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Opening Up Israel Education

by Michael Emerson | Published on May 1, 2010

In Sanhedrin 39b the famous midrash is recorded that as the Egyptians were drowning in the sea, the Angels requested permis­sion to sing Shirah, songs of praise, for God’s hand­i­work. God responds angrily, “Ma’asei yadai tove’im ba-yam, ve-atem omerim shira?” “My hand­i­work is drowning in the sea, and you would recite song?”

While this midrash might be cliché in more progres­sive circles, it reveals to us a powerful point that I believe can give us a greater under­standing of the role Encounter can play in the North American Jewish Community.

You are charged with educating our youth and Israel educa­tion must be at the core of this educa­tional model. We are facing a new era in which the younger gener­a­tions of American Jews are feeling discon­nected to Israel and her fate. Their parents and teachers are avoiding talking about Israel because of the emotions and tension that is often produced from such a conver­sa­tion. In that vacuum they are attending univer­si­ties where the primary discus­sions of Israel focus on her viola­tions of human rights and dismissing her right to exist as a country.

It would be great if I could tell you that our goal is to change the facts on the ground, solve the conflict, and find a way to imple­ment broad ranging peace between Israelis and Palestinians. But for goals to be real­istic they must exist at the inter­sec­tion between desir­ability, viability, and feasi­bility. There are lots of goals that are desir­able, but completely unfea­sible for the American Jewish commu­nity. We are not going to bring about peace or an end to the conflict. That is some­thing that will come about when the Israeli and Palestinian commu­ni­ties are each ready to come to the table and make compro­mises and find solu­tions. So what can we do? How can we educate our campers, students, and chil­dren? What goals can we give them?

That’s where we come back to the midrash from Kriat Yam Suf. God acted in a neces­sary way that would bring about the redemp­tion of His people. But even if the act was justi­fied and neces­sary, He could not tolerate those around Him losing sight of the bigger picture. His creations were dying and that had to be recog­nized and remem­bered even in the midst of this great miracle.

Now we are not on the level of God and we can’t simply say that Israel’s actions are justi­fied and that’s final. But while Israel’s right to exist and continued survival remain threat­ened, and while Israeli society slowly recovers from the trauma of terrorist attacks that have plagued the country, there will be steps taken in the name of national secu­rity to protect Israeli citi­zens and her inhab­i­tants. The ques­tion is when these deci­sions are made, are we fully taking into account the hard­ships and pain for those Palestinians who are inno­cent and truly want peace and coex­is­tence? Are we making sure that young Israeli soldiers who put their lives on the line for the country’s secu­rity are given sensi­tivity training and learn how to treat Palestinians that pass by their check­points? Are we raising our youth to appre­ciate the humanity of the Palestinian people and that they too have suffered in many ways?

These are the ques­tions that we can begin raising with our campers and students. We must find a way to educate our students with a loyalty to Israel that is uncon­di­tional, yet still to examine issues with a crit­ical eye and looking for ways to improve in the future. We must raise students that shy away from extremism to the Right or to the Left, and are instead willing to create a new center, one that believes in Israel, supports her ability to protect herself, and yet still cries when they see the Palestinian father burying his three chil­dren killed during the war in Gaza, and suffers with the Palestinian farmer that had ¾ of his crop uprooted and stolen, and feels the humil­i­a­tion of Shireen as she tries to take her niece to the Zoo only to be stopped and inter­ro­gated for hours at the checkpoint.

Michael is a smicha student at Yeshiva University and a Wexner Graduate Fellow studying Jewish Education. He prepared this presen­ta­tion for the Encounter Taking it Home Dinner in May, 2010, as an example of how he would speak to fellow admin­is­tra­tors or faculty at a Jewish day school about the impor­tance of crit­i­cally studying Israel’s actions and poli­cies in Israel Education.

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Encounter is an edu­ca­tional orga­ni­za­tion dedi­cated to strength­ening the capacity of the Jewish people to be construc­tive agents of change in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Moti­vated by the relent­less Jew­ish pur­suit of hokhma (wis­dom) and binah (under­stand­ing), Encounter cul­ti­vates informed Jew­ish lead­er­ship on the Israeli-Palestinian con­flict by bring­ing…

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