Israel Education and Action
This week was full of wonderful, meaningful moments here at Gesher. One of my perennial favorites took place on Monday in our 8th grade Jewish History course, which is taught by Mrs. Nachbar. While she will tell you repeatedly that as a former lawyer she is not “an educator,” her course is outstanding, and it is widely considered a challenging and rewarding capstone experience in our school. On Monday, the 8th grade students arrived at school in costume, ready to take their places as actors (or re-enactors) at the First Zionist Congress, convened in Basle, Switzerland in 1897 by Theodore Herzl. The students prepared for this creative and memorable assessment for several weeks, researching individual positions and historical events using primary and secondary material for high level synthesis and analysis. When they step up to the podium in character they demonstrate evidence of significant learning and mastery of material that will be crucial as they move on to become educated advocates of Israel and the right of Jews to determine our own destiny.
This moment is powerful for me as a Jewish educator because it demonstrates excellence in so many ways. It is an authentic assessment, in which students get to practice a wide range of skills as they demonstrate their knowledge. It is important, because it sets the stage and offers context without which it is impossible to understand the current situation in the Middle East and in Israel, and we know that our students will go on to educational environments in which someone will try to villify our homeland. It is a great example of the “guide on the side, not sage on a stage” approach to pedagogy that we espouse and believe allows students to truly own their learning. It is memorable and fun, and I am certain that no one who participates in this experience will forget it. Finally, it is so wonderful to see our students write and speak clearly and confidently in front of peers, parents, and faculty – these are also crucial skills for them to practice and master during their early educational years.
On Tuesday, I taught the second session of our new Melton course on the origins of the modern Jewish denominations, and one of the readings was an excerpt of a speech given by Rabbi Joseph Meier in Germany in 1844. In that speech, he lists the “return to Palestine” alongside two other events widely considered impossible by educated Jewry at that time – the coming of the Messiah and the return to the “sacrificial cult” practices of early Judaism. Only 50 years before Herzl convened the Zionists, prominent thinkers couldn’t possibly have imagined the situation we take for granted – that Jews would have a state of their own on the same land we were exiled from thousands of years ago. It is hard for people my age and younger to truly grasp just how miraculous Israel is, because it has always been there for us.
Many (too many) Jews in the millennial generation and younger have gotten caught up in powerful propaganda efforts to denigrate Israel – efforts that are rooted in real anti-Semitism. Of course Israel is not perfect, and there are plenty of reasons to criticize it, as there are for every single nation and government since the dawn of human society. Israel’s detractors and boy-cotters often forget that the connection between Jews and Israel is thousands of years old, and that our return to sovereignty in that land is a unique example of a diaspora population successfully returning to its original land. Imagine what would happen if Native American nations tried to reclaim sovereign control over Washington D.C., which certainly was not originally populated by European colonists. That is the mistake made in the BDS claim that “white Europeans” (Eastern European Jews) are enacting some colonial narrative in Israel in which the “natives” (Arabs) are chased off of their land. That happened during the actual colonization of the Middle East by European nations like France and England. That is not the story of the Jews in Israel.
I’m proud to share that I sometimes hear stories from Gesher alumni or alumni parents in which a high school teacher or college teacher says something ignorant about Israel, and a student who has learned history with Mrs. Nachbar has the confidence and information they need to stand up politely and correct them. I hope that Israel will return to being a unifying force in the American Jewish community, but meanwhile, we are doing our part to give our children real facts and critical thinking skills, so that they can make informed decisions and become ethical advocates.