This blog post is by Jonah Hassenfeld, a PhD Student in the Concentration in Education and Jewish Studies
Last week, my colleague, Matt Williams, wrote about productive discomfort, that is, the value of making students uncomfortable in order to promote their personal and intellectual growth. He argued that the desire to keep students comfortable stems largely from a consumerist logic in which the customer is always right even when that customer is a student deciding what to learn.
But perhaps teachers who want to “meet students where they are at” do so precisely so that they can ensure that the discomfort they create is productive and doesn’t merely alienate students from the learning process. Finding the sweet spot of productive discomfort is easier said than done (that’s the whole point of Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development), and it is certainly a worth task for Jewish educators to consider what productive discomfort might look like in the fields they teach.
Articulating a vision of productive discomfort is particularly challenging when teaching about Israel. Many Jewish educators grapple with the question of when and how to expose their students to perspectives on Israel that they might find uncomfortable.
Some writers, most notably Peter Beinart, argue that teaching excessively idealized images of Israel can lead young Jewish Americans who cannot reconcile their liberal politics with the reality of Israeli policies to feel alienated from their Israel education. This perspective implies that educators ought to abandon idealized representations of Israel and its history in favor of more realistic approaches. But abandoning the idealized myths we tell about Israel can also be dangerous. Students (and their parents) who find a myth-busting curriculum too uncomfortable may respond by simply disengaging from the learning process.
For Israel educators, finding a place of productive discomfort, particularly when faced with a class of students starting in very different places, can be extraordinarily challenging. The question remains, “How can we both present an honest account of Israel that doesn’t shy away from controversy, while still creating an environment comfortable enough to enable students to productively engage with Israel?”
I believe that Ari Shavit’s new book, My Promised Land, tells a narrative of the history of Israel that will place many American Jews in a place of productive discomfort. The book is not a work of academic history and those interested in Israeli history will find no revelations in its pages. Even the most uncomfortable moments, the expulsion of the Arab population from Lydda and the treatment of Sephardi immigrants, have been well known since scholars began writing new Israeli history began almost thirty years ago.
Shavit’s narrative of Israeli history is more or less the well-known tale of pioneers who, through hard work and perseverance, drained the swamps, made the desert bloom, and now manage some of the most successful companies in the world. While grappling with Israel’s darker side and even expressing some pessimism about the future, Shavit manages to leave the reader with the familiar image of a vibrant, embattled Israel succeeding against the odds. In short: the book fits within the classic Zionist narrative, albeit one leavened with acknowledgements of the difficulties of maintaining that narrative.
It is Shavit’s conservatism about the basic narrative of Israeli history that enables My Promised Land to meet many American Jews where they are. Never before has an author so seamlessly woven the revelations of the new history into a narrative that, at its heart, is still so squarely Zionist. Reviewers with widely differing politics have praised the book for approaching Israel from a critical, but deeply caring perspective.
Although you don’t have to be a Zionist to criticize Israel in America, it definitely helps if you want American Jews to listen (for the record, even some of his harshest critics believe that Beinart belongs in the “Zionist tent”). I don’t mean to make any argument here about the merits of any particular political position when it comes to Israel. Rather, I am hoping to make the educational point that to change the nature of Israel education in America, it is essential to know your audience, and where discomfort can become unproductive.
More and more, the model of Israel education promoted today is one of “hugging and wrestling.” However, when educators look for examples of what “hugging and wrestling” might look like, they come up short. My Promised Land does not read like a textbook and it does not present a “balanced” or “disinterested” evaluation of Israel or its history. What it offers is a model for a deeply personal attempt to face the uncomfortable moments in Israeli history without abandoning one’s relationship with Israel. My Promised Land does not fall prey to critiques of Jewish education that meet us where we are simply to allow us to comfortably maintain our viewpoints; rather, it meets us where we are so we can go along for a ride and, hopefully, end up somewhere new.