“Politics and Nuance in Israel”
American and Israeli students are learning how to refrain from jumping to quick conclusions and to appreciate the political leaders of the past and present.
By Rick Brody
On Monday, we visited the Ehad Ha’am School in Petach Tikvah, where our students interacted with Israeli peers. I had the chance to sit in on some of the classroom activities they engaged in and witnessed a subtle exchange that the students probably didn’t notice. In one exercise, each student needed to choose from a pile of pictures and symbols to identify something (or someone) that captures their sense of identity, someone with whom they feel a connection, and someone (or something) that makes them uncomfortable or that bothers them. A picture of David Ben Gurion was a common choice, but one time for a very uncommon designation. An Israeli girl said that Ben Gurion is someone who bothers her because he established the Israeli left wing and she considers herself right-wing. The immediate reaction of the teacher (who, I learned later, is a history teacher) was fascinating.
As one might imagine, Ben Gurion remains sacrosanct for many Israelis. For some, criticizing him might engender anger or defensiveness. On the other hand, if Israel is to be the robust democracy and free society that it aspires to be—and that surely Ben Gurion desired—perhaps current Israeli educators would want to encourage students to look critically at the country’s “sacred cows” and speak freely about them in ways that go beyond superficial hagiography. Coming from Barrack, where we emphasize our pluralism not only in religious belief and practice but also in intellectual and ideological interpretation of history and politics, I was very curious about how the teacher would respond.
The teacher’s firm yet nuanced reply was neither a celebration of the student’s choice nor a complete silencing. Rather, she told the student that at her age, she is not yet ready to make such a broad-sweeping dismissal of such an important historical figure. She told the student that it is very important to continue to read, learn, and talk about Ben Gurion, his policies, and his legacy, and that only after much more exploration would she be in a position to decide if she agrees with his political legacy or not. And that in the meantime, all Israelis have a responsibility to recognize the incomparable impact that Ben Gurion had on the entire State of Israel and its history, regardless of politics. The honoring of Ben Gurion is not a matter of right or left, she said, but simply part of being a grateful Israeli citizen and appreciating his fundamental role in founding the state. The student appeared to tacitly accept this constructive criticism, offering no response. At that point, I shared with the students that Americans take the same approach towards George Washington. He is the father of our country and we honor that, regardless of his specific policies. The teacher and students appeared to appreciate that comparison. I spoke afterwards with the school principal who was present for the incident, and she told me she felt the teacher handled it perfectly.
The students had another opportunity to encounter questions of politics on Tuesday, when—thanks to a close personal friendship with Rabbi Marc Israel and Abby Frank, parents of 8th-grader Elianna Israel—the US Ambassador to Israel, Dan Shapiro, met with our group. Ambassador Shapiro talked about his career, the specific roles he plays in his job, and taught the students about some important aspects of the US-Israel relationship, including some controversial current issues such as negotiations with Iran and the ongoing conflict with the Palestinians. Ambassador Shapiro assured the students that President Obama, a close friend of his, is absolutely committed to a strong US-Israel relationship and a strong and secure Jewish State—and that differences between the Obama administration and that of Prime Minister Netanyahu are matters of policy, not of goals. This was another example of educating young people about the importance of recognizing the complexity of politics, refraining from drawing quick conclusions based on small bits of information, and honoring the official positions of leadership within our government regardless of particular policy disagreements with a given administration. More specifically, it was a chance for the students to learn about the deep connections between the governments of these two nations and appreciate what it means to be an ambassador. They all recognized the great honor that it was to have this special visit.