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

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.

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Notes

  1. 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. 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. 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. 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. 5.

    Throughout, I have edited students’ spelling.

  6. 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. 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. 8.

    All student names are pseudonyms.

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Correspondence to Jonah Hassenfeld.

Appendices

Appendix 1: Coding Scheme

Table 10 Coding scheme

Appendix 2: Survey Instrument

The survey was designed and administered using Qualtrics. Below, is a list of all questions that students answered (excluding consent and assent).

Survey questions:

  1. 1.

    In 2–3 paragraphs, tell the history of the State of Israel as you understand it:

  2. 2.

    What is your gender?

    • Male (1)

    • Female (2)

  3. 3.

    Do you consider yourself to be:

    • Reform (1)

    • Orthodox (2)

    • Conservative (3)

    • Reconstructionist (4)

    • Just Jewish (5)

    • Secular (6)

    • Cultural (7)

    • Not Jewish (8)

    • Other: (9) ____________

    • Conservadox (10)

  4. 4.

    What grade are you currently in?

    • 9th (1)

    • 10th (2)

    • 11th (3)

    • 12th (4)

  5. 5.

    How many years have you attended Jewish Day Schools?

    • Less than 1 year (1)

    • 1 to 5 years (2)

    • More than 5 years (3)

  6. 6.

    Have you attended a Jewish overnight camp?

    • Yes (1)

    • No (2)

  7. 7.

    Do you now or have you in the past been a regular participant in a Jewish youth group?

    • Yes (1)

    • No (2)

  8. 8.

    Do you participate in any religious school other than a Jewish day school (for example a congregational school or Sunday school)?

    • Yes (1)

    • No (2)

  9. 9.

    Do you have a non-Jewish parent?

    • Yes (1)

    • No (2)

  10. 10.

    How many times have you been to Israel?

    • Never (1)

    • Once (2)

    • More than once (3)

  11. 11.

    What is the longest time you have ever spent in Israel?

    • Less than 1 month (1)

    • 1 to 6 months (2)

    • More than 6 months (3)

  12. 12.

    Have you ever visited Israel on a trip with a Jewish organization (for example, summer camp, school, synagogue, or youth group)?

    • Yes (1)

    • No (2)

  13. 13.

    Do you have family or close friends who live in Israel?

    • Yes (1)

    • No (2)

  14. 14.

    Are you Israeli?

    • Yes (1)

    • No (2)

    • Other: (3) ______________

  15. 15.

    Have you ever taken a course in which you studied the history of the State of Israel?

    • Yes (1)

    • No (2)

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Hassenfeld, J. Negotiating Critical Analysis and Collective Belonging: Jewish American Students Write the History of Israel. Cont Jewry 36, 55–84 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12397-016-9157-6

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Keywords

  • History education
  • Jewish identity
  • Jewish day school
  • Israel
  • Narrative
  • Israel education