Reframing Israel: a revolutionary curriculum?

I think a lot about how people tell the history of Israel.  At this point, I have collected over four hundred accounts of the history of Israel told by American high school students attending Jewish day schools. How students tell this history is deeply connected to how they think and feel about Israel.  As a result, what we teach students about the history of Israel and how we teach it is central to the project of Israel education.  

In light of this, I am troubled by Reframing Israel, new curriculum and how it treats the history of Israel.  To be sure, Reframing Israel addresses a long-standing gap in Israel education materials: it “exposes students to both Palestinian and Israeli perspectives on the conflict.”  It seeks to help students “work towards a more responsible, just, and reflective society” and hopes to accomplish this “in part, by addressing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict” (21).

But students don’t get to do any historical work for themselves. Whenever history comes up in the outline, the author refers educators to the historical overview. Written in the impersonal, “objective” voice of a textbook, the overview lacks any references or primary sources, both of which are fundamental to historical thinking.

The curriculum’s historical account begins with two sentences that are anything but devoid of ideology: “The conflict between Israelis and Palestinians is often said to originate in ancient hatreds or religious feuds that go back thousands of years. In reality, the conflict is a modern one” (81).  Such a bald statement has the force of fact, but, in truth, it frames the historical narrative in a way that shapes how the curriculum unfolds.

My point is not that Reframing Israel‘s history is inaccurate in some way.  On the contrary, it is entirely defensible.  The problem is that without references or primary sources, students have no way evaluate it. In telling students what is true “in reality,” the curriculum short circuits any opportunity for students to engage in historical thinking and to form their own understanding of Israeli history.

The problem with this curriculum is that it leaves no room for students to investigate the history of Israel for themselves. Although Rabbi Laurie Zimmerman, the author of the new curriculum criticizes “the banking model of education” in which educators “deposit” their ideas in students, in the end, her curriculum merely replaces one authoritative account of Israel’s history, one with which she disagrees, with one that she finds more compelling. Like the “advocacy approaches” to Israel education that Zimmerman castigates, Reframing Israel‘s own historical narrative tolerates no argument.

If history is at the heart of Israel education, the curriculum we need is one which sets students up to draw their own conclusions about history and its meaning.  This means letting students work with primary and secondary sources, equipping them with the skills to analyze them, and giving them opportunities to reexamine the narratives they have learned in informal contexts.  Ultimately, educators must empower students to write their own account of Israel’s history instead of writing for them. Doing so will help our students engage with the forces that shape our present and the ways in which we bring the past to bear on it.

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