Family & Education

The challenge of teaching about Israel

Schools must distinguish between education and advocacy


Israel education has become an increasingly challenging area for Jewish schools. On the one hand, they look to promote understanding of and a sense of connection with the Jewish state. On the other, if they ignore difficult questions, they lay themselves open to accusations of being agents of propaganda rather than education.

A one-sided approach can lead to a backlash, as has sometimes happened. One of the testimonies published by the left-wing Jewish group Na’amod, in its campaign to expose “anti-Palestinian racism” within the Jewish community, comes from Josh Cohen, who attended JFS from 2004 to 2011 and even studied in Israel for three months on a school scheme.

“We were taught about the food, culture and history of Israel, from Herzl until the ‘90s,” he wrote. “A lot of what we learnt was fantastic, but there was a gaping hole in the syllabus – the perspective of the Palestinian people. Palestinians were only referenced as an obstacle, a safety threat and a thorn in the side of Jewish freedom and safety.

“In the rare instances that a student asked about the plight of Palestinians, they were quickly, and often angrily, shut down.”

Palestinians were “never portrayed as complex people, with various outlooks, religious beliefs and political ideologies. They were instead defined only by terrorism, religious fundamentalism and bigotry.

“Growing up steeped in the Jewish history of persecution and injustice, this wholesale discarding of a group’s humanity felt wrong to me. Even as someone who was critical of the official doctrine, I am still amazed to find how much of the bigotry I was taught can still surreptitiously colour my understanding of events in Israel-Palestine.”

Israel education has moved on in some ways. A JFS group, for example, recently took part in a debate run by Parallel Histories, the charity which presents events from both Israeli and Palestinian points of view.

The school’s new head, David Moody, who arrived at the end of last year, said he was “hugely impressed by the thought and care I see going into our curriculum. It is a curriculum that promotes both our Zionist ethos and Jewish values whilst also supporting our students to understand the complexities of the situation in the Middle East.”

READ MORE: We need to show our youth the right way to argue

How schools can keep their political balance

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