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Israel Education in the Diaspora

This blog post is written by Nathaniel Katz, a Yahel Social Change fellow living and working in Haifa.

Last week, at the local elementary school in which I teach, I sat in on a class that was learning about Tu Bishvat. The speakers, two women who were brought in from a local religious Zionist organization, taught the students about the uniqueness of Israel as a country, focusing specifically on its diversity of fruits and landscapes. While the discussion was nothing out of the ordinary for an Israeli classroom full of Israeli students, what surprised me was how oddly reminiscent this lesson was to the ones that I had experienced as a student growing up in a country on the other side of the world.

Every year on the 15th day of Shevat, despite the cold, snowy, and dark February weather outside our classroom, my classmates and I marked the start of Israeli spring with a Tu Bishvat ‘seder’. Each student was assigned an Israeli fruit to bring in, such as dates, pomegranates, or apricots, and with the aid of games and songs, we celebrated spring as if we were in warm and sunny Israel.

At my elementary school, we spent a lot of time talking about Israel, from the country’s role in technological advancements, like drip-irrigation or the USB key, to its military victories and political successes. In fact, we spent so much time learning about the country that by my primary school graduation, I could have told you more about Israel than I could about Canada, the country in which I was born and raised. Despite the fact that few students in my class had ever been to Israel, and almost none of us could hold a conversation in Hebrew, we were taught about Israel as if it were our home. I now realize that we often knew even more about some Israeli subjects than Israeli children did themselves.

Zionism as the right to self-determination of the Jewish people to have an independent and safe country makes sense to me. So too does celebrating religious holidays, such as Tu Bishvat, in the diaspora according to seasons in the Land of Israel, as has been done for two-thousand years of Jewish exile. However, what does not make sense to me, nor to most Israelis with whom I talk about my childhood education, is the way in which Israeli nationalism is practiced and taught in non-Israeli communities outside of Israel.

The more time I spend in Israel, the more I recognize that the Israel I was taught to love and support unequivocally was a highly curated version of the real thing. Expatriate teachers and Jewish Agency emissaries sent abroad to champion the State of Israel could only do so much. No matter how much we learn about Israel, how many Israeli fruits we eat, or how many Hebrew words we study, without living in Israel, as diaspora Jews we can never understand what it is really like to be Israeli.

Israelis are well aware that their country is not perfect. Even Israeli children are aware of the difficulties that come with living in a country facing an ever-present threat of war, religious conflict, and political unrest. Living in Israel, one comes to recognize that everyday life, from slow and overcrowded trains, to high grocery costs, to poorly insulated buildings, is not easy. Yet, for us students in the diaspora, Israel was taught as a perfect utopia, a haven for Jewish life; where all citizens, no matter their background, live in peace and harmony; and where the government respects everyone. Of course none of these claims are true, yet as students living outside of the country we did not know any better. We took in what we were taught and we believed our teachers.

Genuine and honest nationalism requires recognizing the faults of one’s homeland, and as a result, Israel has some of the most patriotic citizens in the world. But by not exposing us foreigners to any negatives, the Israeli nationalism that we were taught to embrace was little more than an idealistic illusion.

As the reality of life in Israel begins to sink in, especially for those struggling on the margins of society, two big questions have arisen me: Why do Jewish elementary schools outside of Israel place such a large focus on ensuring that Jewish students unquestionably support the state of Israel, and what are the implications of this manufactured Israeli nationalism?

Beyond the simple explanation of Israel being the traditional Jewish homeland, one possible reason for why Jewish diaspora communities place so much focus on ensuring that Jewish students care about Israel may be financial. A few weeks ago, we met with an Israeli fundraising consultant who made clear to us just how dependent Israel is, and has been since its earliest days, on foreign money. She explained that the connection diaspora Jews have with Israel, shaped in large part by their education, influences their willingness to fund Israel initiatives. Could it be that our schools hoped that by making us ‘true Zionists’ they could ensure that we would support Israel in the future?

A second potential explanation may be a desire for Jews to move to Israel, in order to fulfil a religious obligation or ensure that Israel remains a predominantly Jewish country. I do not doubt that if my primary school teachers knew that I was living and volunteering in Israel right now, and writing a blog post about Israeli nationalism, however critical it may be, they would be proud.

When children are taught to believe one thing to be true and later find that what they learned isn’t in fact true, confusion and anger often arise. The way that diaspora elementary schools teach about Israel can be polarizing - while many students will learn for themselves later in life that life in Israel is a neither perfect nor terrible place, others keep hold of their ingrained beliefs so strongly that they ignore the struggles of those on the margins of Israeli society, and some even turn their backs on Israel, feeling as though they have been deceived by those they placed their trust in. If we want to understand Israel as it really is, students like me, brought up in the diaspora Jewish schools, are required to relearn almost everything about Israel for ourselves. In the few months that I’ve been in Israel I have learnt significantly more about Israel than I did in my decade of pro-Israel education.

By presenting only part of the picture of Israel to students, and hiding the challenges facing marginalized communities such as those living in Kiriyat Chaim, our elementary school education led us to believe that the most pressing issue facing Israel in the 2000s was a lack of trees. For us students at my Jewish elementary school, donating to the Jewish National Fund (known in Hebrew as the Karen Kayemet Le’Israel) was seen as the pinnacle of ‘Tikun Olam’, repairing the world through acts of love and kindness. Every year on Tu Bishvat, my elementary school gave out blue charity boxes from the KKL-JNF, with funds primarily going towards planting trees in forests across Israel and the West Bank, along with periphery infrastructure projects and youth programming.

The JNF Blue Box, It is a symbol – a symbol of JNF and its effort to develop the land, plant parks and forests, prepare the ground for settlement and agriculture and build roads and water reservoirs
A JNF Blue Box sitting on a shelf at my childhood home in Toronto.

Major Israeli organizations, including the KKL-JNF, continue to receive millions of dollars annually from donors around the world because they are excellent at branding themselves as essential to Israel’s survival as a Jewish homeland. Meanwhile, smaller NGOs that contribute significantly more to social change by providing for those most in need in Israeli society, such as asylum-seekers or low-income families, often lack the funds they require to fulfill their goals. To ensure that the most critical issues facing Israeli society are addressed, diaspora Jews must be made aware of the realities on the ground in this country. This awareness must begin with proper Israel education in childhood.

As a youngster, I didn’t question why we were celebrating the start of Israeli spring in the middle of Canadian winter, or why we were marking the national holidays of a country over 10 hours away. Without ever having been there, without speaking the language or fully understanding the culture, as diasporic Jewish children, we were made to feel as though the last century of Israeli history, of wars and conflicts, as well as successes, was somehow for us. Israel should be a part of the curriculum at Jewish schools in the diaspora, and Jewish students should know that Israel is there if they ever need it. However, Jewish schools in the diaspora must be willing to teach about Israel as it really is, including both its highs and lows, and allow their students to form their own relationships to the land.


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