learn about Palestinian narratives regarding Israel.
Photo by David Stuck

In a scene that is becoming increasingly common at Jewish day schools in Maryland and Virginia, the seniors at Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School sit in groups reading Israel’s Declaration of Independence. When their teacher, Phil Jacobs calls them back together, he poses some difficult questions.

On Israel, 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?”

And the big one: “Has Israel lived up to its declaration?”


These questions, so different from the “miracle in the desert” representation of Israel that was so common here since Israel’s founding 70 years ago, are now becoming the norm in some Jewish day schools. Questions about and episodes in Israeli history that may have once been skipped over are now being embraced as teachers seek to prepare their students for their post-day school lives, especially as they enter into college. For some teachers, it’s a new day in Israel education.

Increasingly, teachers like Jacobs are talking to their students about the difference between historical fact and narrative. Whereas once a celebration of kibbutz life and a warning that the Arabs “want to push the Jews into the sea” was thought to tell a student all he or she needed to know, in 2018, schools are teaching their students about evaluating the quality of the information sources they’re learning from.

Jacobs, a former editor of Washington Jewish Week, says he realized that students were leaving his Baltimore-area school having barely been exposed to narratives of history that countered the ones that they learned about from their families and Israel advocacy groups. When it came to discussing the concept of the occupation of the West Bank, Jacobs says, there was a time when if he brought it up in class he would’ve been looked at as “a Martian.”

Now? “We don’t circumvent the big gorilla,” he said. “We talk about it.”

For Jacobs, like the other teachers interviewed for this story, teaching counternarratives is not a matter of personal politics, but rather of their students understanding the value of hearing multiple perspectives and strengthening their own abilities as critical thinkers.

Jacobs now teaches his students that for Palestinians, the declaration of the Israeli state was considered a “catastrophe” — “Nakba,” as it’s called in Arabic. But rather than have them encounter that term in an off-putting, unfamiliar way, Jacobs aims to give his students a baseline familiarity with the idea.

“I want them to hear it in my room,” he said.

“We want our students to come away with a love of Israel, but we can’t ignore the fact that there’s a lot of criticism,” said Ellen Friedman, a middle school Judaics teacher at Krieger Schechter Day School, in Pikesville. “We know that our students, who have very sheltered lives … may not encounter criticism of Israel until they get to college. I don’t want my students to encounter a proponent of the BDS movement and be taken by surprise. I don’t want them to say, ‘Oh, they never taught us that at Schechter.’”

Ann Nachbar has taught Jewish history to 8th graders at Gesher Jewish Day School in Fairfax for 13 years. Like Friedman, she says not teaching what she describes as a “nuanced” view of Israel would be a disservice to her students.

“My sense is that there are a lot of kids who are not going through day school education, or maybe some who are, who don’t feel like they’re getting a nuanced understanding of Israel, that Israel is always presented in the white hat as the heroes, that Israel can do wrong. And then they get to college, and they realize that that’s not true, that Israel is flawed, like every other democracy on earth,”
she said.

To make a change, she had to take the teaching out of Israel out of the 1960s, she says.

“When I went to create my class, there really was no pedagogical material that came after the Six-Day War [of 1967]. That was sort of the last time that you could make a credible case for the David and Goliath, ‘they’re all lined up against us, yet we triumphed,’ the sort of of heroic mythology … that was what was out there, and I had to create something in addition to that.”

Aaron Bregman, head of the history department at Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville, echoed Friedman’s view that students should first encounter difficult issues in the classroom (he too has his students discuss the tactics of the Irgun). Bregman also just sees this as good academic practice. “My first job is as a history teacher,” he said. “And I feel like students need to get all the different viewpoints, all the different ideas, and then they should walk away having their own concept or understanding of what they want to take away from that.”

Facets of Israel

Issues can arise when teaching about the modern state of Israel along with the land of ancient Israel. Some schools separate the ancient and the modern into different courses, while others teach them in conjunction with one another. Similarly, for Uri Rabinowitz, a middle school Mishnah teacher at Ohr Chadash Academy in Baltimore, there is the tension between the state of Israel and the halachic state that he teaches his students.

Rabinowitz finds it difficult to separate these Israels for himself, let alone for his students.

“On one hand we say it’s the land of our destiny, all the way from our avot,” he said, referring to the biblical patriarchs. “And then, you have to consider how many of the mitzvot are only able to be fulfilled in Israel.”

Part of his job comes down to trying to explore with his students why, how and even if the state of Israel can be considered separately from the land of Israel, the milk-and-honey homeland of the Torah.

Like other teachers, Rabinowitz will sometimes address Israeli current events in his class, but he doesn’t see it as central to his job. When he does, he tries to keep to certain standards. “We try to look at this as Torah people,” he said, “and I explain to the best of my understanding what a Torah outlook would be.”

Ellen Friedman sees it a little differently. She teaches Israel as a continuous line from the days of the Davidic kingdom to the first Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland, in 1897. Part of the reason she does this is in anticipation of her eighth-graders’ class trip to Israel, the culminating experience of their year. For her, it’s not just a matter of rote memorization that her students learn about, say, the subtleties of ancient Israeli architecture. She wants her students to return from their trip connecting the ancient and the modern. She loves getting emails from her students that read like, “Morah Friedman, we spotted this or that, and our tour guide was impressed that we know that!”

Boycott, divestment and sanctions

Tal Grinfas-David is the day school education specialist at the Atlanta-based nonpartisan Center for Israel Education. A former day school principal, Epstein now consults with day schools across the country on strengthening their Israel education. The mere fact that many area schools teach modern Israeli history gives them a leg up on most day schools, she says, as many across the country leave it out of their curricula entirely. The value in teaching the subject comes partially in how it prepares students to approach BDS.

BDS, the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel, calls for economic consequences for human rights violations committed by the Israeli government. Critics argue that the movement, which began in 2005, is riddled with anti-Semitism, and that the main charge of the group — that the laws of Israel governing Palestinians constitute apartheid or something like it — persists on some college campuses and in some far-left circles.

That, Grinfas-David says, is why it’s important for students to go into college with an understanding of those charges, and how to meet them with a wealth of knowledge to draw from in defense. “These kids need context and perspective,” she said. “When the legitimacy and the need of the state of Israel comes up or is questioned by others, it’s very important that they are secure in their own understanding before they engage with other perspectives.”

“It became apparent that whoa, this isn’t going away,” says Ellen Friedman, referring to BDS, “and this is something that we need to address in some way.”

Friedman is not the only one who noticed. Large Jewish organizations, Grinfas-David says, have spent the last decade creating curricula and material for day school teachers specifically designed to combat what students might hear from future college classmates.

Rabbi Marc Wolf is vice president of field advancement and advocacy at Prizmah, an umbrella organization of day school networks that studies and makes recommendations to day schools. He agrees with Grinfas-David on BDS. “I have seen that as a motivating factor for a number of the Jewish organizations that are interested in putting content out there to be able to be used to help frame the conversation about the modern state of Israel,” he says. “I think a lot of them are driven by concern for what students are going to encounter on campus.”

Contrasting values

For some students, says Erica Allen, a teacher at Krieger Schechter Day School, the contrast between the liberal values they learned at home — support for gay marriage, mixed seating in services and acceptance of non-Orthodox conversions — and what they learn when they step off the plane in Israel can be confusing.

“We value egalitarianism in this school,” Allen says, “and then the kids go to Israel in eighth grade, and they separate men and women at the Western Wall, which is a place our kids have always looked toward with great anticipation … and it’s like, ‘Oh, this is a little different from the values that we pray with every day at school.’”

Phil Jacobs’ senior class, which also makes an Israel trip, had similar discussions about Israeli approval of President Donald Trump and the tensions between Israeli and Diaspora Jews. Still, he says, they have to have these conversations because their ability to talk about tough subjects is invaluable.

“They come away with these tools in their tool kit,” he says.

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