Helping Our Students Hear the Voices
of the People with Whom
We Are Destined to Share the Land

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[This is the ninth article in our series on day school leadership from the Leadership Commons of the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education of JTS. In this series, alumni of our leadership institutes share their visions of effective day school leadership, reflecting on their aspirations for the field and describing paths toward those goals.]

By Harry Pell

My job as an educational leader is to make my students think.

Particularly when it comes to Israel, I feel obliged to responsibly expose my students to a broad spectrum of approaches and points of view so they may develop an enduring and committed relationship with Israel. In the absence of this kind of exposure, students today may assume they are being fed propaganda, which they reject instinctively.

Last year I was invited to join a journey through the Palestinian Territories to meet with and hear from Palestinian community leaders and activists. The speakers were carefully curated and our interactions set in the context of an itinerary that brought us to Bethlehem, Ramallah, and Arab neighborhoods in East Jerusalem that I had never visited. It also brought us to places that were familiar to me, like Gush Etzion and parts of the separation barrier, but I was able to see them from new and different perspectives.

The trip connected human voices and personal stories to the maps and statistics that I naturally gravitate to and thereby enriched my learning and my teaching. As a Jew committed to upholding and transmitting the values of Ahavat Yisrael (love of Israel) and Tselem Elohim (the idea that all mankind are created in God’s image), meeting and better understanding actual Palestinians furthered both of these values. I ultimately felt an overriding need to take advantage of this opportunity, as it fit my vision of Jewish leadership and my understanding of myself as a Jewish educator and educational leader.

In addition to what I would gain, my participation would be a window into the experience for my students as well. In this spirit, I decided to go.

The trip was indeed powerful. It was powerful to hear the voices of our Palestinian speakers – their joys and their frustrations, their hopes and their fears. I felt a strange sense of identification with some of our speakers, who understand the Jewish need for a state and homeland, and whose sense of identity and desire for their own state made sense to me through my Zionist worldview. I also felt deep pain and disappointment when one speaker explained that while he was happy to meet with us, we must understand that Judaism is a religion – not a nation, not a people – and that we have absolutely no need for or right to a land.

We heard from Palestinians with whom I could see eye to eye, and we heard from Palestinians whose words felt like daggers; yet I benefited from meeting each of them, even those with whom I disagreed. I also gained immensely from the cross-denominational richness of traveling with a cohort of Jewish leaders from different backgrounds and points on the political spectrum, each of whom loved Israel and, at the same time, felt a need to hear from Palestinians firsthand. I didn’t come home with answers, but I did return with an experience that I felt obligated to share with my students so that they could better understand the conflict and perhaps someday contribute to its resolution.

But how best to do that?

I believe that to be of greatest service to our students and our communities, we must be able to raise difficult issues around Israel openly and honestly. Still, I wanted to make sure my students and their families understood that my willingness to hear and, at times, identify with Palestinian points of view was not an abrogation of my love for or sense of responsibility toward the State of Israel. I decided to share the experience I’d had with my students and colleagues through a presentation of images, stories, and reflections from my journey so that they, too, could hear the voices I had heard.

To that end I developed a set of ground rules, most of which I believe have lasting value in raising difficult topics with our students and communities, especially about Israel and the conflict, but also for other sensitive issues.

State My Biases. I wanted to begin by sharing my sense of identity as a Zionist and my commitment to the other Jewish values that informed how I personally took in this experience. I also wanted my students to understand that for me, loving Israel has never equated to believing that Israel is perfect. While I would seek to present this as neutrally and objectively as possible, it is ultimately not a neutral topic for me.

Be Brutally Honest. While it might make me vulnerable, I would share the experiences that made me laugh and those that made me cry, and why. In seeking to invite them into my experience, I felt that my students deserved to hear as faithful a facsimile as I could muster. They deserved to feel the humanity of the Palestinians I met with – and mine.

Exercise Sensitivity in Using, Explaining, and Varying My Language. To some, the areas I visited are Yehudah v’Shomron; to others, the West Bank; and, to still others, the Occupied Territories; meanwhile most of our speakers simply welcomed us to Palestine. Nomenclature is important, and I committed to explaining the differences inherent in each of these terms and the truth within each of the terms to those who use them.

Choose the Program Title Carefully. I called it: “Hearing the Voices of the People with Whom We Are Destined to Share the Land,” and I made reference to that phrasing multiple times. Most Israelis and Palestinians, including all of the speakers we heard from, accept that the Jews and Arabs who live between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River are all there to stay. Moreover, they have been sharing the land in one way or another since the dawn of modern Zionism. The essential question – and I very much wanted this to be transparent to my students – was how the land will be shared in the future.

Avoid drawing direct conclusions. If I learned one thing in my travels, it is that Palestinian society and public opinion are as varied and complex as Israeli society and public opinion. I would be careful not to imply that I had discovered some new truth about the conflict that I expected my students to accept or adopt. I would share as much as I could of the experience with my students, expose them to the array of ideas and viewpoints to which I had been exposed, and leave them to draw their own conclusions. If we want to empower our students to think deeply about any sensitive topic, we must first make sure we are not telling them what to think.

I shared my presentation on a Friday and sought to uphold the ground rules to which I had committed. By the end I felt good, but exhausted, and very ready for Shabbat. The responses took a couple days and came in a variety of forms, but mostly fit a pattern: “We heard about your Israel presentation on Friday and it made for a serious discussion at our Shabbat dinner table. You really made my kid think.”

And that was the goal all along.

Rabbi Harry Pell serves as the associate head of school for Jewish life and learning at Schechter Westchester, as well as rabbinic mentor within DSLTI. He holds degrees from The Davidson School and The Rabbinical School of JTS, and an undergraduate degree in architecture from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Harry is a former US Navy Reserve Chaplain and guides Jewish heritage travel in Italy and Eastern Europe.

The program described was planned and sponsored by Encounter, a diverse community of Jewish leaders ready to encounter the complex stories, people, and places at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. www.encounterprograms.org

Cross-posted from eJewishPhilanthropy.com.

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