Aug 26, 2022 eJewish Philanthropy

By Rebecca Lewis

Growing up in the U.K. my experience with Israel education was utopic; just like Cinderella and Snow White, Israel had a fairy-tale story.

Once upon a time lived a girl named Israel. Her life was sad, she had no independence. One day, a knight in shining armor, Herzl, joined by his army, the Zionists, came to save Israel. From that day on, Israel became the most popular girl in all the land—everybody loved her. Israel and all her friends lived happily ever after. The End.

Of course, I now realize just how damaging this approach to Israel education is. With negative rhetoric surrounding Israel often hijacking many news outlets and social discourse in the U.K. and other Western societies, some Israel educators feel a responsibility to present a utopian narrative in order to encourage young Jewish people to build a meaningful relationship with the State of Israel. However, in doing so, this completely ignores the nuances, complexity and sensitive topics surrounding the Jewish state. It also means that any relationship between a young person and Israel that is formed is shallow, unsubstantiated and delicate.  By shying away from the central theme–Israel–and replacing it with an artificial fantasy, Israel educators are stunting the ability for meaningful conversations, pragmatic solutions to difficult questions and, to put it bluntly, feeding their students a delusional and harmful narrative. Israel education cannot be treated as a simple matter; Israel is multifaceted. It is the educator’s duty to explore and confront the different layers surrounding Israel education. However, this is far easier said than done, and now, as an educator myself, I am still understanding the best methods and practices to ensure that young Jewish people are exploring the nuances regarding Israel Education, whilst also supporting them in forming a meaningful relationship with Israel.

For the past 3 years, I have worked for Diller Teen Fellows as the Diller U.K. coordinator. As part of the yearlong leadership programme for 16–17-year-old Jewish teenagers, we tackle the topics of Jewish identity, Israel, and Tikkun Olam/social justice. It goes without saying that every year the topic of Israel is one that leaves me second-guessing my abilities as an educator. The reason I fell in love with Diller as an organization was because it was my first time experiencing a Jewish organization that did not have an agenda or ulterior motive. The only real goal of the Diller Teen Fellowship programme is to ensure that young people are empowered and form their own opinions. Therefore, when it comes to approaching the topic of Israel, it truly is a challenge. On the one hand, I want to ensure that my Fellows are not subjected to the same Israel education as generations past. Yet, it is also fundamental to their growth and experience in the Diller programme that they are not simply fed my personal opinions/perspectives.

Through embarking on The iCenter’s Graduate Degree in Israel education at the George Washington University, I have learnt through my own first-hand experiences that the most effective way to engage in Israel education is through encounters/mifgashim. In other words, meeting Israelis from different walks of life, and engaging in their different narratives and culture is the way in which we can provide young people with a tool kit to then go on and build a meaningful connection with the Jewish State. By engaging with Israelis on the ground, students are exposed to unfiltered and unabridged narratives. It’s not buzzwords, news stories or infographics; rather, it’s real life and real experiences. Often, Jewish organizations have the habit of fixating on ‘The Conflict.’ In turn, this becomes the sole narrative of Israel education. Of course, this is a crucial part of the Israel story. However, Israel education is so much richer than this. It is of paramount importance that educators explore other aspects of Israel in order to support young Jewish people in building their connection with Israel.

So, perhaps as educators, we need to think of Israel education less as a Disney fairy-tale and more as a trip to Disney World. Just like Disney World, there can be lots of waiting around for something spectacular that sometimes is anti-climactic. There are journeys full of ups and downs, and lots of twists and turns. There can be debates about the best rides, where to eat and whether the fries were worth the $15. Disney World is also unique, with a complex map that can be confusing, and cause tensions. Some would even call Disney World a little bit magical. Despite the postcards, movies and anecdotes from family members, the only real way to experience Disney World is just like that of Israel Education- you have to be there on the ground, meeting the people and experiencing it for yourself.

Rebecca Lewis is the U.K. program coordinator of Diller Teen Fellows. She is currently a participant in The iCenter’s graduate degree in Israel education program at George Washington University.