J Street, Zionism, the West Bank/Judea & Samaria barrier, & Israel education

2 Oct

by Ilan Bloch


(photo credit: Matt Duss)

I was shocked by comments made by an Israel educational senior professional, which I heard first-hand, that “J Street is an American anti-Zionist organization.” I was stunned because I believe that J Street – like AIPAC – plays an important role in the Jewish institutional world of the US. But, more importantly, I was taken aback because before making his comments, the speaker had spent almost an hour eloquently laying out a vision for an Israel education which presented nuance and balance, and supported pluralism. He had powerfully outlined the importance of making students feel that they are stakeholders in discussions and debates about contemporary Israel, and that the role of tour guides is to present issues, rather than relay information. He even averred that a level of constructive confusion on the part of participants should be viewed as a positive thing. I still fail to understand the incongruity between the entire lecture and the speaker’s remarks about J Street.

Developing independent, critical and analytical thinking skills on the part of Israel program participants is meaningless if we draw red lines which exclude organizations like J Street, which has almost 200,000 on-line supporters, from the realm of acceptable opinion. Israel program participants may not feel like stakeholders in the future of the Jewish people when they see that certain viewpoints, organizations and personalities are deemed treif (not kosher) by those institutional leaders whose apparent role is to define Zionism (or Judaism) for the Jewish world. Such polarizing attitudes may even serve to alienate students from organized Jewish communal involvement on their return to their home countries. Moreover, it is intellectually dishonest and makes Israeli tour guides agents of the government, as opposed to real educators. This is how Tourism Minister Stas Misezhnikov might view the role of the Israeli tour guide. At a recent speech, which I heard first-hand, he even went as far as to suggest that he sees his ministry, in a sense, as part of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA).

This reminded me of another lecture I attended recently, by an expert in the field, on the changing borders of Israel throughout the ages. When the lecturer mentioned the Israeli barrier in the West Bank/Judea and Samaria, she stressed repeatedly that this barrier is called “the separation fence” and that, in the context of Israel tour education, this is the only name that should ever be used when referring to the structure. I cannot accept such an idea.

I want Israel program participants to know that although most Israelis might refer to the barrier as ‘the separation fence,’ ‘the security fence’ or ‘the anti-terror fence,’ some Palestinians might refer to it as ‘the racial segregation wall,’ and many other opponents of the barrier might refer to it as ‘the apartheid wall.’ Exposing students to various – and challenging – viewpoints regarding this issue, or any other issue which is dealt with in Israel education, is not an endorsement of such viewpoints. It is important that Israel program participants understand that although the vast majority of Israeli Jews support the idea of the barrier, and that only some on the far left and far right oppose it, it is vital to understand their objections, and to analyze in a critical manner the contention – which has become accepted orthodoxy in Israeli and Zionist discourse – that there exists an undeniable and absolute causality between the construction of the barrier and the reduction in Palestinian terrorism against Israelis.

Israel program participants should voice their own opinions on whether the Israeli High Court of Justice Beit Surik test case, which declared that the route of the barrier must pass the test of proportionality between benefit to Israeli security and detriment to Palestinian way of life, is being adequately met, rather than simply parroting MFA statements that it is. And, just as I want my students to understand the difference between the fence (almost 90 percent) and wall (slightly more than 10 percent) components of the barrier, I also want to hear their own viewpoints on whether the construction of the barrier may have had as one of its aims the setting of a de facto border (i.e. be considered what might be termed a ‘land grab’), as well as their own perspectives on the protest movement against the barrier in Bil’in and Na’alin.

For students to understand the complexities of the issue they need to be exposed to these complexities, be allowed to analyze them independently, and come to their own conclusions. Feeding them hasbara (Israel advocacy) soundbites about the justness of the barrier should not be confused with Israel education.

Israeli tour guides should engage in education, which must allow for a wide plurality of views on the part of participants, to be accepted as legitimate. Anything else turns guides into hasbara agents of the government, is intellectually dishonest, and may serve to alienate participants from engaging on a deep level with the Land, People and State of Israel.

Ilan Bloch is the Director of Teaching Israel.


4 Responses to “J Street, Zionism, the West Bank/Judea & Samaria barrier, & Israel education”

  1. traveltwinpicks99 October 7, 2012 at 5:58 am #

    Are you implying that Staz – The Minister of Tourism made such comments?
    He is not Sabra just a new immigrant whom climbed the ladders of power.

  2. Teaching Israel October 7, 2012 at 8:09 am #

    I am not implying it; Minister Stas Misezhnikov stated that he sees his ministry, in a sense, as part of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. What I am suggesting is that he might view the role of the Israeli tour guide as that of an agent of the government, as opposed to that of a real educator.

  3. For my safety January 15, 2013 at 10:11 pm #

    Very basic. A nation has the right to build a border that is sufficient for its national security. Does America call its border with Mexico it’s Anti-Hispanic Wall? Israel is already a very small country and it has become even smaller because of the stupidity of the so-called peace process. Israel has given up strategic physical land for worthless peices of paper and promises, papers that can be ripped to shreds and promises that can be broken. That agreement with Egypt for the Sinai, how is that working with the Islamic Brotherhood in charge of a country that has been receiving 3 BILLION dollars in mostly millitary aid from the USA each and every year?!?!?! Israel gave up Gush Katif for the so-called peace in our time, a unilateral show of good will, and instead is receiving missiles as a thank you. For thousands of years Jews were kicked out of our homes just for being Jewish. Now we are being kicked out of our homes only because we are Jewish but this time it is being done by our own Jewish people for a so called peace. If Washington DC said that only whites could live in a certain neighborhood and that anyone else trying to build a house for their family was sure to start a war, we would be right to claim that is racism. But how come the Jewish people are not allowed to build homes in certain neighborhoods in their own country simply because they are Jews. It does not make sense.

    • Teaching Israel January 16, 2013 at 6:13 pm #

      With all due respect, you might have missed the key point of my piece, which was to say that students should be given a comprehensive understanding of the complexity of all issues which are taught in Israel education. They should be encouraged to come to their own conclusions and not be presented with orthodoxies as fact. I am not responding to your comment per se; I would be happy if a student of mine came to such conclusions independently, as I would be happy is he came to the opposite conclusions independently. My piece is simply promoting encouraging the development of independent, analytical and critical thinking amongst students.

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