Israel’s “Deep” History: Dispatch from a High School Israel Trip

I’m standing with a group of day school students in the Negev. It is the first day of their junior class trip to Israel, and I am tagging along. Yigal (not his real name), our tour guide, begins with a brief introduction to the history of Israel. He hands out cards to the students representing moments in Israeli history. He gives one student a card marked “The Modern State of Israel: 1948 – Today.”  “Each step will represent a hundred years,” he says. The student with the British mandate card stands directly to the right of the first student. More cards get added in quick succession. Finally, about thirty-five steps from the first student, “In the beginning.”

Yigal stands at the Ottoman period.  “America was discovered five hundred years ago,” he says, “Over the next two weeks, you’ll learn that Israel has a deep history. The time scales are different here.  A thousand years just wasn’t that long ago for Israel.”

When it comes to history, there’s no such thing as just teaching the facts.  Historians have to make choices about where to begin and end and what to include. The way we decide to tell the story of Israel shows what it means to us. This trip aims to teach students a particular version of Israel’s past. I call this story “Israel’s deep history.”

Students hear about a pair of tefillin discovered on Masada, almost identical to tefillin in use today.  Students examine two thousand year old Hebrew letters carved at the Kotel.

Yigal often pulls out his Tanakh saying, “Israel is the only place where you can use the Tanakh as a guidebook.”  He notes that the Tankah is not a history book, but this distinction disappears as he points out where David hid from Saul at Ein Gedi, or where Avraham almost sacrificed Isaac. As Yigal tells the story of Israel the boundaries between the Bible, the rabbinic period, and today fade.

While biblical history comes to the fore, contemporary history isn’t really a part of this story.  We drive due north from Ein Gedi to Jerusalem.  Most students are asleep (they woke up at 4am to climb Masada).  As we pass through a checkpoint and the separation wall, two kids argue about whether or not we are in the West Bank.  There is no comment from the tour staff.

Israel’s post 1967 history only comes up when we stand at the Haas Promenade overlooking Jerusalem. After Yigal points out the City of David, where, according to our sourcebook “King David established his kingdom, and where the history of the People of Israel was written.”  One student asks: “So where is Jordan?”  Yigal points to the hills of Jordan in the distance and says, “If you look, you can see the separation wall.  It was started for security in 2002 and it’s actually mostly a fence not a wall.  This came after two years of terrorism and it did stop terrorism, but it also created criticism, because they weren’t always careful about what land they built it on.  We can talk about the politics more if you want.” So far, no students have taken him up on the offer.

As I write this, it is the sixth day of the trip. Over the course of the next two weeks, students will consume the standard fare of “Israel experiences.”  They will eat falafel in Mahane Yehdua, ride camels at a Bedouin camp, float in the Dead Sea, dance with soldiers at the Kotel, cry at Yad Vashem, and visit Tsfat “the sacred city of Jewish mysticism.” Through it all, however, they will be taught that Israel is really, really old, and that they are the inheritors of an unbroken tradition going back thousands of years.

To be sure, being taught a historical narrative is not the same as learning it.  So far, students seem much more interested in riding camels and taking selfies than hearing about King Hezekiah.  But if students internalize any part of this story at all, Jewish educators have to be careful about the stories they teach.  What are the costs and benefits of teaching this story as opposed to any of the other stories we might tell about the history of Israel?

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