Shaul Magid responds to Daniel Lehmann’s essay, “Beyond Continuity, Identity, and Literacy” on Jewish education, highlighting the role of Israel in Jewish Education in America today.
The question of Israel is indeed a vexing one. Many of us who remember Israel before 1967 and who were raised on Leon Uris’ Exodus and Otto Preminger’s film version of that mythic novel must remember that our students only know a much complex Israel, more Western, economically stable, and also mired in managing a 45 year occupation. Many students may ask why Israel should be important at all, or why they should learn about Israel when Israelis learn almost nothing about the contemporary diaspora. Many will argue that Israel does not embody the democratic values they learned were sacred in America.
I think the question “why Israel?” should be an operative one in Jewish education today. We may take that for granted but they may not. Their experience is very different than ours. Assuming Israel is or should be a central part of American Jewish identity formation is more indoctrination than education, at least along the lines Lehmann suggests. Can Jewish education in American today have room for Jewish non-Zionism or even anti-Zionism? If not, why not? I think the Israel curriculum in American Jewish education is in dire need of reformation. It rests on a foundation that is simply outdated and does not speak to the reality of Israel today. The question “How do we teach Israel as a centerpiece of Jewish identity?” should include, in my view, the question “Why teach Israel as a centerpiece of Jewish identity?” allowing for contesting viewpoints and arguments.