Have we taught the children about Israel wrongly?
“Love first, details later” – this is how the social scientist Sivan Zakai describes the traditional approach taken to teaching young children about Israel.
And in his provocative new book, “My Second Favorite Country: How American Jewish Kids Think of Israel“, she argues, it may do more harm than good.
According to her, this approach robs children of a more nuanced and meaningful understanding of the country and its importance to Jews and Judaism.
His advice: Listen to the children. Zakai believes parents should guide their children’s curiosity about Israel and its controversies, not shield them from the realities of conflict in the Middle East.
Zakai, director of Children’s learning project about Israel at Brandeis University Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Center for Studies in Jewish Educationwho partially funded his research, followed 35 Jewish children from kindergarten through sixth grade in Los Angeles.
She regularly interviewed them about their views on Israel and the Middle East and their Jewish identity.
- The children, half women and half men, ranged from Reformed to Orthodox.
- They all attended Jewish day schools in kindergarten, although by sixth grade about half had switched to non-Jewish public and private schools or were homeschooled.
She found that by the second or third grade, children understood that the situation in Israel was more complex than many adults in their lives let on. Yet, because they had access to the Internet and other media, they could easily find out more about Israel on their own.
Zakai, who is also an associate professor at Hebrew Union Collegespoke about his book and his vision for a new approach to educating children about Israel.
What is the biggest misconception about how to teach Israel to young children?
I think the biggest misperception is an idea often characterized as “love first, details later” – that to introduce children to a collective Jewish experience, they must first learn to love Israel and should learn nothing controversial, political or dangerous.
Isn’t it a problem to subject children to the violence of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?
As a parent, I fully understand the desire to protect children. We must protect their bodies. We have to protect their psyche. But research confirms that talking to children about difficult current events — things happening in the world that are confusing, unsettling, or disturbing — does not traumatize them. This makes them more equipped to deal with a world in which this is happening. Our knee-jerk reaction is to wrap our children in bubble wrap so they never suffer harm, but that does more harm than good.
More harm than good?
I worry about the mental health of the children. It is a very difficult time for a child growing up in a dangerous and unstable world in many ways. And they know this because they have access to all kinds of digital information. Children need adults they can count on and adults they can trust. Adults must learn to talk to them about the things that interest them, the things that question them and the things that concern them.
You have discovered that children discover Israel on their own.
For example, a third-grade student told me that he went to dinner with his family. There was a television screen in the corner of the restaurant, and a news program was playing. At the bottom of the screen, the ticker started scrolling on the war in Israel. He asked his parents, “What’s going on?” and they said, “Oh, don’t worry. It’s fine.” And he thought, “Well, clearly not. I just saw things exploding on the screen. So he went home and did a Google search for rockets in Israel and started watching all kinds of videos showing the conflict.
What concerns did Jewish educators have about teaching about Israel?
A teacher said: “My worst fear is that they will leave my class without feeling the commitment to the Israel project as I do. And my other worst fear is that they’ll walk away and go to college and learn all kinds of things that I didn’t tell them and think, “My teacher lied to me.”
How did you respond to that?
I think I can alleviate some of these fears because the children in this study believed that part of their obligation as Jews was to work towards creating a better society. And they extended that belief to Israel. One of the most vocal children in the study, a kindergarten student, told me, “I really want to go to Israel to help pick up trash from the streets. She felt personally compelled to get on a plane, travel halfway around the world, and do her part to help make Israel a better place. Children develop a deep commitment to a certain type of Jewish worldview. And it gave them a sense of connection to Israel.
What is your message to Jewish parents?
Listen to your children. Talk to your children. The kids are amazing. They can teach us so much. They are the experts of their thoughts, their feelings and their way of being in the world. And we, as parents and adults in their lives, can listen to that and honor it. And learn from it. Only by doing this can we help them understand the world and contextualize it for them. The best way to build resilience, sense of self and purpose, and connection to a larger Jewish community and to the rest of the world is to engage children in conversations about the real world, in all its beauty and disorder.
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