How should Jewish educators handle the Israel-Hamas war in their classrooms?

November 27, 2023

The article was originally published on the Jewish News of Northern California on 11/27/23. Hanan Alexander is the Koret Visiting Professor of Israel Studies at the Helen Diller Institute, UC Berkeley.

In a phenomenon encapsulated by the heading “you didn’t tell me,” contemporary educators often complain that teaching about Israel and Zionism to diaspora Jewish youth in previous generations was too simplistic.

It did not sufficiently make them aware, for example, of the extent to which the establishment of the State of Israel displaced large numbers of Palestinians.

Even youngsters who received an extensive Jewish education in day schools, religious schools, youth movements and summer camps arrive on college campuses unprepared for critiques of Israel that call it an apartheid state and refer to Zionism as a form of illegitimate colonialism.

To address this problem, many educators argue that learning and teaching about Israel should engage in all of the complexities, including relations between Israelis and Palestinians.

However, how should educators consider these complexities given the shocking and horrific pogrom of Oct. 7? Our answer is that some issues in relation to Israel are less complex than others.

It is a simple moral truth that the atrocities of Oct. 7 are pure evil. Educators should say so unequivocally. They should also acknowledge that their students may be appropriately frightened in the face of such evil and console those who have experienced loss.

Some people have tried to muddy the waters. They argue that “colonial oppressors” are always responsible for the suffering brought about by resistance to domination. Hence, Israel is responsible for all of the violence in its struggle with Hamas. This logic suffers from at least three fallacies.

First, the colonial claim denies the Jewish people’s ancestral tie to the land of Israel. The Jewish people has a right to political self-determination and cultural self-definition in its ancient homeland. The British were colonists in India and the French in Algeria because, among other reasons, they could go back to their home countries. Most Israeli Jews have no country other than Israel.

Second, the claim cements an unholy alliance between Islamic fundamentalism and postcolonialism. This alliance is based on the false assumptions that removing the so-called colonial oppressors will return life to the religious authoritarianism that preceded it and that doing so is justifiable by any means.

However, religious fundamentalism did not rule pre-state Palestine, and there is no moral, religious or political justification for the barbarism of Hamas’ massacre. It is perverse to blame the victims for the horrors perpetrated against them. To do so rehearses tropes of Jew hatred that echo across time.

Third, Israel does not rule Gaza. Hamas does. Israel withdrew unilaterally in 2005. Hamas took over in 2007 and crushed all opposition. Israel has continued to supply some water and electricity to Gaza for humanitarian reasons and has sought to restrict the influx of weapons that would be used against innocent Israelis. However, if there is oppression in Gaza, it is at the hands of Hamas, not Israel.

Nevertheless, Israel education should not retreat to previous oversimplifications, even in the face of these straightforward truths. Relations between Israel and the Palestinians remain complex. The required nuance can be expressed in three additional points.

First, Hamas is Israel’s enemy in this war, not Palestinian civilians. Sadly, the terror organization uses Gazans as human shields by placing command and control centers in and under apartments, schools, hospitals and mosques. However, one should not be duped into the false moral equivalence between lives taken intentionally in a vicious assault on innocents and those lost inadvertently in self-defense against the perpetrators of that very assault who hide behind noncombatants.

Second, even in self-defense Israel is obliged to follow the laws of armed conflict. It must do all that it can to avoid injury or loss of life to innocent Palestinians. Jewish and Israeli values, indeed basic human decency, require that we mourn the loss of every blameless Palestinian. Educators should emphasize the common humanity of Israelis and Palestinian who are all children of God, deserving of life, liberty, dignity and security.

Finally, Israel’s objective in this war should be to dismantle Hamas and bring the hostages home, not reoccupy Gaza. Israel will be more secure when Palestinian self-determination is realized, provided that Palestinian leaders accept Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish and democratic state and eschew antisemitism.

The ultimate revenge against Hamas should be found in the pursuit of peaceful coexistence between Israel and her Palestinian neighbors and in normalizing the Jewish and democratic state in the Middle East.

The Jewish News of Northern California