Building Peace by Waging War

Disclaimer: I attended a Jewish day school from kindergarten through grade eight and then went to public high school. I grew up celebrating Jewish holidays and going to synagogue Saturday mornings. My siblings and I had to negotiate pretty hard to miss a Friday night Shabbat dinner at my parents’ house and I spent nearly every Friday night at Hillel throughout college. I attended Hebrew School on Sundays throughout high school to keep my Hebrew in reasonable shape and taught a grade eleven Hebrew School seminar on the Arab-Israeli conflict for two years after college. I am currently teaching at a K-12 Jewish day school. The following post reflects my personal beliefs and not necessarily the views of my school and governing bodies, our curriculum, or Conservative Judaism.

An alumnus came to speak to the eighth grade students at school last week. After graduation, he had moved to Israel and joined the IDF, the Israeli Defense Forces. He spoke briefly about the experiences traveling in Israel that led to his decision but most of his talk centered around cool drone technology for gathering intelligence. The kids were understandably impressed and excited. They asked all sorts of questions about the mechanics and uses of the plane. The speaker showed photos of his army unit and explained the challenges of basic training.

I listened to the presentation with my mind racing. I was very aware of the conflicting narratives running through my head. Over the summer, I wrote about the search for congruence in my personal life. Over the course of the presentation, I realized that my views on Israel have historically been highly incongruent with my current conception of the necessity of peace for the sustainability of the planet and humanity.

The following is an attempt to trace my views of Israel and how they have changed over time. These ideas are very much in flux and I’m writing this post to demonstrate that – the changing nature of ideas we hold dear as new evidence and experiences force reevaluation.

High School
When I was a senior in high school, I took a contemporary issues class in which we spent each week investigating an ongoing global conflict in preparation for a discussion, debate, or Socratic Seminar at the end of the week. I remember being really excited when the Arab-Israeli conflict appeared on the docket because I had visited Israel for the first time over the most recent summer break.

During our weekly computer lab session I was sitting next to the boy I’d just started dating. I don’t remember the conversation we had at the time, but I do remember that he later told me, “The look in your eyes when you were talking about what Israel means to you – I couldn’t decide if it was beautiful or terrible.”

Likely, it was both. I felt a deep sense of ahavat yisrael, love of Israel. I was certain that Israel was the place where the Jewish people belonged. To my thinking then, it was the place that had been promised in biblical times and therefore had to be defended at any cost.

For the eight and a half years our relationship lasted, that boy in the computer lab and I managed only a few conversations about Israel without arguing. This is mostly my fault. Israel was usually a topic I would either refuse to discuss, or would only entertain under very limited and specific circumstances. Those were few and far between and largely occurred after an attack in the region made global headlines.

Though I am very much a promoter of dialogue, I was concerned that if I showed anything less than complete devotion to Israel, that would leave room for him and all non-Jews to question the validity of all of Israel’s land claims. Underlying this was the fear that people I knew and loved would not rally behind Israel’s right to exist.

The university I attended had a sizeable Jewish minority, which played a huge factor in my initial decision to apply. However, it was during my time in college that I encountered real opposition to Israel and Israeli policies.

My nine years of Jewish education, four years of Hebrew School, and lifetime of synagogue participation had not prepared me to respond to any criticism at all. As I had been taught, Israel was the Jewish homeland. Everything anybody did to defend Israel was good. Everything anybody did to suggest that Israel was misguided in some way, either in policy, laws, or land claims, was bad. All of my experiences with and about Israel had not prepared me to fact check myself and those around me, nor was I able to satisfactorily articulate my personal beliefs on Israel because I’d never engaged in real dialogue about it. I had always shut off those conversations and did not know how to respond when turning away was not an option.

I started to do a lot more reading and a lot more questioning. Everyone I encountered had a lot to say. As the adage goes, “Two Jews, three opinions.” The narrative among my Jewish friends, though varied, was limited. We collectively felt responsible for defending Israel around non-Jews and weren’t entirely comfortable with criticism among ourselves. If we didn’t steadfastly support Israel, who would? And of course, it is very difficult to be the member of a tight-knit group with a specific cultural narrative who starts questioning the narrative.

Hebrew School
Two years after college, while I was both a graduate student and a teacher, I was asked to teach the required grade eleven seminar at my synagogue’s Hebrew School. The Hebrew School model had evolved since I was a student, so this was not a class I had taken. Sure, I figured, how hard could it be?

Topic: Arab-Israeli Conflict
Goal: Explore the Arab-Israeli conflict in context with primary sources and evidence from both sides to help students think critically about Israel in order to deepen their understanding of and connection to it.  
Curriculum: The David Project

According to The David Project’s website, in the new curriculum that I was teaching:

Issues, especially those in the Historical Dimension, are addressed in a more chronological fashion, as opposed to reacting to common allegations or claims against Israel. We hope that this method will allow students to trace the evolution of the conflict and gain a wider perspective of key events.

There are no direct advocacy elements in this curriculum. While we believe Israel advocacy to be a worthwhile enterprise, the goal of this product is to engage students in thoughtful exploration of the conflict and to encourage future study and involvement.

The history of the Palestinian national movement is interwoven with the Israeli history and that of the conflict in general. While we do not take political positions, no study of the conflict could be complete without examining the Palestinian component and gaining a deeper understanding about how Palestinian identity, politics and terrorism, have shaped the conflict with Israel.

There is a greater emphasis on interactive learning, with each unit containing several suggestions for classroom activities that go beyond discussion questions. These activities are designed to produce a more experiential environment and one where students have to engage with the material on a more individual level and at a greater depth.

I learned along with my students. Almost every lesson I prepared involved a learning curve. Throughout the course, we encountered Israel’s founding documents; maps of the Middle East throughout history; statistics about Israeli settlements; political struggles in Gaza and the West Bank; legal documentation of the development of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO); position statements on one-state, two-state, and three-state solutions; academic texts about the refugee problem; and the moral dilemmas of Israeli policy that exist today.

This is what I had been missing throughout my own school years. I am confident that after completing the course my students were better prepared to articulate and defend their personal beliefs about Israel than I was at their age.

Back to Israel
I visited Israel for the second time over the summer of 2013, six years after my first visit. I had grown a lot and learned a lot, and had a completely different experience as a result. Israel had changed, too. There was more government-supported cooperation with Palestinians and Arab-Israelis, but also an increased number of controversial Israeli settlements. Our guide (who I cannot say enough good things about) constantly emphasized the need for multiple perspectives, multiple narratives, and the necessity of seeing all people as simply people who are trying to make a living and a life. Humanity is often forgotten in a fight for the right to exist. Most people, if given the option, would choose peace in order to live their lives and raise their families.

It is one thing to love Israel because of its history, culture, beauty, and people, which I do. It is quite another to agree blindly with every government decision. I had started to understand that in my first year teaching Hebrew School and grew to believe it during that summer.

I grew to love and understand the nuances of Israel far better than I had previously. And it’s really impossible not to love a place that looks like this:

Hebrew School Again
When I taught my Hebrew School course for the second time to a new group of grade eleven students, I had the background of the first year of the course as well as a foundation that came from my discussions with our guide, Ilan, over the summer. I’d spoken to him about my personal struggles to understand various elements of Israeli policy that did not match the narrative I had been taught during my own school days, in which there were no questions and no moral dilemmas.

By the end of the second year of the course, I thought I knew where I stood on questions about security barriers, settlements, and refugees. I did not agree with every decision the Israeli government made, but when do I ever agree with every decision any person, body, institution, or government makes?

As all of my recent writing on peace should suggest, I am very concerned with the state of our world. I am concerned with the lack of discussion given to peace not only in social studies classrooms, but in our contemporary and historical narratives. We are inundated with news reports and media glorification of violence, aggression, and war. We have not developed school curricula that emphasize peaceful dialogue, interactions, relationships, or cooperative efforts towards compromise.

When we talk about Israel, we focus on defense. How are we trying to protect Israel’s right and ability to exist when surrounded by neighbors who have sworn to annihilate it? How are we trying to maintain a distinctly Jewish identity in the tumultuousness of the Middle East? How are we honoring the legacy of those who fought and died so that Israel could exist?

While those conversations should take place, it is the glorification of the fight itself, the wars for independence and existence, that dominate the narrative. The speaker who presented to the eighth grade class at my school last week did not once explain what Israel is fighting for, or who, or why. There was an implicit message that fighting is the only choice, the only option, the only reality simply because it has always been that way. There was absolutely no context for why there’s war in the region or the need for continuous military intelligence. This is due to a prevailing view that Israel needs to fight to literally stay on the map.

While there certainly is ongoing conflict in and around Israel, we need to rewrite the narrative that only emphasizes war. We need to expose today’s students to context. We need to talk about why and who and how, as well as explore peaceful solutions to the conflict. One of my favorite examples is Seeds of Peace, which operates all over the world and has special programs that bring Israeli and Palestinian teens together. These initiatives need to be part of the conversation, too.

Discussions of peace must be far more nuanced than a simple lack of violence. At the moment, the narrative does not go that far. We absolutely need to emphasize peace as an attitude and state of mind if we are going to build a world where sustainable well-being for all is attainable.

I have attempted to convey the evolution of my views about Israel, particularly in relation to my goal of building a better, more peaceful world that is sustainable for all. Likely, these ideas are still in transition and will develop further as I continue to read and learn.

As explained above, the vast majority of my learning began when I was ready to see the other side and wanted to understand perspectives inherently different from my own. All I know for sure at this moment is that dialogue and honest conversation were integral to the expansion of my ideas about Israel and what it means to support Israel in today’s world.

I firmly believe Israel’s fight is worth fighting. If cessation of violence were presently a viable option, the Israelis would stop fighting tomorrow. Since it isn’t, however, they fight to protect their families and lives against those who have sworn that Israel will be destroyed at whatever cost to innocent human life. Ironically, this is the more peaceful option. Protecting human lives and promoting peace in Israel means fighting Hamas and its supporters, who use children as human shields and launch attacks from schools and hospitals.

I believe that Israel’s fight is necessary because it emphasizes that human life has value. If we lose that perspective, we have lost humanity. We can’t build a world that increases sustainable well-being by destroying human life in the process.

Supporting Israel means valuing and protecting the innocent person’s right to live.

Our world is struggling to cope with increasingly advanced AI, increasingly devastating climate change, and a variety of global issues that are far bigger than the conflict in one region. If any nation at all wants to survive, priorities around the globe have to change. We have to decide that innocent human lives are worth protecting and worth a reevaluation of our time, energy, and efforts. Israel is fighting to do that within its borders. This fight to protect humanity needs to be part of the way we discuss Israel’s history, politics, and efforts at conflict resolution.

For me, dreaming is simply being pragmatic. – Shimon Peres

4 thoughts on “Building Peace by Waging War”

  1. It’s difficult to take a nuanced position, and harder to articulate it. Still, you make your point. More importantly, the limited exposure you had to critical arguments about the ever-going Middle East conflict, and how that left you unprepared later for critical discussions, should serve as a warning to all of us who are involved with educating Jews.

    Liked by 1 person

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