Healthy Dissonance in Israel Education

Kraft Seminar in Israel, Hornstein Program December 2017

By Dr. Rachel Fish

What do Tekoa, East Jerusalem, Efrat, the Bedouin Arabs of the Negev, and professors from Palestinian and Israeli institutions of higher education have in common? It sounds like an unusual combination when in reality these places and individuals are essential elements to the annual Myra Kraft Seminar in Israel, a key piece of the curricula at the Hornstein Jewish Professional Leadership Program.

During students’ tenure at Hornstein they participate twice in the Kraft Seminar in Israel, which is a hybrid model consisting of classroom learning and experiential education in Israel. The Hornstein Program is committed to developing Jewish professional leaders who are invested in thinking about global Jewry’s relationship with Israel in the 21st century. The educational objectives of the Kraft Seminar are three-fold:

  1. to expose Hornstein students to the complexity of Israeli society while providing the historical context for them to understand better the nuances of Israel;

  2. to build and enhance the students’ network of resources in Israel both in terms of human relationships and institutional outreach; and

  3. to provide a space for Hornstein students to consider their professional role and relationship with the State of Israel and the Israeli people in the context of Israel and global Jewish peoplehood.

These educational objectives have had a transformational impact on the students’ classroom and experiential learning. Throughout the Israel studies coursework which they take prior to the seminar, students are engaged in rigorous academic learning coupled with examining case studies about Israel and the Israel discourse in the North American Jewish context.

During the Kraft Seminar in Israel, students meet with a variety of people in leadership positions hearing a range of perspectives and creating a cacophony rather than the musicality of a well-practiced symphony. This pedagogical approach is intentional. Exposing students to an array of perspectives and positions challenges them and provides them with an opportunity to reflect on their preconceptions, opinions and understanding. Students begin to understand the layers of complexity that reside within Israeli society and history when a multiplicity of voices is shared.

Similar to archaeology, the boring of the layers reveals many aspects that are not always visible to the naked eye. For example, in our most recent seminar in December, we had a chance to explore a collaboration between secular politically left-of-center Palestinian and Israeli educators and their attempt to build inclusive national narratives for elementary and middle school students. The educators consider how the “other” understands national traumas. They ask what it means to cultivate empathy for a national home that is in direct juxtaposition with another justified claim for a national homeland? Can these parallel narratives create greater understanding between Israelis and Palestinians, or does it continue to highlight the difficult reality that parallel lines never meet?

We visited Ono Academic College in Kiryat Ono which is a pluralistic institution of higher education, carefully exploring ways to provide secular education to ultra-Orthodox students and other sectors of Israeli society that have not always felt fully integrated into civil society. So what happens when some male ultra-Orthodox students insist on being taught by same-gender faculty members and refuse to be alone in the same room with a female administrator or professor? How does the institution approach this matter? How accommodating should a pluralistic, secular college be? What does it mean if the college has a separate campus in order to accommodate the ultra-Orthodox students? Is providing them with secular studies in segregated environments sufficient? Or should the school be “pushing” the students to integrate more on campus, which is truly a microcosm of Israeli society?

These are difficult questions, and at times difficult interactions. During the Kraft Seminar we teach students to engage in an active listening process, and to examine individuals and their experiences as primary texts. These texts provide us with an opportunity to explore the narratives that shape individual and collective memories, which become elemental aspects of the societal fabric.

Israel, the ancient and modern, is peppered with facts and historical significance constituted by different claims and demands made by multiple peoples. Hornstein students encounter the deep complexity of Israeli society and its multiple peoples, hearing incongruities and agreements first-hand. Hornstein students likewise confront differing opinions and understandings about Israel within their own student cohort. The ability to listen, to understand and to co-exist with the broad Jewish community — and with the peoples with whom the Jewish community lives — is at the core of the pedagogy of Hornstein’s Israel education.

The questions and the task will continue to evolve. Of course there is no one answer. The seminar is not meant to resolve all these questions, but rather to raise the issues and have them thoughtfully considered and explored with intentionality. We want our students to end their sentences with question marks rather than exclamation points. The Kraft Seminar in Israel is proving a crucial vehicle through which to accomplish these goals — and to help our students embrace the complexities of Israel with all its thorns and beauty.

Professor Rachel Fish is associate director at the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies at Brandeis University and member of the Hornstein Program faculty.