Mature Zionism: Education and the Scholarly Study of Israel

Jun. 28, 2015

Source: Journal of Jewish Education, Volume 81, Issue 2, pages 136 -161


A new approach to Israel education has emerged to counteract what has been a tendency to romanticize Israel by avoiding criticism; it presumes that Israel engagement has much to offer a meaningful Jewish identity, but only when encountered critically, taking into account Israel’s many complexities. However, prevailing scholarly trends may not provide a clear stance on which to base critique and academic criticism may raise hard questions about the very idea of a Jewish and democratic state. This article addresses these concerns by offering a conceptual framework for scholarly study of Israel called “Mature Zionism” in which to ground a critical engagement with Israel that is genuinely educational.


Pedagogy of Difference and Israel Education

How then is it possible for Israel education to consider complexity and criticism grounded in academic research, given that the relevant scholarly trends may not provide a clear critical stance on which to base this critique? And, how is it possible to educate toward a positive engagement with Israel, given that the scholarship-based criticism this education requires may raise hard questions about the very idea of a Jewish and democratic state? At least four consequences follow from the foregoing analyses that allow us to address these questions.


First, all education, worthy of the name, entails initiation into an articulate and defensible normative point of view. Israel education is no exception. However, this process of initiation constitutes an instance of education, as opposed to indoctrination, to the extent that this normative perspective is dynamic as opposed to dogmatic, to the degree that it embraces the conditions of human agency: the freedom of scholars, teachers, and students to choose a vision of the good life, to understand basic moral distinctions according to that vision, such as the difference between better and worse or right and wrong, and the capacity to err in their understanding and application of those distinctions. Applied to Israel education, this analysis yields what I have called a mature Zionist perspective. This perspective maintains the legitimacy of a Jewish and democratic state according to multiple interpretations of the Zionist idea, provided they appreciate Israel’s complexities, based on a critical engagement with concrete realities, grounded in a fair assessment of the relevant scholarship.


Second, all education, therefore, involves initiation into what might be called a narrative of primary identity, in which one learns to situate one’s moral compass, as it were—the criteria according to which one can assess the meaning and purpose of one’s own beliefs and practices, as well as those of others. By the same token, Israel education from a mature Zionist perspective needs not only to consider information grounded in the relevant disciplines of Israel studies, but to do so in pursuit of a meaningful personal identity. Experiential Israel education has an especially important role to play in this connection, since it offers a variety of pathways for learners to seek meaningful connections to the realities of Israel as part of their own personal stories.


Third, to maintain a critical perspective without an Archimedean viewpoint from which to assess multifaceted data or a total absence of domination that does not devolve into another form of domination in its own right, initiation into a dynamic narrative of primary identity, such as one or another interpretation of Zionism, is not sufficient. A critical attitude also requires a willingness to engage alternative, even rival, orientations in dialogue. Such an attitude is achieved, in this view, in conversation among perspectives associated with identities to which one is heir or with which one chooses to affiliate, from the inside, as it were, and alternative, even rival, orientations, from the outside, so to say.


Complexity in Israel education may be grounded in any of the scholarly trends discussed here, therefore, provided alternatives are also considered that raise the difficulties entailed in each. This could include, for example, (a) contrasting the republican narrative concerning the establishment of the Jewish state with postmodern accounts of the so-called Palestinian catastrophe or liberal calls for a state of all its citizens; (b) weighing arguments for and against expanding Israeli settlements in what some call the West Bank and others Judaea and Samaria; or (c) considering various perspectives on relations between Jews and Arabs, Ashkenazim and Mizrachim, veterans and new immigrants, or women and men in Israel or strategies used by the Israeli Defense Forces to respond to missile attacks by Hezbollah in the north or Hamas in the south.


Fourth and finally, dialogue of the sort advocated here is not unrestricted. Each position should be subjected to relevant critique from alternative vantage points, but participants in the discussion should not be allowed to deny the legitimacy of one another’s positions or to discount a colleague’s affiliations or identities. Such a dialogue should not, for example, include perspectives that deny the right of Jews or Palestinians to political self-determination or cultural self-expression in their homeland, since these lie outside the boundaries of human agency by limiting the freedoms of others. In addition to a personal narrative in which Israel plays a meaningful role, education in Mature Zionism also requires, at the appropriate developmental stage, a critical literacy that enables learners to distinguish perspectives that pursue dialogue from those that seek domination.


Students learn how to discover problems in their own received narratives or in the narratives they have chosen by viewing them from alternative perspectives. They also learn how to discern difficulties in those alternatives from the viewpoint of one another or from the position of the learner’s primary or adopted narratives, all within the boundaries of human agency. Following Jonathan Sacks, I have called this the pedagogy of difference. It is this sort of pedagogy that ought to guide engagement with Israel from a mature Zionist perspective at the appropriate level of development, inside and outside the classroom, in the precollegiate education of Diaspora youth, if not also at the university level, for Jews and non-Jews, in Israel and abroad.

Updated: Jun. 10, 2015