Contemporary Jewry

, Volume 36, Issue 1, pp 55–84

Negotiating Critical Analysis and Collective Belonging: Jewish American Students Write the History of Israel

Article

DOI: 10.1007/s12397-016-9157-6

Cite this article as:
Hassenfeld, J. Cont Jewry (2016) 36: 55. doi:10.1007/s12397-016-9157-6

Abstract

American Jews, particularly those who are highly engaged in Jewish communal life, learn many stories about Israel’s past. They learn the story of Israel as the culmination of a heroic two thousand year struggle and about the waves of immigrants who came to the Holy Land with nothing and made the desert bloom. But when these stories are subjected to critical scrutiny, they may fail to hold up. This study analyzed 438 short narratives of the history of Israel written by Jewish American high school students attending Jewish day schools. Their responses suggested that many students are aware of the tensions between various historical accounts and adopt different strategies to negotiate between critical historical analysis and Jewish collective belonging. Although there were no differences in the content of the accounts by students’ religious denomination or prior study of Israel’s history, students adopted different approaches to negotiating critical analysis and collective belonging. Some students told stories of Jewish heritage without taking into account other possible perspectives. Some students engaged with challenges to their inherited stories but only to dispute them. Finally, some students managed to synthesize multiple narratives together while still using a Jewish perspective to frame their account. This last strategy suggests that students can be historically sophisticated without abandoning a commitment to their heritage.

Keywords

History education Jewish identity Jewish day school Israel Narrative Israel education 

Introduction

American Jews, particularly those who are highly engaged in the Jewish community, learn many stories about Israel’s past. Among others, they learn the story of Israel as the culmination of a heroic two-thousand-year struggle and about the waves of immigrants who came to the Holy Land with nothing and made the desert bloom. Stories like these can instill pride and cultivate a sense of collective belonging. For the past 65 years, support of the State of Israel has represented one of the few areas of consensus among American Jews and has become an assumption of normative American Jewish communal conversation (Kopelowitz and Grant 2012; Pomson and Deitcher 2010; Sinclair 2013; Zakai 2014).

Other stories of the past take a critical historical approach. Thinking like historians, individuals subject stories of the past to critical scrutiny (Chazan 2010). In so doing, they often discover that their most cherished stories contain distortions and even falsehoods. They may feel obligated to revise their stories of the past in light of this activity. Engaging in critical historical analysis can sharpen our thinking and develop our abilities to evaluate evidence and draw conclusions. But critical historical analysis can sometimes feel like an attack.

The vitriolic debate over the national US history curriculum during the early 1990s offers one example of the clash between the critical historical approach to the past and the collective belonging approach. Some argued that the new history standards undermined American pride; proponents of the new standards insisted that they simply updated the curriculum in the interest of accuracy (Nash et al. 1998).

Israeli historians such as Benny Morris and Avi Shlaim, who revised deeply cherished accounts of Israel’s past, sparked a similar phenomenon in the Jewish community. Many Jews around the world rejected their accounts out of hand because of the ways they challenged traditional accounts of Israel’s history. When we relate to the past as a foundation for collective identity, critical historical analysis can seem like an attack on that identity.

Today, American Jews cannot avoid encountering negative accounts of Israel’s past. Both Israeli and Palestinian historians have documented the displacement of Palestinians in the aftermath of the 1948 war (Khalidi 2007; Morris 2004). Media coverage of the suppression of the first and second intifadas and the repeated collapse of peace negotiations has made the plight of Palestinians difficult to ignore. Over the last 25 years, the relative unity of the American Jewish community in support of the State of Israel has begun to show signs of fracturing (Sasson 2013).

Just as American culture wars manifested themselves in the debate over national American history standards (Nash et al. 1998), the conflicts over Israel in the American Jewish community are increasingly manifested in debates over Israel education. Examining how young American Jews integrate these different stories when asked to narrate Israel’s history may shed light on how Jews manage the conflict over Israel’s history.

For insight into how young people construct historical narratives, it is natural to turn to the literature on historical thinking. However, most research in this area has focused on history about which students may not care deeply. Researchers have asked students to think about the Battle of Lexington (Wineburg 1991), the Panama Canal (Rouet et al. 1997), and westward expansion (Ferretti et al. 2001). It is far less common to ask students to think about historical questions that bear on the present, where students’ feel their own fate is intimately tied to the fates of those in the past.

To explore how young people construct accounts of history that bears on their present concerns, I asked young American Jews to write the story of the State of Israel in a few paragraphs. Their responses suggested that many students are aware of the tensions between various historical accounts, and they adopt different strategies to negotiate between critical historical analysis and collective belonging. This examination of young people’s narratives of history offers insights both for those who teach Jewish history and want their students to develop critical skills, and for communities that use stories of Israel’s past to anchor a sense of Jewish collective belonging.

Critical Analysis and Collective Belonging

When crafting an account of the past, people don’t just list events in chronological order. White’s (1975) distinction between chronicle and story clarifies the difference between a list of events and a historical account. A chronicle is a list of events in temporal order, like a timeline; a story organizes those events into an unfolding process that “is thought to possess a beginning, middle, and end” (1975, 5). Although a historian may begin by placing a list of events in chronological order, a useful history requires the historian to transform that chronicle into a story. Just as an insignificant detail in the opening scene of a detective story only becomes meaningful once the protagonist cracks the case, so, too, the end of a historical account sheds light on the meaning of its opening events. The goal of history is not to collect a master list of every true fact about the past, but, rather, to explain how a given set of events is related to the events that came before and after it. In other words, an effective historical account must make the case that a group of events are part of a single historical process (Walsh 1960).

Cronon (1992) argues that the same set of historical facts can be transformed into several different stories. He points out that historians have narrated the history of the Dust Bowl as a progressive story of the triumph of human ingenuity over a harsh and resistant landscape, as a story of the inability of humans to accept the ecological realities of the environment they inhabit, and as a tragic story of a vanishing native society in the face of a European invasion. Each story ascribes a different meaning to a similar set of events. It is the emphasis placed on each event, the connections drawn between events, and the beginning and end of the story that determine its significance.

White’s distinction between chronicle and story, illustrated by Cronon, suggests that the facts students know about history may be less important than how they turn those facts into a narrative. It is necessary, therefore, to examine not just what events they include, but how they relate to and organize those events. Thus, the question becomes how students transform facts from chronicle to story.

Critical analysis and collective belonging represent two ways of telling stories about the past. That is, they represent different approaches for transforming a chronicle into a story. The classic distinction between history and memory (Halbwachs 1992; Wertsch 2002; Yerushalmi 1982) sheds light on the differences between these approaches. Yerushalmi (1982) points out that history and memory have very different purposes. History utilizes critical methods to arrive at the truth. Memory seeks to anchor a sense of collective belonging.

Wertsch (2002) formulates criteria for determining whether an author is telling a critical historical story or a story of collective belonging. History, argues Wertsch, strives to be objective. Historians use words like “dispassionate,” and “disinterested” to describe this perspective. Historians strive to step outside themselves and to make what philosopher Mink (1966) calls “synoptic judgments.” Synoptic judgments rise above the fray. The historian takes a bird’s eye view of the historical field and synthesizes the various and contradictory perspectives into a single, coherent account. Mink argues that integrating many perspectives on the past into a single account is the “distinctive characteristic of historical understanding” (42).

In contrast, continues Wertsch, when telling a story designed to anchor a sense of collective belonging, individuals do not strive for a synoptic perspective. Instead, they tend to adopt a committed, personal perspective. They use first-person pronouns and speak as if they themselves had experienced the events they describe. Speaking from the South Lawn of the White House on July 4, 2013, President Obama said, “On July 4, 1776, a small band of patriots declared that we were a people created equal, free to think and worship and live as we please; that our destiny would not be determined for us, it would be determined by us” (Obama 2013). Although President Obama spoke about events that occurred hundreds of years before he was born, he narrated them as if he had personally taken part in them. This personal perspective is characteristic of relating to the past as a foundation for collective belonging.

Some challenge the idea that critical history and collective belonging are mutually exclusive. Amos Funkenstein (1993) argues that collective belonging is constitutive of much historical thinking. Describing the first generation of modern historians, Funkenstein writes, “During the 19th century… the historian was given a special position as the high priest of culture, responsible for the legitimation of the nation-state” (19). The triumphant nationalist narratives that contemporary historians critique are themselves products of past generations of historians trying to exemplify a critical historical approach. He concludes,

The fact that a historian is always influenced by the ‘point of view’ of the time and place, from which he or she cannot be altogether detached, does not necessarily impede historical understanding (21).

Gottlieb and Wineburg (2012) illustrated Funkenstein’s thesis. They asked religious and nonreligious historians to think aloud as they read sources dealing with the historicity of the Bible. They found that historians with religious commitments negotiate commitments to historical rigor and commitments to their communities without abandoning either. Gottlieb and Wineburg’s study suggests that critical analysis and collective belonging can coexist within a single account of the past.

Young People’s Historical Narratives

Gottlieb and Wineburg studied historians working in universities. They were trained professionals with years of experience in grappling with the challenges of negotiating different ways of telling stories about the past. How do young people, without the training and experience of professional historians, negotiate critical analysis and collective belonging when constructing accounts of their own group’s history?

To answer this question, it is not sufficient to elicit answers to specific prompts or to select quotations from an interview. Any time researchers transform students’ responses into a narrative (cf. Barton and McCully 2010; Levstik and Barton 1998; Mosborg 2002), they risk finding a story that may not be there. To avoid the risk of imposing narratives on students, this study builds on previous research that used open-ended prompts to explore young people’s narratives of the past (Goldberg et al. 2011; Létourneau and Moisan 2004; Porat 2004; Seixas 1997; Wertsch 1994, 2002). Open-ended prompts give students maximum flexibility in crafting their accounts of the past. These studies suggest that students negotiate between critical analysis and collective belonging as they construct their accounts.

Wertsch (1994), Jocelyn Létourneau (2006; Létrouneau and Moisan 2004) and Dan Porat (2004) used 182 open-ended prompts and asked students to write historical narratives. Their findings suggest that young people actively draw on a variety of resources, making difficult choices about how to construct historical accounts. Wertsch (2002) argues that they rely on schematic narratives that structure the overall account, but then fill in the details in diverse ways. American students narrate American history as a heroic quest for freedom (Wertsch 1994); Quebeckers narrate their history as one of unending oppression (Létourneau and Moisan 2004; Létourneau 2006). Porat (2004) found that when students encounter revisionist narratives that challenge those they have inherited, they use a variety of strategies to incorporate the new information into their original account. Each of these studies found students negotiating different ways of narrating the past that require them to make choices about what events to include and exclude, how to represent those events, and how to reconcile conflicting accounts.

Today, many American Jews struggle with their relationship to Israel. But research on this relationship focuses almost exclusively on the emotional dimension (see, e.g., Pomson et al. 2014). Scholars debate whether American Jews feel less attached to Israel than they used to (see, e.g., Cohen and Kelman 2010; Sasson et al. 2010). Community organizations, seeking to strengthen ties between American Jews and Israel, invest hundreds of millions of dollars in programs like Taglit-Birthright Israel, which offers free 10-day trips to Israel for Jews between the ages of 18 and 26. Studies of Birthright find that the trip does change how participants feel about Israel (Saxe and Chazan 2008; Saxe et al. 2014) and ethnographies of Birthright credit its success to the experiential power of tourism (Kelner 2010).

In contrast to the trend of focusing on how American Jews feel about Israel, this study focused on the cognitive dimensions of Israel education. It explored how young American Jews negotiate critical history and collective belonging as they write the history of Israel. Their accounts bear the traces of the difficult choices they must make. Even when telling stories of collective belonging, they move among several different stories of the past. Examining their stories of the past clarifies how they negotiate the choices available to them.

Research Questions

This study set out to answer three questions:
  1. 1.

    What events do students include in their accounts of the history of the State of Israel?

     
  2. 2.

    What is the relationship among the events students include, their denomination, and their prior study of Israel?

     
  3. 3.

    How do students negotiate among different narratives of the history of Israel?

     

Methods

Instrument

The instrument included a writing prompt and a demographic survey (Appendix 2). First, students responded to the following prompt: “In two to three paragraphs, tell the history of the State of Israel as you understand it.” The demographic survey asked students about their religious denomination, their prior education regarding the history of Israel, and their participation in Jewish communal organizations.

The main prompt followed the spirit of Létourneau’s work with young Quebeckers (Létourneau and Moisan 2004; Létourneau 2006). He asked students: “Please account for the history of Quebec since the beginning, the way you see it, remember it, or understand it” (2004, 73). Such prompts strive to be open-ended and to communicate to students that there is no right answer.1

Administration

The instrument was designed and implemented using Qualtrics, an online survey tool. All the schools had access to computer labs, and teachers distributed the link to the students right before they began filling out the survey. Teachers were instructed not to answer any questions about the survey and not to discuss survey content with students until after they had completed it. The survey was administered during school hours and students were given approximately 30 min to complete it. The median time for submission was 13 min and the standard deviation was 8 min.2

Setting

A 2012–2013 census of American Jewish day schools found that, excluding ultra- Orthodox schools, the United States has 283 day schools serving 83,008 students (AVI CHAI Foundation 2013). Day school mission statements almost universally characterize fostering a love of Israel as a core educational goal.

I divided Jewish high schools into regions (East, Midwest and West) and attempted to recruit at least one Orthodox school and one community school in each region. I excluded ultra-Orthodox schools as potential sites because of difficulties in gaining access. I contacted 16 high schools that fit these requirements, and eight agreed to participate. Not every school administered the survey to all students, choosing classes and grade levels that were of internal interest. Out of 580 students who had the opportunity to participate, 438 consented to participate and completed a narrative (76%). The schools and the number of students participating are summarized in Table 1.
Table 1

Participating schools

School

Region

Type of school

Total # of students participating

1

West

Orthodox

94

2

Midwest

Conservative

84

3

West

Community

35

4

Midwest

Orthodox

25

5

West

Community

8

6

East

Community

129

7

East

Community

34

8

East

Community

29

Total

  

438

Although the sample lacks a nondenominational school in the Midwest, and an Orthodox school in the East, students’ self-reports of their denominational affiliation ensured that there were students’ from all major Jewish denominations (Orthodox, Conservative, Reform) in each of the geographic regions studied.

I discarded responses that were 20 words or less, that mentioned no historical events, or that a student copied from an online source (I determined this by submitting to Google a short section of each response), as well as those in which students failed to complete the demographic survey. In the end, I analyzed 355 responses.

Students

The population of students attending Jewish day schools is unusual when compared with other Jewish American high school students. Parents who choose to place their children in a full-time Jewish environment are among the most highly affiliated members of the Jewish community (Pomson et al. 2014, 35). I chose to study this population because they were most likely to have the knowledge of Israel necessary to complete the writing task.

Out of 355 students, 222 reported that they had taken a class in which they had studied the history of Israel, while 133 reported that they had not. Students also reported their denominational affiliations. Based on their responses, I grouped students into six denominational categories.3 The most common denomination was Conservative (31%) followed by Orthodox (28%), Conservadox (15%), unaffiliated (9%), “Just Jewish” (8%), and Liberal (8%).

Data Analysis

First, I analyzed the events students included and explored the associations between events mentioned and students’ demographic characteristics. Second, I formulated a categorization scheme in which to place students’ narratives.

Content Analysis

The texts were coded for references to events (Létourneau and Moisan 2004; Wertsch 1994) mentioned by more than 3% of the students. I used Chi squared analyses to explore whether denomination or prior study of the history of the State of Israel was associated with the events students mentioned. I also tested whether the denomination or prior study was associated with the time periods of the events included (Bible, Diaspora, early Zionism, World War II/Holocaust, the establishment of the Jewish state, post-independence development, the Arab–Israeli conflict, and the peace process).

Narrative Analysis

To characterize the narratives students used in their accounts, I used a grounded theory approach (Corbin and Strauss 2008). I read each narrative several times and noted any words or phrases that suggested a narrative type. I developed a system that included codes, such as “start-up nation,” “surrounded by enemies,” and “Palestinians inhabiting the land” (See Appendix 1).

Based on the patterns I found, I identified five different narratives of the history of Israel. While some students drew on only one narrative, most students included elements of at least two narratives. I coded the narratives for the presence of each narrative type. A second rater independently coded 20 randomly selected narratives; interrater reliability was 92%.

Findings

Content Analysis

Students’ accounts varied widely in terms of their word length (M = 181.5, SD = 131.6). Student accounts included seven events mentioned by at least 30% of students. Figure 1 displays the events and their frequencies.
Fig. 1

Percent of student accounts mentioning each event

Figure 1 suggests that there is a set of seven core events that make up the backbone of young American Jews’ narratives of the history of the State of Israel. At least 10% of the students mentioned nine other events, including God’s promise of the land to the Jews, the exile of the Jews, persecution, the Balfour Declaration, the partition plan, peace with Egypt, the First Lebanon War, the first intifada, and the second intifada.4

After using a Bonferroni correction for multiple comparisons, Chi squared analysis showed no significant patterns in events by denomination or prior study. These findings suggest that by the time young American Jews reach high school, they have already internalized a rough outline of the history of Israel that is consistent across denominations and doesn’t change in response to studying Israel’s history in school.

Although these findings are thought provoking, they must be interpreted cautiously. Different schools spend different amounts of time on Israel education and take very different approaches to Israel. It is certainly plausible that school differences washed out effects of denomination and prior study. The question of whether students from different backgrounds include different events in their narratives of the State of Israel is worthy of further study.

Narrative Types

Counting events, however, doesn’t capture the kinds of stories students told. As Hayden White (1975) argues, a historical account consists of much more than events. The choices authors make about how to represent those events and how to organize them in relationship to one another can shift the entire meaning and significance of the account. The application of the coding scheme resulted in five narrative types. In the following paragraphs, I will summarize each narrative type and analyze an example of each. The reader will note that in most cases, student accounts include elements from more than one narrative type. In these cases, I coded the accounts as both narrative types.
  1. 1.

    National Struggle For thousands of years, Jews yearned to return to Israel. In the late 19th century, a group of Jewish heroes struggled to establish a Jewish state in Palestine, and, in 1948, against all the odds, they succeeded. Today, Israel is an economic powerhouse and a “start-up nation.”

     
The following student account (Table 2) represents a clear example of the national struggle narrative.5,6
Table 2

Narrative of national struggle

1

      Herzl, a European man, had a dream that in 50 years from his time, there would

2

be a state of Israel. Fifty years later, in 1948, his dream and efforts came true, and the

3

United Nations voted to make Israel its own State, and the majority of votes were in

4

favor. Israel was now an independent state, free from British rule. Even though Israel

5

was its own state, Israel still had to fight in the War of Independence in 1948 against its

6

surrounding countries. Israel was inexperienced yet they still managed to gather an

7

army of Zionists to fight for independence. From the war of independence to modern

8

day Israel, Israel has fought many wars, sacrificed some land, and gained control over

9

places like Jerusalem, the capital city of Israel. These wars include the Yom Kippur

10

War, a surprise attack on Israel on Yom Kippur, and the Six Day War

11

      When Zionists first started immigrating from all over the world to Israel, they

12

spread out all over Israel, founding settlements and kibbutzim. Most of the kibbutzim

13

started in northern Israel because of the good agriculture, and the people in each

14

kibbutz shared everything and had the same beliefs. Over time, kibbutzim have moved

15

southward as well, and today, there are over 270 kibbutzim all over Israel. Israel also

16

has been developing its army over time, and the Tzahal is now one of the most skilled

17

army forces in the entire world. Israelis also advanced greatly in technology and

18

agriculture. Finally, Israel had many great prime ministers like Golda Meir, Shimon

19

Peres, and Netanyahu.

This narrative opens with the idea that even in the Diaspora, Jews dreamed of returning to Israel (1). It emphasizes the unity of the Jewish community (6, 14) and stresses the actions of particular Jewish heroes, including Theodore Herzl, Golda Meir, Shimon Peres, and Benjamin Netanyahu (1, 18–19). The account focuses on Israel’s military victories. The main characters in this narrative are active (7), not passive, and they succeed, against the odds, in building a country that is a military and economic powerhouse (16–17). Overall, this narrative tells a heroic story that is optimistic about the future.
  1. 2.

    Jewish Victimhood Jews have been persecuted throughout their history. After the tragic events of the Holocaust, world powers granted the Jews a state in Palestine as compensation for their historical suffering. Since 1948, Israel has suffered at the hands of its surrounding enemies.

     
The following student account (Table 3) represents a clear example of the Jewish victimhood narrative (incorporating some elements of the national struggle narrative).
Table 3

Narrative of Jewish victimhood

1

      The state of Israel has had a very rocky history since the early 20th century. The

2

Jews had been exiled from Israel for thousands of years (after the destruction of the

3

second temple in 70CE) but they always remained hopeful that 1 day they would

4

return to Israel. In the 19th and 20th centuries Israel was in the hands of the Ottomans

5

for some time, and then the British. Under the British mandate of Palestine there were

6

attempts to divide up the state between the Palestinians and the Jews, but these attempts

7

were unsuccessful.

8

      Meanwhile, a majority of the Jews were suffering from persecution in Europe,

9

and Zionism grew as a strong Jewish movement. After the Holocaust, most of the world

10

agreed that the Jews needed their own state. In 1948 the UN voted that Israel would

11

become the Jewish state. //Since then there have a series of wars between Israel and

12

her neighbors. In 1967 Israel gained Gaza, the Golan Heights, the West Bank, and the

13

Sinai Peninsula. However, a few years later Israel returned the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt,

14

in order to make peace. In 2005 Israel also left Gaza.

15

      Today many Israelis believe that the only way to make Peace with the

16

Palestinians is to return to the pre-1967 borders and give the West Bank to the

17

Palestinians, to be a Palestinian state.

This narrative opens with the idea that the Jews have had a “rocky history” (1). The narrative emphasizes the persecution of the Jews (8). Instead of working together for the state as they do in the national struggle narrative, in this narrative, they are passive, and the world agrees, because of the Holocaust, to give them a state (9–10). While it notes that Israel gained land (11), the focus is not on Israeli military victories, but, rather, on the persistence of the conflict (11, 15). Overall, this narrative tells an uncertain story that is pessimistic about the future.
  1. 3.

    Divine Providence God promised Abraham the Land of Israel. Although it took thousands of years, this promise was eventually fulfilled.

     
The following student account (Table 4) represents a clear example of the divine providence narrative.
Table 4

Narrative of divine providence

1

The Israelites were enslaved in Egypt by the Egyptians and in need of saving. Moses

2

convinced the Pharaoh to release them. They proceeded to March through the desert until

3

they reached the promised land prescribed by God.

This narrative is short, but it includes the central elements of the divine providence narrative: it emphasizes biblical events, particularly the idea that the land was promised to the Israelites, and it includes God as a character and a driver of the action. Other narratives that invoke the divine providence narrative describe Israel’s military victories as miracles. The weaving of divine themes into a national narrative was far more common than a divine providence narrative on its own.
  1. 4.

    Palestinian Displacement European Jewish immigrants began arriving in Palestine during the end of the 19th century. They began to displace the local Arab population, finally expelling them by force in 1948. Today, Israel still occupies territory and builds settlements that are considered illegal under international law. Many Palestinians still languish in refugee camps spread throughout the region.

     
The following student account (Table 5) represents the sole example of a Palestinian narrative without elements of another narrative type added.
Table 5

Narrative of Palestinian displacement

1

Israel was originally Palestine, under control of the British, with Palestinians inhabiting

2

it. After WWII Britain gave the land formerly known as Palestine, and deemed it a

3

Jewish state under Jewish rule. Everything else is history. Basically, the Israeli

4

government is unfair to the Palestinians living in Israel, and ironically puts them in

5

ghetto-like territories. This is complete hypocrisy and as a country, Israel should feel

6

horrible and ashamed for the misfortune and suffering they have brought upon the

7

Palestinians. They are mean towards Spanish speakers because of the Mitsubishi pajero,

8

which is a slang word. Israel should be a secular state, but it unfortunately isn’t. The

9

only reason world leaders [support] Israel is because they hate Arabs, not because they

10

love Israel.

This narrative opens with the idea that the Palestinians inhabited the land before the Zionists immigrated (1). It stresses the mistreatment of the Palestinians at the hands of the British (2) and at the hands of the Israelis (4–6). It closes with a reference to the ongoing suffering of the Palestinians (6).
  1. 5.

    European-Historical In the late 19th century, Jews participated in the wave of nationalism sweeping Europe and they developed Zionism, their own national movement. They claimed a land and fought for it with the native inhabitants. The conflict continues.

     
The following student account (Table 6) represents a clear example of the European- historical history narrative.
Table 6

European-historical narrative

1

      Israel is a landmass. It has history just like every other landmass. It was

2

inhabited by one group/tribe/people. A man came to settle in it who was an outsider to

3

these tribes. He settled it under the claim, which may be true or false, that he was told to

4

settle there by God. The next few generations would leave but eventually come back,

5

copulate, and make more generations. Disaster hit so they left the land, became pariahs

6

in the land they went to. After many years they left that land and returned to the one that

7

had “originally been theirs” although it never really was. Then under claim of divine

8

right, raged bloody war on the inhabitants and took the land back. skip a bunch of wars,

9

annexations, exiles, and returns, and now the people are scattered all over. They face

10

prejudices, after a while get the idea to go back to the land that was theirs, go back and

11

face a lot more war.

12

      What I just wrote was an extremely watered down version of Israel’s history.

13

There’s nothing particularly special about it because this is the same as every other

14

landmass or plots history. People live there, someone else comes along claiming rights

15

to it, and it all escalates from there. It’s a simple outline used not only for land rights but

16

also for religion and beliefs. I understand Israel’s history the same way I understand

17

every other land plot’s history because it’s all the same. Maybe the only thing special

18

about it is that it’s the start of the pattern or the first of the pattern to be recorded.

This narrative adopts a universal perspective. It puts Israel’s history in a broader context, emphasizing that there is “nothing particularly special about it” (13). In several places, this narrative emphasizes that the story of the State of Israel is just one example of a much larger pattern that applies to many peoples in many places (1, 14, 18). Other narratives in this category adopted a universal perspective less stridently. They stressed the similarities between Zionism and other European social movements. They also emphasized that many religious and ethnic groups make claims on the Holy Land and that these claims cannot ultimately be judged.

The narratives I have discussed here stood out in their emphasis of a single narrative type. The vast majority of narratives synthesized multiple narrative types. Figure 2 displays the frequencies of narrative types. Because narratives that drew on more than one type were coded as both, the sum of the items in Fig. 2 is greater than 355.
Fig. 2

Number of student accounts including each narrative type

Just as with events mentioned, Chi squared analyses of narrative types revealed no significant effects on narrative type either by denomination or by prior study of the history of Israel.

The frequency of the national narrative may be an artifact of the prompt, which asked students to narrate the history of the State of Israel. That being said, the overwhelming prevalence of the national and victimhood narratives suggests that young American Jews construct the history of the State of Israel largely in these terms. The national narrative and the victimhood narrative also frequently occurred together, with students describing the historical persecution of the Jews as the driver and justification for the national movement.

For example, one student wrote, “In the 1800s, Theodore Herzl saw after the Dreyfus affair that Jews could no longer live in the [Diaspora]. He formed the [World] Zionist [Congress] that met in Basle, Switzerland.” This narrative focuses on a national hero, Herzl, but describes his motivation as stemming from the recognition of Jewish persecution.

The most interesting difference between the narratives was in the perspectives students adopted. More than half of the students (54%) drew solely on the three narratives embodying the normative American Jewish perspective7 on the history of Israel—namely, national struggle, Jewish victimhood, and divine providence. In remaining within the normative American Jewish perspective, these students related to the past as a foundation for collective belonging.

Negotiating Critical Analysis and Collective Belonging

The following section analyzes three students’ accounts in depth to show how they navigate the different possible ways of narrating the history of Israel. These three students were not typical. Their accounts were longer and more articulate than the average in the sample. Although many Jewish day school students will finish high school without such clearly articulated accounts, these three examples help to define the boundaries of the possible outcomes of Israel education in Jewish high schools.

Each of these students drew on more than one of the narrative types outlined above, but they synthesized them very differently. Eva, the first student, drew only on narrative types characteristic of normative American Jewish communal conversation. Her account illustrates how a student might effectively synthesize these three narrative types into a single account. Ron and Matt incorporated the two narrative types that challenge the normative perspectives, but each incorporated these challenging narratives differently. Ron incorporated the narrative of Palestinian displacement only to reject it; Matt drew on narratives of collective belonging to tell a story that embodies a critical historical approach.

A close reading of Eva’s8 account (Table 7) demonstrates how a student effectively integrates three narrative types into a coherent story that nonetheless never wavers from the narrative types characteristic of the normative American Jewish approach.
Table 7

Eva’s account

1

Israel began its journey to become a state back in biblical times with Abraham. G-d told

2

Abraham to go to a place that he would be shown (a.k.a. Canaan), and so the journey

3

started. Since then, Jews have lived in Israel, been exiled, and everywhere in between. A

4

turning point for the development of Israel was in the 1800s when Theodore Herzl

5

proposed and advocated for a Jewish state. Pogroms were occurring across Europe, and

6

anti-Semitism was spreading. We needed a state, and we needed a leader. Herzl

7

advocated for Jewish state in Israel, even though he was offered Uganda. Herzl died

8

without knowing what would become of his proposal. As Jewish life became harder,

9

more and more Jews tried to immigrate to Israel. During the Holocaust especially, Jews

10

began to realize that they were seriously in need of a safe haven. After WWII, Jews in

11

refugee camps attempted to immigrate to Israel, but the British turned them away.

12

Finally, in 1948, Israel became a reality. Many countries voted, some said yes, some

13

said no, and some abstained, but overall Israel became a state. But the struggle for the

14

State of Israel continued. The War of Independence broke out, and hundred of Israelis

15

perished. Moreover, Israel still continued to fight for recognition. After the war, more

16

war continued to break out. Wars like the Yom-Kippur War, and the Six Day War added

17

greatly to the state of Israel. During the Six Day War, Israel retrieved Jerusalem. This

18

event made a huge impact on the outcome of the Jewish State. Since becoming a state,

19

Israel has made many contributions to society in areas like Science, Mathematics, and

20

other areas. A couple of Israelis have even won the Nobel Peace Prize, and one won it

21

this year. Israel has given up some of its territory in order to make peace with other

22

nations. The Gaza strip was a great loss, but if it helps make peace in the Holy Land, it’s

23

probably worth it. Territories besides Jerusalem have also been gained. The Golan

24

Heights were obtained by the Israeli Military. Countless brilliant Prime Ministers have

25

lead Israel, such Golda Meir and Yitzhak Rabin. Currently Israel is under the leadership

26

of Bibi Netanyahu as Prime Minister, and Shimon Perez as President. Israel continues to

27

struggle for recognition as a state, and may never stop struggling, but will always keep

28

fighting to become a safe haven for the Jewish people.

Eva’s narrative opens by joining the narratives of national struggle and divine providence (lines 2–3). This narrative justifies the Jewish claim to the land and frames the narrative as a whole. With the emergence of Zionism, Eva shifts into telling the story of Jewish victimhood (4–7).

Eva’s narrative of Jewish victimhood peaks with the Holocaust. But even after this trauma, Jewish persecution continues as the British limit Jewish immigration and bar World War II refugees from entering Palestine (11–12). Unlike some narratives, which describe the conditions in Palestine during the British Mandate for Palestine and the activities of the Jewish community there in working toward a state, Eva’s narrative excludes these events, focusing solely on the persecution of Jews. Rather than describing the War of Independence as a triumphant victory against the odds, or grappling with the moral questions surrounding the birth of the Palestinian refugee problem, Eva’s narrative emphasizes the fact that “hundreds of Israelis perished” (15). Even at a moment of triumph, the narrative focuses on the suffering of Jews.

With the founding of the State of Israel, however, the account shifts back to the narrative of successful national struggle. Eva describes Israel’s victories in 1967 and 1973 (16–18) and the contributions of Israelis to math and science (19–21), and she celebrates Israel’s “countless brilliant prime ministers” (24–25). The final sentence of the narrative reaffirms the theme of Jewish persecution, but also the theme of Israeli fortitude in the face of challenges (28–29).

Eva is not detached from this story. Her account is not an attempt to adopt a synoptic perspective—that is, to stand above or outside the events she narrates. In discussing Jewish persecution decades before she was born, she writes, “We needed a state and we needed a leader.” This is not a story that happened to someone else; Eva tells the reader a story she claims as her own. In so doing, Eva reproduces what may be the most deeply held narrative of the Jewish past. Each year at the Passover seder, a ritual meal remembering the freeing of Jewish slaves from Egypt, Jews recite this line: “In every generation, they rise against us to destroy us, but God saves us from their hands.” Although Eva updates this narrative to give agency to the Jewish people rather than to God, she draws on this narrative of collective belonging to structure and organize more contemporary historical events.

Some students (47%) adopted synoptic perspectives, integrating those narratives that challenge the normative American Jewish account perspectives. These students drew on the three normative American Jewish narratives, but also integrated the narrative of Palestinian displacement deeply critical of Israel or of the European-historical narrative that situates the history of Israel in a broader context. For these students, the past was not a simple foundation for collective belonging. In some cases, they adopted the techniques of critical historical analysis, e.g., adopting an attitude of skepticism about inherited historical narratives (Yerushalmi 1982). These narratives are particularly interesting because they offer cases of students trying to negotiate between critical historical analysis and collective belonging. In what follows, I will describe two different ways in which students negotiated between critical analysis and collective belonging.

Critical Analysis in the Service of Collective Belonging Ron’s account (Table 8) synthesizes two narrative types: national struggle and Palestinian displacement. However, he includes the latter only to reject it. In some sense, then, Ron uses critical analysis in the service of collective belonging.
Table 8

Ron’s account

1

Israel has a very complex history. As I understand, the land of Israel was promised to

2

the Jewish people and belongs to the Jews. In 1948, Jews received the land back but

3

were met with extreme opposition from Arabs. Even though there are countless Muslim

4

nations and even a Palestine nation, in regards to Jordan, many Muslims feel that Israel

5

does not have the right to exist. But many people don’t understand that Israel is the

6

ONLY Jewish nation.

7

Also, I do not understand why Arabs think we are able to just give them our land. I

8

understand it is their home, but it is our home too. And, unlike Arabs, we Jews have

9

nowhere else to go, while they have countless nations that would be glad to welcome

10

them. In addition, it is not like their lives are horrible in Israel. Israel is the only stable

11

democracy in the Middle East. Israeli Arabs have a say in the Israeli government, are

12

given security and are free to practice their religion. I understand that life can be

13

challenging due to the check points and the security but I guarantee the Israel

14

government will change that if violence no longer takes place.

Like Eva, Ron is not dispassionate. He also uses first-person pronouns and signals that he is telling the reader a story he sees as his own. However, unlike Eva, Ron is able to incorporate a narrative that challenges the normative American Jewish perspective. His account is structured almost as a dialogue between himself and an interlocutor representing a Palestinian perspective. He marshals logical arguments to convince his imagined interlocutor of the justice of the State of Israel. In writing both sides of the debate, Ron demonstrates a capacity, albeit nascent, to adopt and integrate multiple perspectives into a single account.

Ron’s account, like many other students’ narratives, justifies Israel’s claim to the land in terms of its liberal values, such as democracy and tolerance, and argues that Arabs ought to accept Israel because Israel treats them well and tolerates them (10–12). But even as he praises Israel for its tolerance of its non-Jewish citizens, he acknowledges how difficult life can be for Palestinians in Israel “due to the checkpoints and security” (13). Acknowledging the valid arguments of the other side and recognizing an alternative perspective exemplifies a synoptic approach.

Ron’s narrative includes the narrative of Palestinian displacement. He implicitly references three aspects of that narrative: Jews took Palestine from Palestinian Arabs, kicked them out, and now oppress them with harsh security measures. One by one, he disputes these three claims. First, he argues that the Jews had nowhere else to go (9), and were, therefore, justified in coming to live in Palestine. Second, he assumes that Arabs are a homogenous group and, therefore, there are many Arab states where the Palestinians could just as easily live (9). Finally, he argues that what appears to be oppression is a justified response to Arab violence (14).

The argument expressed in Ron’s narrative, however, is not grounded in detailed historical evidence, and one can easily imagine how his interlocutor might respond. One gets the sense that Ron is engaged in advocacy. Yes, he includes a narrative of Palestinian displacement, but only to dispute it. Ron’s narrative implies a conception of history in which there may be multiple ways of telling the story, but a single one can unequivocally be determined to be right. For Ron, the right narrative is obvious, and anyone willing to reason logically about history will come to the same conclusion.

Even though Ron integrates multiple perspectives, his narrative ultimately aims to support collective belonging. His account exhibits many features characteristic of collective belonging, such as writing in the first person and advocating for the justice of his own group’s cause. This account represents a strategy that incorporates a critical historical perspective into what is, in the end, an account in the service of belonging. Ron’s account adopts an objective tone and recognizes the suffering of Palestinians, but only to better ground his sense of collective belonging. In the sample as a whole, 28 students (8%) produced accounts that invoked a narrative that challenged the normative American Jewish perspective in order to reject it and thereby strengthen collective belonging.

Critical Analysis Framed by Collective Belonging Matt’s account (Table 9) contextualizes conflicting narratives within a broader narrative of European history. In a way, Matt’s narrative represents the synoptic perspective par excellence. He is able to articulate each group’s narrative within the context of a more general perspective. Matt’s account draws on all five narrative types.
Table 9

Matt’s account

1

Since the time of the Jewish Kingdom in the Biblical times, a small number of Jews

2

have lived on the land. In the mid 1800 s, as nationalism spread across Europe, Jews

3

started to desire a state of their own. This nationalistic ideology was mixed with the

4

need to flee from anti-Semitism in Russia and other European countries. Jews were

5

subject to Pogroms and other violent attacks and wanted to find a place where they

6

could start a new life. The first waves of Jewish immigrants (1st Aliyah) were mostly

7

young Russian Jews who wanted a socialist Jewish state. They were not necessarily

8

so religious. They were more focused on the culture. There were five major waves of

9

such immigrants. There was building tension between the Palestinians living in the

10

land and the incoming Jews who were buying land. After War World One, Great

11

Britain gained control over Palestine and Jordan. The British tried to appease the

12

tensions between the Jews and Arabs in Palestine. In 1917, the Balfour Declaration

13

was written. The declaration stated Britain’s support for the creation of the Jewish

14

state in Palestine. This infuriated the Arabs living in Palestine and furthered the

15

tensions. As the British Mandate continued, Britain slowly moved away from its

16

promise to the Jews and started catering more to the Arabs.

17

After the Holocaust, many Jews wanted to leave Europe and go to Palestine. Britain

18

severely limited immigration and did not let many Jews in. By this point, there were

19

Jewish organizations such as the Haganah that worked to get Jews into the land.

20

There were many Jewish movements whose goals were to establish a Jewish state in

21

Palestine. In 1948, the British relinquished their control over Palestine and the UN

22

voted to create two states: one Jewish and one Palestinian. After this decision, all of

23

Israel’s neighbors attacked. The Israeli forces were very outnumbered but the Israeli

24

soldiers were well trained from their time with the British. At the end of the war,

25

Israel had actually conquered land from the Arab countries. The Palestinians call this

26

war the “Nakba” or the Catastrophe. Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, either by

27

choice or force, left their homes and around the same of amount of Jews were forced

28

out of Arab countries. All of Israel’s neighbor’s would not recognize Israel and in

29

1956, Israel went to war with Egypt to reopen the Suez Canal. Britain and France

30

aided Israel. Israel captured the Sinai and returned it in 1957. In 1967, as tensions

31

were rising, Egypt and Syria started to prepare their military for action. Israel

32

responded with a surprise attack that lasted for six days. Israel captured the Sinai, the

33

Golan Heights, and the West Bank. Many Israelis felt a sense of euphoria after this

34

war. However, this sentiment quickly left after the Yom Kippur War in 1973. Egypt

35

and Syria led the Arab front and attacked Israel on Yom Kippur. The Israeli army was

36

caught off guard and had many casualties. Eventually, the Israeli army regained its

37

power and kept the land.

38

In 1979, Egypt and Israel made a peace agreement and the Egyptian President made

39

the significant journey to Jerusalem. This essentially showed Egypt’s acceptance of

40

the state of Israel. The Egyptian President was assassinated for creating the peace

41

treaty. Jordan quickly followed with its peace treaty with Israel. Recently, the

42

Palestinians started an Intifada. It was a ground up fight against Israeli occupation in

43

Israel. In 2004, Israel officially left Gaza and Hamas took control. Hamas has been

44

sending rockets into southern Israel and Israel has responded with air strikes and

45

ground invasions. Israel has a better relationship with the Palestinian Authority in the

46

West Bank. A main issue is whether to create a Palestinian state in the West Bank

47

(two state versus one state).

Within the first two sentences, Matt’s narrative invokes two particular Jewish narratives (1–3). However, his narrative is not organized around the heroic struggle for the state or Jewish victimhood. Rather, Matt contextualizes these particular narratives in a narrative of 19th-century Europe in which many different ethnic and religious communities demanded their own nations (2). Matt situates the genealogy of Zionism in a European context.

Matt’s narrative acknowledges the roots of Jewish–Arab tension in large-scale Jewish immigration (9–10) and in Arab anger in response to the Balfour Declaration (14–15). In doing so, Matt demonstrates his capacity to include a narrative of Palestinian displacement. In drawing on normative American Jewish narratives and then stepping back once again into the European context, Matt’s narrative sheds light on how Jews and Arabs could tell such different stories about the same events.

Matt’s account also addresses the Palestinian narrative of 1948. He is one of only two students out of 355 to invoke the Arabic term “nakba,” (catastrophe), to characterize the events of 1948 (26). He does not try to dispute this narrative as Ron might have, but, rather, he places it side by side with the Jewish narrative, and puts it into a larger framework. His account describes the Palestinian refugee problem that resulted from the war as well as the historiographical debate about whether they left by choice or whether the Israeli army forcibly expelled them.

Matt’s narrative is exceptional in the sample as a whole with respect to the ease with which he embraces various perspectives on the history of Israel. He constructs a broad historical frame that integrates multiple narratives of history, allowing the Jews to see May 14, 1948 as Independence Day, and the Palestinians to see it as the Nakba, the catastrophe. It would be easy, therefore, to think that Matt’s account is solely one of critical analysis. He demonstrates that he has begun to master the synoptic perspective that Mink calls “the distinctive characteristic of historical thinking” (1966, 42). In the sample, 15 students (4%) integrated multiple perspectives in ways similar to Matt.

In what sense, then, is Matt’s account framed by a sense of collective belonging? A close reading of Matt’s account demonstrates that while he is able to use the techniques of critical historical analysis, he still draws on narratives of collective belonging to frame his account. Matt’s account opens as follows: “Since the time of the Jewish Kingdom in the Biblical times, a small number of Jews have lived on the land” (1). The sentiment here expressed is that, for thousands of years, Jews have called Israel home. In the first line of his narrative, Matt conceives of the European Jews who immigrated to Palestine in the 19th century as the inheritors of the ancient Israelites who lived there thousands of years ago. For him, these two groups are the same. In describing the characteristics of memory, Wertsch (2002) includes a commitment to the unchanging essence of the group over time. In choosing to open his account in the deep Jewish past, Matt has already shaped the possible meanings this story can have. He opens his account not as a dispassionate historian with no allegiance, but as a person who believes that the Land of Israel, in some sense, belongs to the Jews.

Another trace of collective belonging in Matt’s narrative comes as he discusses the Palestinian refugee problem. After acknowledging the historical debate over whether Palestinians were expelled (26), he writes, “Around the same amount of Jews were forced out of Arab countries” (27). The juxtaposition of Jewish and Arab refugees may imply that Matt believes one dispossession balances the other. Matt may include this statement as if to say, “Jews may have forced Palestinians out of their land, but they, too, were forced out of our land.” Matt acknowledges Israel’s wrongdoing, but he believes that wrongdoing is cancelled out by the wrongdoing against Jews.

Yes, one might say, but Jews did live in Palestine two-thousand years ago and a similar number of Jewish refugees were expelled from Arab countries after the founding of the State of Israel. In that regard, these two statements may be evidence of Matt’s commitment to critical analysis and the factual record.

Such an argument, however, makes the mistake of thinking, like David Lowenthal (1998) that history is true, while narratives of collective belonging are false or at least distorted. The fact that Matt uses true facts of history to structure his account does not mean that it cannot draw on narratives of collective belonging. In this case, he begins his account with an implicit assertion that the Jewish people possess an essential bond that has persisted for thousands of years. In his discussion of the Palestinian refugee problem, he implicitly defends the State of Israel against its detractors. Of course, historians are allowed to examine the historical record and, after reflection, decide where they come down. But, as Funkenstein (1993) argues, these decisions will always be influenced by the time in which they write and the groups to which they belong. In sum, Matt composes a synoptic account that stands above any particular historical perspective. At the same time, a careful reading of Matt’s account reveals an a priori commitment to Jewish collective belonging that shapes its ultimate significance.

Discussion

This study examined the ways in which young Jewish Americans narrated the history of the State of Israel with only a minimal prompt to structure their response. An open-ended writing task, however, has limitations. First, it was conducted during the school day in students’ history classrooms and the instructions asked students to “tell the history of the State of Israel.” Presumably, this context, as well as the explicit use of the word “history,” shaped students’ choices in writing their accounts. For example, many of the accounts exhibited features characteristic of textbook writing, including a third-person author and a recitation of historical facts (Paxton 1997). These contextual factors may have constrained students’ responses.

Second, the fact that the study was disconnected from students’ other activities and took the form of an ungraded, voluntary school task may have reduced their motivation. The fact that many students completed their accounts in less than 10 min supports this interpretation.

Third, the prompt asked students to write. In addition to the fact that many students struggle to express themselves in writing, the written nature of the task prevented me from asking follow-up questions or engaging the students in conversation about their accounts. Because of these limitations, the accounts should not be taken as representing the sum total of what these students know about Israel.

Notwithstanding these limitations, this study finds consistent patterns in the narratives young American Jews tell about the history of Israel and provides insight into the strategies they use to construct those narratives. The lack of systematic differences in the content of the narratives by denomination and prior study suggests that, when writing the history of Israel, students in American Jewish high schools rely on a shared set of narrative reference points despite variations in trope. These reference points include early Zionist immigration, the Holocaust, the United Nations vote on the partition of the British Mandate Palestine into an Arab and a Jewish state, the declaration of Israel’s independence, and a series of wars defending the Jewish state.

This study suggests that students’ narratives of the history of Israel reveal the choices they make in telling this story. Some students were able to integrate critical historical narratives into their accounts. But questions remain about whether there are critical narratives that cannot be integrated into stories of collective belonging. Would students be able to incorporate even more critical narratives of Israel’s history—e.g., Rashid Khalidi’s account of the unfair treatment of Palestinians at the hands of the British Mandate officials (Khalidi 2007)? No students in this study wrote such narratives.

To explore the limits of integrating multiple narratives, future studies might compare the narratives of Israel’s history told by more diverse populations. They might examine day school students and participants in other forms of Jewish education—for example, between Jewish high school students and their non-Jewish American counterparts, between Israelis and Americans, or between Jewish Israelis and Palestinians. Studies of this kind could reveal the range of narratives it is possible to tell about the history of Israel and shed light on the possibility of Israeli/Palestinian coexistence.

Jewish history teachers face precisely this challenge when teaching Jewish students the history of Israel. They frequently hope to foster students’ sense of Jewish collective belonging (Pomson et al. 2014). At the same time, they hope to develop their students’ capacity for critical historical analysis. Like Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi, they may suspect that critical history undermines the bonds of collective belonging. How are they to reconcile the tensions between teaching critical history and teaching collective belonging?

In Faith and Critical Jewish History, Chazan (2010) argues in favor of teaching Jewish history critically. He points out that avoiding critical history can also undermine identity. Censoring history communicates to students “an unwillingness or an inability on the part of their elders to address the modern world and its issues” (52). Second, he argues that teaching critical history can strengthen identity by demonstrating to young people that “critical historical thinking is a value in and of itself” (53). In other words, contrary to popular wisdom, teaching collective belonging can be dangerous for identity and teaching history can be salutary.

Chazan concludes, “Ultimately, introduction of critical history to the Jewish school curriculum carries with it the danger of diminution of Jewish identity—but so does the decision to avoid critical history” (53). In other words, Chazan acknowledges that there are costs and benefits to teaching critical history, but argues that schools ought to teach it nonetheless and let the chips fall where they may.

This strategy may be less effective than Chazan believes. Researchers have observed the teaching of critical history in a variety of contexts: students in Northern Ireland learning about the troubles (Barton and McCully 2005, 2010), American students studying the history of slavery (Epstein 1998, 2000), and Israeli students analyzing the origins of the Israeli conflict (Goldberg et al. 2011; Porat 2004). In each case, students reverted to their communal narratives and minimized the challenges that emerge from critical historical analysis. Simply teaching critical history, therefore, may not be able to change students’ deeply held narratives of collective belonging.

Indeed, this study confirms these findings. Most students (53%) drew primarily on narratives that were characteristic of normative American Jewish perspectives and did not attempt to reconcile those narratives with more challenging ones. Eva relates to the story of Israel in this way. She chose her events in accordance with a particular normative American Jewish perspective and narrated her account in the first person; in this way, she tells a narrative that expresses a sense of collective belonging.

This finding may be comforting to Jewish educators who hope to foster a love of Israel in their students. Many of the most prominent educational initiatives in the American Jewish community exclusively emphasize Israel’s history as a ground for collective belonging. A recent report on Israel education in American Jewish day schools found that most day schools focus on points of agreement and teach about Israel in order to build community. This approach requires schools to ignore more troubling aspects of Israel’s past. The report concludes, “The more a school teaches about the complexities of contemporary Israel, the more that school undermines a precious consensus point” (Pomson et al. 2014, p. 13).

But when schools try to avoid the complexities of Israel, students discover them elsewhere. Almost half (47%) of the students in this study demonstrated their awareness of narratives that challenge the normative American Jewish perspective on the history of Israel. In an age of around-the-clock cable news, Twitter feeds, and Facebook, efforts to protect students from more critical accounts of Israel’s past may be futile. These students may be alienated by curricula that exclusively emphasize building affective connections and cultivating a sense of collective belonging. Another approach, therefore, is called for.

In recent years, many Jewish educators have advocated for more “complexity” in Israel education (Kopelowitz and Grant 2012; Sinclair et al. 2013). They hope teachers will expose students to multiple narratives and help them to face the more controversial aspects of Israel’s history.

But does simple exposure to other narratives constitute complexity? If so, Ron’s account is complex. Ron examines Jewish and Palestinian narratives side by side and reaches conclusions based on his own historical analysis. This complexity, however, is severely limited. He seems to adopt a synoptic perspective, but, in fact, he uses it only as a tool for rejecting the Palestinian narrative. He is engaging in thinly veiled advocacy masquerading as critical historical analysis.

Indeed, Sinclair (2014) points out how easily lip service to “complexity” can become a tool for advocacy. On its website (www.davidproject.org), the David Project, an Israel advocacy organization, mentions complexity a couple of times. In the organization’s primer, “Understanding the Settlements,” the David Project writes that the issue of settlements is “an extremely complex topic that requires greater nuance and context” (Understanding the Settlements 2011, p. 2). Over the course of the primer, the authors emphasize the heterogeneity of West Bank settlements in order to arm students against criticisms of Israel that portray the settlement movement as monolithic. In so doing, the primer shows, and, as Sinclair (2014) writes, “[C]omplexity is a tool that can be used in Israel advocacy.”

The present study suggests that mere exposure to multiple narratives is not enough to achieve true engagement with and analysis of competing historical narratives. Jewish high school students must learn to approach those narratives using the tools of critical historical analysis. Student responses like Matt’s, though rare, suggest that sophisticated historical analysis does not necessarily undermine a sense of collective belonging. Even as Matt adopts the synoptic perspective characteristic of critical analysis, his account reflects his commitment to collective belonging. Both his choice to open the narrative during the time of the ancient Jewish kingdom as well as his juxtaposition of the displacement of Palestinians with the displacement of Jews from Arab countries suggest the ways in which his narrative is shaped by an a priori commitment—namely, his sense of himself as a Jew. Matt, therefore, succeeds in crafting a historical account that ultimately affirms his Jewish identity.

One might think that, in the end, Matt is no different from Ron. After all, both of their accounts adopt an apparently synoptic perspective, but still manage to communicate a sense that the past is a foundation for developing a sense of collective belonging. But there is a fundamental difference between Ron and Matt’s accounts. Ron’s account is entirely shaped by a commitment to collective belonging—that is, each move he makes serves the purpose of protecting a narrative of collective belonging from critics. He invokes the narrative of Palestinian displacement, but only so that he can reply.

Matt’s narrative, however, treats the narrative of Palestinian displacement very differently. In his account, he sees historical questions open to debate. He’s not sure whether the Palestinians left by choice or whether they were expelled, but he is open to both possibilities. He is open to the possibility that Israel may have done some unjustifiable things. While Ron allows narratives of collective belonging free reign over critical analysis, Matt’s narrative reflects a dialectic between the two.

There are two lessons in Matt’s account. First, his account suggests that Jewish history teachers don’t have to be afraid that stories of collective belonging will irrevocably taint students’ capacity for critical historical analysis. Matt’s account suggests deep historical thinking, even as it reflects his sense of Jewish collective belonging. Funkenstein (1993) argues that this applies to even the most objective historians. Though they strive for a synoptic perspective, the accounts they produce will bear the marks of their group identity.

At the same time, Matt’s narrative suggests that a commitment to critical historical analysis doesn’t necessarily undermine a sense of collective belonging. Although Matt’s approach was rare in the sample, it suggests that students can be historically sophisticated while still acknowledging that who they are shapes their historical inquiry. To paraphrase philosopher Immanuel Kant, Matt’s account shows us this: Critical analysis without collective belonging is empty, but collective belonging without critical analysis is blind.

Footnotes
1

I included the word “State” rather than simply asking students to tell the history of Israel. In a small pilot study, students were overwhelmed by a request to narrate thousands of years of history. This choice may have biased students toward more recent historical events. However, notwithstanding this, 25% of students began their accounts in the Bible.

 
2

In eight cases, the time to submission was well over one hour. Because I knew that no teacher gave students more than one hour to complete the survey, I inferred that these students had forgotten to log out of the survey. Therefore, I excluded these cases from the data set.

 
3

Students chose from a list of 10 possible denominational categories: Orthodox, Conservadox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, “Secular,” “Cultural,” “Just Jewish,” “Not Jewish,” and “Other.” Only a few students selected some of the categories. To facilitate analysis, I grouped the smaller categories together. I combined “Reform” and “Reconstructionist” into a “Liberal” category, and grouped “Secular,” “Cultural,” and “Not Jewish” (N = 2) into an “Unaffiliated” category. This grouping ensured that the expected value for each cell in the Chi squared analysis was greater than or equal to five, a requirement of the technique.

 
4

I chose 10% as the cutoff to ensure that I could use the Chi squared test to analyze the relationship between denomination and event. The test requires that each cell have an expected value of at least five. Therefore, with six denominational categories, an event had to be included by at least 30 students to qualify, almost 10% of the total sample.

 
5

Throughout, I have edited students’ spelling.

 
6

It is worth emphasizing that these narratives, produced in a particular context, a voluntary research study conducted in a high school classroom, do not represent distillations of these particular students’ knowledge of the history of the State of Israel. Therefore, throughout my analysis, I try, whenever possible, to talk about what the students’ accounts say or do rather than about the students themselves. I suspect that in conversation, on another day, or in a different context, these same students might have produced different accounts. Nevertheless, even if these narratives tell us little about what these students believe, they can still clarify a great deal about the possible ways of telling the story of the history of Israel.

 
7

Ari Shavit’s recent book, My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel, demonstrates the power of these normative perspectives. Given Shavit’s acknowledgement of Israeli expulsions of Palestinians during the 1948 war, many were surprised by the almost universal acclaim the book received within the American Jewish community. By situating his critiques within the framework of normative American Jewish discourse on the history of Israel, Shavit neutralized his more critical claims and made them palatable to a broad American Jewish audience (Hassenfeld 2014).

 
8

All student names are pseudonyms.

 

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Graduate School of EducationStanford UniversityStanfordUSA