When researchers at the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA) reported earlier this year that public school history textbooks and curricular materials were indoctrinating students against Israel, some high school officials were dismissive, writes CAMERA's Jonah Cohen.
Some 80 students from 13 different countries participated in a high-level training conference that prepares students to make Israel's case to various audiences, including anti-Israel professors and campus activists, many of whom lead the BDS campaign against the Jewish state. "There's a global problem, which is attested this year by the many countries the kids are coming from. But the very good news is the spirit and positive energy of the wonderful students who care about Israel and its cause,” said Andrea Levin, executive director of CAMERA, the conference's organizer.
Anti-Israel bias in the textbooks used by many American high schools may be to blame for the decrease in sympathy for Israel among young adults. “The problem starts in high school,” said Dr. Sandra Alfonsi, longtime director of Hadassah’s “Curriculum Watch” division. “There’s no doubt the lack of sympathy for Israel on college campuses today is at least partly the result of several generations of teenagers being educated with textbooks that are slanted against Israel.” One of the controversial texts used in high schools around the country is the “Arab World Studies Notebook,” which depicts Israel as the aggressor in every Arab-Israeli war and praises Muslim conquerors for their “gentle treatment of civilian populations.”
By day, Liora Brosbe is the family engagement officer for the Jewish Federation of the East Bay in California. When she’s not at work, Brosbe’s main job is raising three kids. Their home? A laboratory for Jewish learning strategies. “Yes, they’re little petri dishes,” their mom says. “Like most families, screen time is a huge issue at our house, both for time and content. But I tell families it’s also an amazing opportunity for low-barrier Jewish engagement.” With an avalanche of new technologies, educators, funders and parents are often befuddled about where to invest their money and their kids’ or students’ time. A newly released study on educational technology and digital engagement aims to guide the Jewish community through this complex space.
For Shani Tauber, it all came together when her group left the house of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the religious Zionism pioneer. “We were coming back through the streets of Jerusalem when all of a sudden it hit me: We are walking the land where everything we’ve been learning happened,” says Tauber. “And I realized it’s not theoretical here. You can feel how real it is.” Tauber, who hails from New Jersey, is one of 15 women spending the year in Jerusalem in a new program that immerses educators in Jewish texts and history in the very land where the events transpired. The seeds of the Eshkolot program were planted several years ago when Malke Bina, founder of the Jewish education organization Matan, was visiting the U.S. to meet with day school leaders for what she calls “brainstorming how to revolutionize Jewish education in the diaspora.” Jonathan Sarna, the renowned professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University, explains that “Jewish education in the diaspora suffers from a remoteness from our story, so this program exports some of its excitement to help transform Jewish education there.”
In the wake of a recent controversial decision where haredi (ultra-Orthodox) students in Israel are missing out on the secular education they need to succeed in the modern employment market, education experts say more is needed to bring together students of diverse backgrounds and level the playing field with an eye toward the country’s future.
“The content of Israel education is not Israel—but rather the relationship with Israel,” writes Barry Chazan, professor emeritus of education at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. “The aim of Israel education is not Israel—but rather finding a meaningful role for Israel in our lives.” Chazan’s outlook is the same one that served as a spark for the formation of the iCenter program, which invests in Israel-focused professional development opportunities for educators that work at camps, day schools, synagogues, on Taglit Birthright trips, and more. Anne Lanski, executive director of iCenter, tells JNS.org that her team is working to shift educators’ mindset from one of curriculum and information to a focus on the learner—so that students begin to understand Israel and information about it “in the context of something relevant and meaningful to them.”
Ever since Dan Senor and Saul Singer’s 2009 book “Start-up Nation” came out, the Israeli innovation scene has received significant attention. In more recent years, students from one of America’s most prestigious MBA programs have also been noticing Israel. Since 2014, Cornell University’s one-year Johnson Cornell Tech MBA program has included the iTrek course—a three-month intensive interaction with Israeli start-ups that culminates with a 12-day group trip to Israel, during which students deliver actionable solutions to their start-up clients. Roni Michaely, lead instructor of iTrek, interviews more than 100 Israeli start-ups to select between 20 and 30 companies with whom the students work. The students identify a pain point—anything from market strategy to product selection to financial challenges—and then work in teams to solve the issues. Students have weekly Skype meetings with company executives, conduct background research, and develop recommendations.
Rooted in decades of state-sanctioned anti-Semitism and contempt for Israel, many Egyptians know little of the history and culture of their Jewish neighbors. Although Egypt and Israel signed a peace treaty nearly 40 years ago, only a cold peace exists, with virtually no interaction between the Israeli and Egyptian people. But amid the ongoing upheaval in the Middle East region, some Egyptians—aided by a warming of relations between Arab states and Israel—are seeking to change that status quo and bring a new outlook to their country. Their proposed vehicle for change? Education. Recently, a 9th-grade Egyptian textbook drew headlines because its revisions featured a shift from open contempt for Israel to a more positive emphasis on peace, including a focus on the 1979 Egypt-Israel peace treaty.
Inviting tomorrow’s doctors to fall in love with Israel today. That’s the idea behind the American Physicians Fellowship for Medicine (APF), a specialized track within the Taglit-Birthright Israel program offering free trips to Israel for Jews ages 18-26. For the last 11 years, APF has been showing current and future medical professionals from across North America the Israel most of them have only seen in news reports—while creating memories, loyalties, and friendships designed to last a lifetime. “It’s amazing to see what a small country can do, to train their doctors and EMTs to be ready for anything on a daily basis,” said Kathryn Shapero of Boise, Idaho, a veterinarian. “These are challenges that American medical schools don’t have to think much about.”
When the Pew Research Center published its much-discussed survey of American Jews in 2013, the findings seemed auspicious for the Orthodox denomination. The Orthodox share of U.S. Jewry is growing and the falloff from Orthodoxy appears to be declining, meaning it looks like Orthodox Jewish education is working. So why did Yeshiva University (YU) feel the need to recently host a symposium in Jerusalem, titled “Modern Orthodox Education in 21st Century Israel & America,” at which presenters were asked to undergo a communal spiritual accounting of the state of the “modern Orthodox” educational system? The balance between “modern” and “Orthodox,” presenters said, is becoming increasingly hard to achieve. “We are asking students to care about an engage with universal human concerns and at the same time to recognize there are distinct Jewish conventional concerns,” said Karen Bacon, dean of the undergraduate faculty of arts and sciences at YU.
Cindy Marten respects private educational institutions in the Jewish community and elsewhere, but at the very least, she believes that Jewish parents should give public school a chance. The superintendent of San Diego Unified School District—California’a second-largest school district and the eighth-largest in the country, serving 109,785 enrolled students across 180 schools K-12—Marten calls a strong public school the foundation of a healthy city and community. “The foundation of our democracy is a high-quality public education system, and I want our families and our [Jewish] community to understand that you don’t have to go to private school to get a great education. ... I would challenge our community to say, go to your local neighborhood school. Meet the principal. Take a tour of the school. Ask questions,” Marten tells JNS.org.
Non-Jewish teachers who have participated in the Alfred Lerner Fellowship for Holocaust educators, which is organized by the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous (JFR), say the program leaves a lasting impression. “We’re not talking statistics here, 6 million, X number of Jews, X number of POWs,” said Amy McDonald, a fellowship participant who teaches history at Shades Valley High School in Birmingham, Ala. “What it boils down to is the tragedy of each individual life and each family.” For the annual fellowship, JFR selects 30 middle and high school English or social studies teachers from the U.S. and other countries who already teach about the Holocaust. The teachers first take part in an intensive summer institute at Columbia University in New York City, and then have the option of joining a two-week tour of Holocaust sites in Europe. While JFR does not ask about participants’ religion in the application process, most teacher fellows have been non-Jewish.
In April, Israel’s educational system, which is essentially charged with shaping the country’s future, was handed over to Member of Knesset Naftali Bennett, the chairman of the Habayit Hayehudi (Jewish Home) political party. Israeli schools have been suffering from overcrowding, among other predicaments. A teachers’ strike in Jerusalem earlier this summer called on the government to evaluate the situation and offer answers before the Sept. 1 start of the school year. What is Israel’s plan to deal with these challenges and to improve schooling in the Jewish state? Education Minister Bennett gives his take in an exclusive interview with JNS.org.
“The students are not coming here to save the world. But hopefully they can give as much as possible,” says Rabbi Kiva Rabinksy, director of the Counterpoint Israel program. The summertime initiative recently completed its 10th year, with camps in Kiryat Gat, Kiryat Malachi, Dimona, and Arad. The month-long immersive service-learning program aims to empower the next generation of Israeli youths by teaching them English and offering them an exciting, American-style, Jewish values-driven summer camp. Counterpoint Israel also hopes to instill in Yeshiva University students, who serve as counselors, a sense of civic responsibility before they return to school in the fall.