From the Foundation Team

Turning off the Bypass Road of Israel Education

– by Steven Green

February 27th, 2023

In the West Bank, one can travel directly from Jerusalem to Efrat to Ariel without having to go through Nablus, Rafa, or Ramallah.  There is a bypass road that avoids areas deemed to be troublesome, problematic, or unsafe. There is beauty (and efficiency) in a pathway that goes directly from point to point; a thoroughfare that provides feelings of safety and security while circumventing locations that are considered less desirable.

As a traveler, however, the bypass road is problematic. The traveler is only exposed to and interacts with a narrow group of people and their perspectives on life. Call it tribalism, isolationism, exceptionalism – the truth is one can traverse Israel and the Territories without ever seeing many of its inhabitants. The traveler on this road is cut off from difference.

At the end of January, I participated in Makom’s pilot training seminar, Dreams of Others, designed for educators seeking a deeper understanding of the Israeli Palestinian Conflict.  Over the course of five days, we went off the bypass road. Using the pedagogy of hesed (respect) and din (judgment) and a framework of dreams and nightmares to understand personal bespoke narratives, we visited the in-between spaces.  We visited the home of a Palestinian woman named Hinadi living in Silwan and the home of Ahron in Ir David, ostensibly in the same neighborhood while worlds apart.  We visited Mayor Oded Revivi in Efrat before meeting Ashraf Al Ajrami, the former Minister of Detainees and Ex-Detainees Affairs in the Palestinian Government, in Atarot.  We met with Palestinian and Jewish devotees of civil society and those with completely divergent viewpoints.  As expected, we heard about the safety and security concerns of Jewish Israelis and of the civil rights and democracy challenges of the Israeli Arabs and Palestinians. But we also learned that no segment of people can be cast as binary.

First, the beauty. The trip was partially defined by hospitality. This ranged from rugelach to baklawa; from traditional coffees and teas to sodas and spirits. There was not a home, office, or classroom that we entered without being welcomed as any guest would be, with open arms. This visit was co-created by R. Joe Schwartz, R. Danny Weininger, and Osnat Fox (The Education Lab of the Jewish Agency), and lead educators Mohammad Darawshe and Rebecca Bardach. I mention this both to credit these talented educators and to highlight the importance of having a Palestinian / Israeli Arab perspective and presence on this journey and a significant focus on processing.  It is one thing to have speakers show up with varying views; it is another entirely to build a program together which engenders trust and candor.

Experiential education like this is not without its challenges. A 24-year old Palestinian nonprofit CEO who traveled to meet the group was not dropped off by her Palestinian taxi driver outside of the restaurant in Gush et Tzion- rather she was left more than 1/2 a kilometer away because the driver feared he would be shot when opening the door in this settlement community.  Additionally, on our final day of travel, we were forced to take literal side streets as the main roads in the West Bank were closed after the Israeli raid in the Jenin refugee camp.  A terrorist attack outside a Jerusalem synagogue; a shooting in the Silwan neighborhood; and rockets overhead in and around Gaza followed over the subsequent 48 hours.  While not constant, fear is a reality for many.

In many ways, the last two decades of Israel education (both metaphorically and in some instances literally) have taken place on bypass roads.  These scenic passageways exposed learners to Israel’s achievements in science and technology; advancements in arts & culture; academic and athletic successes; and humanitarian accolades, often under the banner Israel Beyond the Conflict. On this bypass road, many educators and programs avoided topics like the second Intifada, the Lebanon War, Gaza incursions, and terror attacks. Certainly, meaningful discourse about the conflict has existed in some Jewish education settings, and many entities have engaged with Jewish and Arab Israelis, Palestinians, and Arab communities across the Middle East as a touch point for Israel travel experiences.  But, across the field writ large, this has been more of the exception than the rule. There is a difference between making space for a conversation and intentionally, regularly incorporating it into curriculum and practice.  More and more organizations in the field of Israel education are finally doing the latter, and we think our community and our next generation will be better off for it.

This new vertical builds on the vital work of educators and practitioners in developing the field of Israel education over the last two decades. Organizations like The iCenter, the Israel Institute, Makom, The Shalom Hartman Institute, The Center for Israel Education, and Israel Studies departments across North America emerged during that time. Parallel to this, talented individuals helped found immersive Israel travel providers for youth and young adults, including Birthright, Honeymoon Israel, iTrek, Onward Israel (which is now a part of Birthright), RootOne, Tamid, and many others.  Organizations existed before this but were far less interconnected.

Jerusalem overlook with Palestinian children’s cemetery in the foreground adjacent to an excavation site in Ir David / City of David

Jerusalem overlook with Palestinian children’s cemetery in the foreground adjacent to an excavation site in Ir David/City of David

The Jim Joseph Foundation is now following the lead of other philanthropists who have led the charge by investing in Israel education that includes the conflict. Conflict education is the more multilayered approach that engages with different perspectives and people. This approach trusts that offering a balance of perspectives will not turn a learner away; rather, it will have the opposite effect. Sivan Zakai, a researcher and professor who directs the Children Learning about Israel Project, argues that conflict can and should be taught from as early as Kindergarten and progressively build on that education as students increase their depth of knowledge and begin to understand more about nuance. Some organizations and initiatives, like For the Sake of Argument and Resetting the Table, focus on how to have and learn from courageous conversations. Others, like The iCenter’s Conflict Education, teach educators directly about the history and present of the conflict. Still others, like Makom, incorporate travel components to Israel and Palestinian territories as a way to deepen Israel education in a way that reflects the learners’ needs and the realities of our world today.

While the newer interventions themselves are formidable, we continue to invest in market studies, applied research, and evaluation to better understand both the opportunities and needs in the field today. Particularly over the last two years, practitioners, educators, and funders have encouraged many organizations in the field to embed conflict content into core offerings to create a deeper and more holistic understanding of Israel for learners.  The iCenter recently found that more than 130 initiatives now incorporate learning about conflict education related to Israel and the Middle East into their curricula.  This was not the case five years ago.

The purpose of the Dreams of Others Seminar and other conflict education experiences is not to change the minds of the participants. There is no political agenda. Rather, it is a deep learning and training opportunity to help educators create experiences for learners premised on connection, meaning, and purpose. Young Jewish learners are asking and, in some cases, yearning for an authentic approach to Israel that includes dialogue about the conflict from many vantage points.  In juxtaposing their universalist human values with their particular Jewish ones, many are finding the topic of Israel more of a wedge than an opportunity to engage. These immersive experiences can help them navigate and lean into nuance and varying perspectives. Similar to our belief in trust-based philanthropy as a methodology to achieve effective relational grantmaking we believe that we should trust the young Jewish women and men we serve to engage in courageous conversations as they build their complex identities.

We are grateful to the bold educators who are charting this path and engaging learners in holistic Israel education experiences—taking all of us off the bypass roads for a more impactful, more authentic learning experience.

Steven Green is Senior Director, Grants Management and Compliance at the Jim Joseph Foundation.

originally published in the Jerusalem Post.