Engaging with Israel on your own Terms

By Lisa Grant

As The Fragile Dialogue explores, Israel has quickly become one of the most polarizing forces in the North American Jewish Community. There are those who remain curious and committed, wanting to remain connected in some meaningful way. There are those who have effected a divorce, asserting Israel has no place in their lives. And there are those who are ambivalent, filled with questions, not sure what they think and feel. Many would consider the last two categories a failure in cultivating a passionate connection to Israel. I disagree. It seems to me that any conversation about Israel that engages people in open, honest exploration of issues and expression of questions and concerns is an educational success.

Our inability to articulate a compelling vision for Israel education may lie in our unwillingness to accept the inherent ambiguity in our stance toward Israel. Rather than embrace this ambiguity, we seek to harmonize and instrumentalize Israel so that it fits with the not-so-hidden curriculum of American Jewish education, which is, in essence, how to function as an American Jew. Inasmuch as Israel education can be used as a way to reinforce American Jewish identity, it is viewed as a positive. This has resulted in a “mythic” representation of Israel that, as Jonathan Sarna pointed out, has, “for well over a century . . . revealed more about American Jewish ideals than about Israeli realities.” Jewish education has reinforced this idealization of Israel to a great extent so that Israel can remain consistent with American conceptions of “Zion as it ought to be.” This means that we keep Israel at a distance through episodic and rather superficial encounters. We teach old conceptions and old narratives about Israel, because they are “safe” and because we don’t know what else to do. Indeed, it seems that a tacit assumption is made that only by first cultivating an uncritical “love of Israel” can we hope to engage American Jews at all.

To be sure, approaches that cultivate love can be effective for some. For increasing numbers, however, such approaches lead to dissonance, alienation, anger, and outright rejection, especially when they come to realize the mythic vision of Israel they were taught is vastly different from the much more complicated and often distressing reality. And, teaching only the “lovable” parts leaves our learners with, at best, a superficial understanding of why Israel is or could be significant in American Jewish life.

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