On considering the other side – Israel education, and exposure to the “other” narrative

23 Mar

by Ilan Bloch


Image courtesy of Wikimedia

I recently guided a *great* group of non-Jewish non-Zionist students from overseas down south. Before I joined them, they had spent nine days in Judea and Samaria/the West Bank, where they were hosted by Palestinian organizations and institutions, and religious networks. They also visited a Jewish community/settlement and heard from a resident/settler spokesperson. I thought about how woefully inadequate it was to include a one-hour session from a competing narrative, and to assume that by doing so, one could check the educational box of exposing students to other viewpoints, and facilitating the development of independent, critical and analytical thinking amongst them.

And then I thought about other groups and contexts; I have guided Jewish, Zionist Israel programs of 6 weeks’, or even 4 months’, duration, where in an attempt to be open and to expose students to other viewpoints and narratives, we included a one-hour session with a Palestinian speaker.

Surely that which is so overwhelmingly obvious when considering the educational context of an Israel trip for non-Jewish, non-Zionist students should be just as overwhelmingly obvious when considering an Israel program in a Jewish, Zionist educational context.

Ilan Bloch is a licensed Israel tour guide.


It’s not political… but it kind of really is

28 Feb

by Ilan Bloch


Image courtesy of https://he.wikipedia.org

Recently I participated in a professional development day of learning for Israel educators. One of the speakers there explained that his organization had an agenda – it is a Zionist organization, and that it should not need to apologize for that. Moreover, he said that his organization believes in Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people, and that it should not need to apologize for that. He added that this is not at all a political statement; being Zionist, his organization supports the Declaration of Independence and this includes the idea that Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people.

But, in the context of Israeli politics of the last few years and the proposed legislation Basic Law: Israel – the nation-state of the Jewish people:

  • which enshrines the establishment of communities based on an ethnic or religious character as a quasi-constitutional right, and
  • which specifically doesn’t include mention of equality of all citizens (even though the Declaration of Independence does!) or the embrace of democracy as a supreme value, and
  • notwithstanding sophisticated amendments to its wording brought yesterday, cancels the status of Arabic as an official language, and
  • notwithstanding the removal of the clause requiring judges to consider Jewish law in their judgments when no statute, precedent or analogy exists (and instead enshrining in a Basic Law the provisions of the Foundations of Law Act (1980)),

to state that an organization believes in Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people and doesn’t need to apologize for this is, by definition, a political statement. In the context of Israeli current affairs to present such as otherwise is ideologically and educationally disingenuous!

One could also quote the Declaration of Independence:

“THE STATE OF ISRAEL will be open for Jewish immigration and for the Ingathering of the Exiles; it will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations,”

using this clause as an apparent proof-text for numerous liberal-left policy principles and then suggest that your organization is not political; it simply believes in the Declaration of Independence and shouldn’t need to apologize for this. In the context of Israeli current affairs this too would be ideologically and educationally disingenuous!

I am not arguing for or against the proposed legislation; I am arguing against Israel educators who present right-wing positions as consensus Zionist positions or ideas which should accepted as a given. And then they wonder why so many American Jewish youth and students become disillusioned and feel they have been brainwashed.

Ilan Bloch is a licensed Israeli tour guide. 

Moving from a blind love to a more valid love

31 Aug


Rishon beach Rachel Bonder

Rishon LeZion beach. (Photo credit: Rachel Bonder)


A summer Israel program participant reflects on her experiences, her connection to Israel and Zionism, and Israel education

by Rachel Bonder

Along with my growing appreciation for my Judaism, I have found a new appreciation for Israel that I did not know was possible to have. For my entire life Israel has been a dream destination to me. My mother is a proud Zionist and a proud Israel advocate. She has always updated my family on Israeli current events. The first time I went to Israel the feelings I experienced were indescribable. The sound of the Hebrew around me and the kosher food on every corner, I felt like I was truly home. After that trip I had been to Israel another two times. The first trip I would describe as a tourist trip, touring around the most popular sites of the country. The second trip was a mission trip, visiting different projects my community has started and supported. The third trip was another tourist trip with my school. And this was my fourth time in Israel. I knew it would differ from all of my other experiences, but I did not quite know how. The narrative of our trip was “The Many Faces of Israel.” We visited a Catholic Church, a mosque, a Druze village, a Circassian village, and African asylum-seekers in south Tel Aviv, and we had a panel with both Jewish and Palestinian citizens of Israel. All of these experiences were extremely eye-opening. They reminded us that although we were in a place where we finally were not the minority, Israel was still home to many. Over this trip I had become aware of the flaws of Israel. Israel is not a perfect country by any means, but my love for Israel has not wavered. If anything, my love for Israel has grown stronger. I have realized that my love for Israel before this trip was almost a blind love. I was made aware of the positive aspects of Israel on my previous trips, but rarely the negatives. Now that I am more aware of Israel’s flaws and mistakes and my love for the country is still strong, it feels as though my love now is more of a valid love. This trip has truly allowed me to strengthen and develop valid opinions on a country that I like to call my home and I will never forget it. 

Rachel Bonder is a student from the Greater MetroWest NJ Jewish community.

Thoughts on the matzav

15 Oct

by Ilan Bloch

Image courtesy of Wikipedia

Image courtesy of Wikipedia

As the wave of terror continues to engulf the streets of Jerusalem and other cities and communities across the country, our minds are filled with thoughts, and prayers for a more peaceful time. Images which we saw through social media shocked us to the core and some footage was eerily reminiscent of our memories from the Second Intifada, which we would prefer to forget.

As ירושלמים (Jerusalemites), we are thankful for the deployment of Border Police and police on the streets of our city but also saddened that we have returned to such darkness – ironically, the armed forces are a potent symbol of our weakness. A decade after the last intifada ended we again remain in a city starved for a solution. Twenty years after Oslo II was signed, there is nothing more final than an interim agreement, which has not brought, and cannot, bring peace.

Our armed forces on the eastern side of the city, in Palestinian neighborhoods and villages which came under Israeli control in the Six Day War, represent something else. These police and combat soldiers staffing checkpoints at the entrances to particular parts of the “undivided” capital are potent symbols of the challenge of Zionism.

From the end of the Bar Kochba Revolt, the Jewish people was able to occupy the moral high ground because we were a people with no power. The challenge of Zionism is how to wield power once again – in this case, power backed by a mighty army and, according to foreign forces, 200 nuclear warheads – in a Jewish way.

How can we, as a Jewish state, impose restrictions on freedom of movement on 37% of the united capital, based on their ethnic identity? How can this possibly accord with our understanding of תיקון עולם (social justice)? On the other hand, Israeli security cabinet decisions cannot be considered in a similar vein to resolutions of a synagogue or youth group board, as they may well result in saving lives or – חס וחלילה (Heaven forfend!) – the spilling of even more blood. There is no imperative to commit collective suicide in order to retain ethical purity. We simply don’t enjoy that luxury.

Did Zionism seek to normalize us a nation or make us an אור לגוים (light unto the nations)? Are we meant to be an exceptional country (in something more important than nanotechnology) or just a state just like any other? How do we balance the need for security with the human rights implications of security policy? There are certainly those who would draw the line differently (whether to the right or the left) of where it has been drawn this week, but, wherever we stand on this issue, we should stand deeply engaged with Israel.

We hope for a day of a perfect Messianic peace – an age of the dove and of the olive branch. In the meantime, we utter a prayer for security and embrace a simple and most basic idea of civic discourse. A new campaign launched by 20-year-old Ofer Gelfand asks people to support the concept of שנאה היא לא ערך, גזענות היא לא הדרך (hatred is not a value, racism is not the way), either by liking his Facebook post or writing the statement on the palm of their hand, photographing it as a “selfie,” and posting it to their own Facebook pages. Wherever we draw the line in regard to the security/human rights dilemma, we should be proud to draw it against racism and hatred. This is just one way that ordinary Israelis have been trying to retain a semblance of sanity during this most difficult week.

Ilan Bloch is a licensed tour guide and Director of Teaching Israel.

On sinat chinam (baseless hatred)

12 Oct

by Anonymous

Image courtesy of Wikipedia

Image courtesy of Wikipedia

On Shabbat I was walking home from shule and I met a long-haired secular hippie scrubbing the pavement of Park Hamesila. I asked him what was written that he was so desperately trying to erase and he showed me: מוות לערבים, בני זונות (Death to Arabs, SOBs). He expressed his frustration that his cleaning endeavors were quite unsuccessful because he was using home-made ecologically friendly cleaning fluid. He shared that he didn’t want to use bleach because it might damage the plants along the old train track. I suggested that he might be interested in attending a Meretz rally after Shabbat came out. He said he was more interested in attending a later rally, which was non-partisan. I averred that everything is political, and that maybe this is davka the time to shout out that we warned that a wave of terror-cum-intifada would be the inevitable result of no diplomatic horizon and that we needed to stand up strongly against the evils of racism without compromise, without talk of Jewish unity, and without displaying any understanding for evil, even when it comes from apparently alienated, misunderstood and disaffected Jewish youth. In response he shared that he had once been dati leumi (national religious), raised on a diet of supremacy masked as chosenness, of the Land in its entirety belongs to us, of Arabs can go to hell. He continued and said that once, while he was participating in tiyul shnati (annual class field trip) in the Old City of Jerusalem, he had kicked an Arab child riding on a toy truck. Why? Not because he was evil but because he had grown up in a particular context and acted without thinking according to the norms and mores of that context. It was the first time he had shared his story with anybody. He was an optimist that people could change and considered himself living proof of his this possibility.

Later that night I went to the Meretz rally, wearing a Meretz t-shirt, along with my kippah. Somebody approached me and demanded that I remove my kippah. I thought that maybe this was a foolish kid who had confused supporting freedom of and from religion with being anti-religious, or perhaps he was a practical jokester. He then added that one can’t be left-wing and religious, and that I should therefore take off my kippah. I refused, explaining that I was proud to be both religious and left-wing. He then replied that he hoped that when the day comes on which the Arabs are slaughtered, his wish is that I should be slaughtered first, because I am even worse than an Arab – I am an enabler. The kid will be drafted into the IDF later this year. God help us all.

On my return to the car, I walked past a girl sitting on a fence, talking on her cell phone. Still wearing my Meretz top as I passed her, she told her telephone partner that a traitor was next to her, a disgusting traitor from Meretz. I asked her what I had done to her that would make her speak that way about a fellow person, a Jew, an Israeli. She told me that I supported the murder of innocent Jews, and that I should be locked up together with ISIS. When I continued to protest (in my thick Anglo accent) she said that I should go back to America. I said that this country was built by olim (immigrants) and that perhaps her grandparents should go back to where they came from, to which she responded that she was a hundredth generation Israeli. God help us all.

So, I not only have to worry about falling victim to Palestinian terror, but also have to worry about falling victim to rightist terror. And the incitement is only one way. Leftists do not call for the murder of rightists. Even when a right-wing counter-protester stood amongst the crowd shouting that we are all collaborators (and we know what should happen to collaborators), organizers simply said that there are some ideological opponents present who should be ignored. What has happened to our society that teenagers think that it is appropriate to speak this way to total strangers? What has happened to our society that people call for my murder without thinking twice? We have learned nothing from either the assassination of Rabin twenty years ago or from the murder of Emil Grunzweig thirty-two years ago. I wouldn’t be surprised if the next political murder is just around the corner. God help us all.

Anonymous is a Meretz activist, who is an oleh from the US, and who is just a little bit scared for his life.

Enough of a Syrian what if…

19 Sep

by Ilan Bloch


Image courtesy of Wikipedia

One of the most inane comments I have heard made in relation to the Syrian conflict goes somewhat along the lines of: thank God we didn’t trade the Golan Heights for peace with Syria because then we would now have ISIS or al-Qaida on the banks of the Kinneret. Even seasoned commentators like Ari Shavit and Shmuel Rosner have made such claims.

But history obviously doesn’t work like that. Yes, if we had traded the Golan Heights for peace with Syria, under Rabin, Netanyahu, Barak or Sharon, and every single thing which has actually happened since 1992-5, 1996-1999, 1999-2001, or 2001-2006, would have still actually taken place, then yes, ISIS or al-Qaida would be on the banks of the Kinneret. But to suggest that a comprehensive peace deal with Syria would have triggered the exact same set of events which no comprehensive peace deal with Syria triggered is folly. Who knows what might have happened if we had agreed to a full withdrawal from the Heights?

This post is not written to suggest that Israel should have agreed to such a peace deal but simply to stress that to disparage those who supported, or were even willing to entertain, such an idea as naïve based on what has happened since not agreeing to such a deal is illogical.

Of course, nobody today proposes that Israel should trade the Golan Heights for peace with ISIS, Jabat al-Nusra or Assad. But, students/tourists should certainly be made aware of the fact that Israel’s unilateral application of Israeli law to the area in 1981 was a move still not recognized by the international community. Moreover, they should understand that if and when Syria stabilizes in the future, the issue may well once again become relevant.

Ilan Bloch is a licensed tour guide and the director of Teaching Israel.

Guiding and politics

12 Sep

by Ilan Bloch

Image courtesy of Wikipedia

Education Minister Naftali Bennett            Image courtesy of Wikipedia

Over Shabbat meals with other educators this weekend, discussion naturally focused on the new school year – and politics (it was Shabbat and we are in Israel, after all!). We discussed Herzl Schubert, a teacher, who was “caught” on camera at a recent Nabi Saleh protest against the encroachment of residents/settlers of Halamish on privately owned village lands, including the al-Qus spring. Yisrael Zinger, the mayor of Ramat Gan, where Schubert is employed, Deputy Mayor Aviyahu Ben Moshe, and many parents, called for his dismissal. The issue hit national headlines with Bayit Yehudi MK Bezalel Smotrich chiming in and supporting firing Schubert. Discussion also covered Avital Benshalom, the newly appointed principal of an Ashkelon school, who had to justify her 2002 signing of a petition supporting the right of soldiers to refuse to serve in Judea and Samaria/the West Bank in order to keep her job, against the objection of parents and Ashkelon Mayor Itamar Shimoni.

Interestingly, one of the tour guides at the meal – an olah from the West Coast of the US – said that she wasn’t surprised at all, and that she herself has personally encountered such attacks in her own professional life as a result of her apparent “extreme leftist activism.” Perhaps her activism might be more rightly considered to be “slacktivism,” as my friend has been to maybe two handfuls of rallies and protests during her time in Israel – perhaps one or two a year on average. Taken aback, I asked what had happened to her. She said she was interrogated in a job interview about her political views, even when she continued to answer questions by explaining that she would teach about all political viewpoints and allow students/tourists to come to their own informed conclusions – whether they be right, center or left.

What is so strange is that my friend is on the public record – in writing and at public appearances – as stating that the aim of her Israel education is to help students/tourists develop independent, critical and analytical thinking skills which will allow them to reach their own educated viewpoints – whatever they might be.

I paused and then asked my friend whether she should have asked her potential employer the following question:

“I understand that you don’t want to employ a leftist as an educator because you view her as too political (even though it is clear that her politics do not enter her classroom; indeed her students/tourists move from their previously held views toward greater complexity and nuance, which often includes moving away from the left).

“Do you also have a problem in employing tour guides who say “I’m not a political person; I just want my students/tourists to love Israel, support the government and do Israel advocacy on campus” (perhaps the most politically loaded sentence one could imagine)?

“What about avowedly right-wing guides who explicitly aim to instill right-wing views in their students/tourists?”

No, I didn’t think so.

Ilan Bloch is a licensed Israel tour guide and the Director of Teaching Israel.

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