Saturday, 22 January 2011

From Hasbara to Hakshava: rethinking Israel education

The purpose of this essay is to examine and critique the characteristics and effects of Israel education in Britain today. I argue that current approaches to Israel education have tended to prioritize teaching love for Israel – and a particular kind of love for Israel – over teaching knowledge about Israel, and have consequently given rise to a problematic discourse on Israel among Jewish students. In order to avoid this problem a new approach to Israel education is needed.

To begin, we need to acknowledge the centrality of Israel education to Jewish education in Britain today. Every Jewish student in the country who goes to a mainstream Jewish school or youth movement receives some Israel education. Most Jewish education providers, both formal and informal, view Israel education as a necessary and central part of a rounded Jewish education. The mission statement of Britain’s largest Jewish school, for example, explains that it aims to develop ‘young citizens with a strong sense of identity with Judaism and Israel’[1]; most other Jewish schools express similar aims on their websites.[2] Cheder teaching also generally includes Israel education. The mission statement of the Union of Jewish Students (UJS) calls to ‘inspire’ an ‘enduring commitment to Israel,’ while the 2008 annual review of one of the largest Jewish charities engaging in Jewish education, the UJIA, explains that one of its three key objectives is to place ‘Israel at the heart of Jewish connectedness in the UK’.[3] Month long tours across Israel run by Jewish youth movements are now attended by over half of all British Jews aged sixteen[4] – and for many participants these have become something of a modern day Jewish rite of passage. After their bar or bat mitzvah, Israel tour is arguably the single most formative Jewish experience for most Jewish teenagers in Britain today.

The education someone receives shapes their views and beliefs. Because of its evident centrality to Jewish education in Britain today, the nature and effects of current approaches to Israel education in Britain therefore warrant careful consideration, and will be of interest to anyone concerned with the kinds of Jewish identities that the Jewish education given to young Jews today is likely to foster. They will also be of interest to those concerned with the climate of debate about the Israel-Palestine conflict, especially on campus, in light of the obvious connection between the education people receive about Israel and the opinions they hold – and the way in which they express those opinions – about Israel.

The Key features of Israel education in Britain today

The nature of ‘Israel education’ in the Jewish community often differs from what we would expect of education on other topics. So while we would expect ‘Belgium education’, for example, to focus on teaching knowledge about Belgium, Israel education sometimes seems to be concerned less with teaching knowledge about Israel than with teaching love for Israel. This is illustrated by the stated aims of Jewish education providers. Thus the Jewish education department of JFS ‘seeks to give a positive view and experience of... Israel.’[5] At Rosh Pinah Jewish primary school, the Jewish studies department aims to ‘instil a love and understanding of Israel and its culture’.[6] In a video by the Jewish studies department at King Solomon High School, placed on the school’s website under the words ‘learning what it means to be Jewish’, a Jewish studies teacher says that one of their educational programmes looks ‘at making our students the best Israel advocates that we can’.[7] The forum for leaders of Jewish youth movements to meet and discuss is not called the Jewish youth council but the ‘Zionist Youth Council’, reflecting the fact that a central aim of most of the youth movements is to promote Zionism and support for Israel through informal education.[8] Evidently, inculcating positive dispositions towards Israel is a guiding aim behind the Israel education offered by many of the major Jewish education providers in Britain today.

A second feature of Israel education is its focus on hasbara[9] – encouraging students to defend or promote Israel’s image. The Union of Jewish Student’s manhigut (leadership) trip, for instance, is in fact a political ‘advocacy trip’ to Israel, designed to ‘highlight the key messages to bring back to campus’.[10] But this sort of hasbara education begins before students embark on their university careers. During my time in sixth-form at JFS, the Jewish Informal Education Department gave me two books for free. But they were not what you might expect – a siddur, a chumash, or Jonathan Sack’s latest – instead they were both Israel-advocacy books: Mitchell G Bard’s ‘Myths and Facts’, and Alan Dershowitz’s ‘The Case for Israel.’

The clearest example of hasbara education by British Jewish education providers is ‘The Ambassador.’ This is an annual competition for Jewish sixth-formers in JFS and King Solomon School to find the best advocate for Israel. Styled on the BBC’s apprentice, the competition involves a series of Israel advocacy tasks such as public speaking and opinion-piece writing. In the course of the 2005-2006 competition, in which I took part, school assemblies for year 13 were for several weeks devoted to footage being shown of the competition, or Israel-advocacy speakers being invited to talk; and so any Jewish part to our weekly assemblies became an Israel part, and more than that – an Israel-advocacy part.

In these assemblies and throughout The Ambassador in general there was little teaching about Israel. None of the tasks we were given were knowledge-related; skills, not knowledge, were being taught and tested. We were being encouraged and taught how to support Israel despite being taught very little about the country.

Furthermore, Hasbara schemes like The Ambassador present ‘support’ or ‘love’ for Israel as something one expresses by refuting criticisms of Israel. This kind of love is like that of a mother who is unable or unwilling to accept that the teacher may be right when they say her child misbehaves; rather than considering the teacher’s claims and working to improve her child’s behaviour, such a mother expresses her love by defending her child from the teacher’s allegations – whatever their validity. From the perspective of the child’s best interests, this is clearly unhelpful. Likewise, with Israel, one can express a blind or uncritical love for the country – a ‘support Israel right-or-wrong, refute every criticism’ kind of approach – or their love for Israel can take a more mature and nuanced form, ‘hugging and wrestling’[11] with Israel, recognizing its complexities and shortcomings and being prepared to accept and voice criticisms of the country. Hasbara schemes, however, only promote the former kind of love.

Watching footage of ‘The Ambassador’ recently I was also troubled by the political undertones of some of its content. Early on, in a speech describing how bad anti-Israel activism on campus can be, one of the organizers of the competition, from Tribe[12], tells us that when he was a student, a Sabra and Shatilla scholarship was organized for a Palestinian student to study – ‘would you believe it?’ he says – ‘politics’. It is unclear why that should be considered either an obviously bad or surprising thing, though he implies it is both. (I suspect at that point in time most of us listening were in any case not altogether sure what Sabra and Shatilla were). In another instance, the same person from Tribe lists the things that we – ‘brought up in an environment of JFS or in youth movements or Israel tour... take for granted’, in the course of which he says: ‘and the Palestinians are this, that, and the next thing and they’re not really a people.’[13] A generous listener may put this down to an unfortunate slip of the tongue. But this line was not then edited out of the video that was subsequently broadcast in the school assembly. Thus in the course of the Israel education provided in JFS that year, the highly controversial claim that the Palestinians are ‘not really a people’ was knowingly presented to the whole of the upper sixth as something we ‘take for granted’ because of the ‘environment of JFS’.

To the extent that knowledge about Israel is taught in Israel education in schools and youth movements, it is rarely of an impartial nature. The maps of Israel that I recall seeing during most of my Israel education did not distinguish between Israel within the green line and the occupied territories. In JFS I was taught that Zionism was essentially opposed by three Jewish groups: the Reform, the Socialist Bund, and the Ultra-Orthodox. Yet in 1897, at the time of the First Zionist Congress, the then Chief Rabbi of the United Synagogue, Herman Adler – a mainstream Orthodox figure – condemned the congress as an ‘egregious blunder’ and denounced the idea of a Jewish state as ‘contrary to Jewish principles’.[14] Twenty years later, the then president of the Board of Deputies, Lindo Alexander, wrote a letter to The Times objecting to Zionism.[15] Disagreement over Zionism was evidently far greater, anti-Zionism far more mainstream a position (at least within Anglo-Jewry) than was recognized in the Israel education I recall receiving. Most revealingly, the 1948 war is inevitably taught as ‘the war of independence’ without (or with minimal) recognition for other narratives of that war, known by Palestinians as the Naqba (catastrophe). This past summer I worked as a madrich (leader) on one of the youth movement Israel Tours described earlier. During the course of the month, Israel Experience[16] – who organized the trip – arranged for a number of speakers to talk to the teenagers on the Tour. One speaker taught the basics of Israeli history and politics, during which he discussed the 1948 war. He explained that the Palestinian refugee problem – the exodus of 700,000 Palestinians – was caused by Arab leaders telling Arab citizens to leave. He gave little recognition that actions by Israelis may have contributed to the flight of Arab citizens. This was a disingenuously one-sided presentation of the history of the refugee problem. As historian (and former Israeli Foreign Minister) Shlomo Ben-Ami notes:

“It is not at all clear, as maintained by a conventional Israeli myth, that the Palestinian exodus was encouraged by the Arab states and by local leaders... Indeed, [Benny] Morris found evidence to the effect that the local Arab leadership and militia commanders discouraged flight, and Arab radio stations issued calls to the Palestinians to stay put.”[17]

Moreover, there are some clear instances of Arab civilians being intentionally expelled or attacked during the war:

“A panic-stricken Arab community was uprooted under the impact of massacres that would be carved into the Arabs’ monument of grief and hatred, like those of Dir Yassin, Ein Zeitun, Ilabun and Lydda; of operational orders like those of Moshe Carmel, the commander of the Carmeli Brigrade in Operation Yiftah and Ben Ami, ‘to attack in order to conquer, to kill the men, to destroy and burn the villages of Al-Kubri, Umm al Faraj and An Nahar’ and by the mass expulsions during the Yoav operation.”[18]
“‘Drive them out!’ was Ben Gurion’s instruction to Yigal Allon, as recorded by Yitzchak Rabin... with regard to the Arabs of Lydda”[19]

The history of the 1948 war and the refugee problem in particular is undeniably complex and contested. My purpose here is not to enter into the historical debate myself, but simply to point out that this debate exists: that there are various narratives of the war, and that these ought to be acknowledged by those involved in Israel education wanting to teach in a way that is honest, rounded and balanced. At present, they rarely are.

The effect of current approaches to Israel education

Because of the centrality of Israel education to Jewish education, combined with its emphasis on loving and supporting or defending Israel, an implicit message is currently being conveyed to students: that to be a good Jew is to support Israel; that supporting Israel is an aspect of a full Jewish identity. If a central part of Jewish education is learning to love Israel, the implication is that a central part of being an educated Jew is having a love for Israel.

So what happens to Jewish students who feel unable to ‘support’ or ‘love’ Israel in the way they have been taught to, perhaps because they are anti-Zionist themselves or, more commonly, because their love for Israel is based on ‘hugging and wrestling’ with the country – they feel that one can and sometimes should publically criticize Israel while still wanting it to ‘not only survive but thrive?’[20]

An interesting example is the experience of Emma Clyne, a Jewish student from Sweden and former president of the Jewish Society at SOAS.[21] When she organized a discussion for the SOAS Jewish society entitled ‘The Impact of Nationalism on Jewish Identity’, to which she invited speakers from Independent Jewish Voices[22], fellow Jewish students accused her of ‘disloyalty to my Jewish community’. On another occasion, after saying she felt some sympathy for the views expressed at a talk of Jews against Zionism, a fellow Jewish Society member told her she sounded like a ‘self-hating Jewish antisemite’. When, upon becoming the Jewish Society President, she had explained to UJS that she would prefer for their Israel-related resources to go to the SOAS Israel Society and not the Jewish Society, because ‘the Jewish Society had decided to make a clear distinction between the Israel Society and itself’, she was told by one UJS officer that:

“That’s not what the Jewish Society does. You can’t separate Israeli politics from Jewish Identity. It is all the same, part of the same thing.”

Unfortunately, for some Jewish students in a similar position, uncomfortable with Israel but wanting to partake in Jewish student activities, they either switch off Israel or they switch off Judaism. One Jewish student (an American one, but the point could be well applied to the British context) put it this way:

“Columbia [University] made me a self-loathing Jew. Living here, I didn’t believe any less in my self-worth, the worth of Jewish people in general, or the right of Israel to exist as a nation. But I also didn’t believe in spitting on basic human rights—and that, I was told, made me a self-loathing Jew… On campus, those were my choices: right-wing hawk or progressive turncoat, hate myself or hate others. I disengaged… I ditched the American Jewish culture.”[23]

As the above examples illustrate, the effect of current approaches to Israel education has been to couple Jewish identity with a particular understanding of love for Israel. Consequently, Jewish students who openly oppose aspects of Israel or Israeli policies can sometimes find their Jewish identity being questioned – by fellow Jews and sometimes, as a result, eventually themselves as well. A Jewish student who in the opinion of other Jewish students delegitimizes Israel can risk having their own Jewish identity delegitimized in turn – being called ‘self-hating’, a ‘Jewish antisemite,’ ‘disloyal’ and so on. Assuming the aim of Jewish educators is to strengthen, not undermine, their students’ Jewish identities, this is clearly a problem.

A second problem with current approaches to Israel education is the effect it has on how people approach Israel/Palestine debates on campus. Hasbara schemes such as The Ambassador have encouraged people to passionately defend Israel without giving them the requisite knowledge base – with an awareness of the multiple narratives of the past – to do so. If the question of what happened in 1948 came up in a debate, and the respondent was to flatly deny that any action from Israelis contributed to the flight of the Palestinians, they would lose credibility in the eyes of audience members who had studied the period. Present hasbara education is too knowledge-light: it is creating confident but not credible advocates for Israel. It therefore fails to fulfil its own criteria for success.
Hasbara education such as ‘The Ambassador’ – with its focus on debates, opinion pieces, and set-piece speeches, also frames the experience of being a Jew on campus as a struggle to explain rather than to understand – an ‘us versus them’ approach. (As the blurb on the box for the video of ‘The Ambassador’ put it: ‘Every Jewish student is an ambassador for Israel’. At the end of the video one of those facilitating the competition explains: ‘you’re going to be going on to campus and this is going to be your life’). It therefore promotes confrontation rather than conversation, ‘explaining to’ rather than ‘conversing with’.

Thirdly, the emphasis on promoting Israel’s image influences students’ abilities to form moral judgements on Israel. This claim is supported by the research of Israeli psychologist Georges Tamarin.[24] He studied the effect that teaching bible stories uncritically as our history had on student’s moral judgements. He did this by giving students bible passages describing Joshua’s conquests of Canaanite Cities, including the murder of both ‘man and woman, young and old, and ox, and sheep, and ass’. He then gave an analogous text to control groups but changed ‘Joshua’ to ‘Lim’, a Chinese leader, and presented the story in a Chinese context. He then asked both groups if they thought that those involved in the conquests had acted ‘rightly or not’, and found that many more students felt the actions were moral when committed by Joshua than did those responding to the actions committed by Lim. He claimed this demonstrates that our capacity to form critical judgements about the actions of particular countries or characters is influenced by the kind of education we receive about them. It is therefore reasonable to assume that present approaches to Israel education will have influenced and biased students’ judgements on Israeli policies.

Finally, because of the one-sided nature of most teaching about Israel, when Jewish students actually do study Israel of their own accord – perhaps taking a course on the subject at university – their confidence in their Jewish education can be thrown into doubt. A feeling of ‘why wasn’t I taught that?’ can emerge. ‘Why weren’t they more honest?’

The need for a new approach: moving from Hasbara to Hakshava

I have written this article as someone who wants Israel to survive and thrive. I also want Israel-education to continue, because of Israel’s unique place in Jewish history, literature, religious thought and culture. But in order to overcome the problems outlined above, Israel education has to change. A better approach is what I call the ‘hakshava approach,’ from the Hebrew word ‘to listen’ or ‘to pay attention to’. In this approach, the guiding aim is not to promote the image of Israel to students, and to then encourage them to do the same to others in turn; instead it is to help students form their own opinions about Israel, encouraging them to listen to and engage in dialogue with as many viewpoints as possible and to consider all opinions critically. This would foster a more reasoned, honest, and mature identification with Israel.

A hasbara kind of love for Israel, expressed by promoting Israel’s image to others, is legitimate (though I think still problematic) as an end point of an educational process; if that’s how students feel after seriously reflecting on a range of viewpoints on Israel, the educator has done no wrong. But as a guiding aim it risks compromising the honesty and breadth of the Israel education. Furthermore, because of the centrality of Israel education to Jewish education, a hasbara approach sends out the problematic message that to be a good Jew is to support Israel; for Jews who do not support Israel – or who support Israel in a different way to that encouraged by hasbara style schemes – their Jewish identity is then called into question. The hakshava approach I put forward would be less likely to foster such problems.

The table below, in an admittedly caricatured way, gives examples of how the graduates of the two approaches to Israel education – the current hasbara-inclined approach, and the alternative hakshava approach I have suggested – will respond to different Israel-related issues confronting them.

Hasbara graduate
Hakshava graduate
How do they react to the Goldstone report?
First reads articles critiquing Goldstone on Jpost.
First reads the Goldstone report.
How do they react to criticism of Israel on campus?
Opens Alan Dershowitz’s ‘The Case for Israel’ to find a reply to the relevant criticism.
Will consider the validity of the criticism and read a variety of opinions before making a reply.
How do they deal with a fellow Jewish student who publically criticizes Israel?
Dismiss them as a self-hating Jew.
Discuss their views with them.

In this essay I have identified some of the problematic consequences of current approaches to Israel education, pointing in particular to its effects on students’ understandings of their own and other peoples’ Jewish identities; their relationships with Israel; and their approach on campus to the Israel/Palestine conflict. I have argued that Israel education has a place in Jewish education today, but that the content and nature of this education needs to change to make it more honest and balanced so as to overcome the problems discussed; I hope it does.

[2] See references 6 and 7 for example.
[3] 2008 Annual review of the UJIA, p9. Accessible here:
[4] Ibid, p13
[9] ‘Hasbara’ is a Hebrew word meaning explanation. It also refers to efforts by Israel and its supporters to promote the country’s image outside of Israel.
[11] See Gringras, Robbie,Wrestling and Hugging: Alternative paradigms for the Diaspora-Israel relationship’ (2006) accessed here:
[12] Tribe is a United Synagogue affiliated organization providing for Jewish youth and young adults
[13] From the Ambassador Video created for the competition, episode 1.
[14] Alderman, Geoffrey, ‘Modern British Jewry,’ paperback ed., (1998) p222
[15] Ibid, p247
[16] Israel Experience Educational Tourism Services Ltd. is a subsidiary of the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI). The company specializes in providing organized trips to Israel for teens, university students and adults from all over the globe. See:
[17] Ben-Ami, Shlomo, ‘Scars of War, Wounds of Peace: the Israeli-Arab tragedy’, (2005) p43
[18] Ibid, p42
[19] Ibid, p44
[20] As advocated by columnist Jonathan Freedland:
[21] This example, and the related quotes that follow, are taken from private correspondence and from her own account of events, detailed in ‘A time to Speak Out’, ed., Anne Karpf, Brian Klug et al. (2008)
[22] Independent Jewish Voices are ‘a network of Jews in Britain who share a commitment to certain principles, especially with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in mind: putting human rights first, rejecting all forms of racism, and giving equal priority to Palestinians and Israelis in their quest for a peaceful and secure future’.
[24] Tamarin, Georges R, ‘The Israeli Dilemma: Essays on a Warfare State’, (1973) p183


  1. Hi,

    This is Mini. Am I right in thinking that I know you? Is that you, newly minted uncle for the second time? I came across your blog from Jewdas. I like this piece about Hakshava instead of Hasbara. I am right there with you. Though I have a question - does your "knowledge not love" line run for everything? Should Jewish studies also be knowledge based rather than value based? Should we be encouraging children from a very young age to critically analyse their connection to Jewishness as well as Israel? Or is it ok to "inculcate" (indoctrinate) to certain identity/value positions but not others. In short - why should we have Jewish education, the intention of which is to encourage people to continue to be Jewish. Should not the point of any education according to your theory be to allow everyone free (informed) choice about all subjects through exposure to the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. I.e - we shouldn't build any myths. We should not be encouraging kids to sing "torah tziva lanu moshe", cos let's face it - there is little evidence for that, just as much as we should not be telling them that Deir Yassin was a voluntarily organised communal holiday on the part of the Palestinian villagers. I guess my question is - what Jewish education doesn't rely on a created mythology?

  2. Mini, I need to clarify something: 'knowledge not love' is not quite the line I was going for. Consider the following analogy. As an English teacher, I try to make my students love Shakespeare - but I don't try to push a particular interpretation of any of his plays on them. Nor do I force them to 'love' Shakespeare in a specific way. They may dislike most of his characters, for example, but still recognise him as being an integral part of their culture. In a similar sense, I think it is possible to encourage a love for Israel while allowing for multiple interpretations of what that love means and entails, and encouraging multiple interpretations of what is good (or not so good) about Israel. Hope that clears things up.

    As for the 'why should we have Jewish education' question I have two answers. The first is a selfish one: we have Jewish education because we fear the prospect of having no family passover seder to go to when we are old. (I think you'll appreciate the broader point this example illustrates).

    The second reason is this: giving a Jewish education to a child can give them an important sense of continuity with the past and purpose for the future. These things are beneficial to a child in and of themselves. Of course, what makes them effective is the fact that the tradition we pass on is our own; it woulddn't work if we passed on a different tradition, or invented one, or tried to be totally neutral and let a child select their own. What I am saying is that there is something powerful and valuable in the transition of culture / tradition / identity from one generation to another.

    Fun chatting.

  3. Hi M (don't want to out you, so I won't use your name),

    I hear ya - but your shakespeare analogy doesn't completely work, in my eyes. Shakespeare's dead, long gone, has no ability (as an individual, not a body of literature) to affect the world today. So "Love of Shakespeare" can absolutely be encouraged without that having any affect on the political outlook of the individual. Not the same with regard to Israel - Israel is an inherently political being. If one loves "Israel" as a state, we must assume that that means a belief in its right to exist. Shakespeare did exist, he lived his life and he died. You can't kill him again. You can't expunge his works from public circulation (without a huge worldwide effort of dictators). On the other hand, Israel exists on a tight-rope. Half of the UN doesn't want her to exist. By "loving Israel", you make a political statement. Even within a Jewish context, Zionism doesn't have a natural birthright to be considered normative. Why should a Jew not be allowed to be part of a Jewish community and disagree with the idea of a Jewish state? So if your line was "knowledge not love", I would get you, but if you say it isn't, then essentially you are just picking a happy medium with regard to what level of indoctrination you are comfortable with and what things are beyond the pale. Your level is slightly more to the left (as it were) than the current Jewish communal mainstream. But can't we do a bit better than that? Can't we actually have an entirely honest debate, without the trickery of trying to make someone choose a particular identity? No - that's the point. Choosing to live in exile makes the indoctrination inevitable. You can't create a constructed minority identity while being integrated into wider society without indoctrination - because wider society is so much easier to be a part of. The level of knowledge and commitment needed for a Jewish identity to be meaningful means that we have to teach our kids to love being Jewish, and this only happens through concerted effort together with socialisation (i.e. indoctrination).
    My point to you wasn't really asking why do we do Jewish Education whose goal is Jewish continuity - I know the answer (though you summed it up very well). My point is - don't you realise that that is brainwashing too! The only reason why you don't care about the damaging effects of that brainwashing is because you see it as harmless. So actually the Shakespeare analogy is true to Jewish Education, but not Israel education.


  4. Mini, I concede the point that the Shakespeare analogy is not a perfect one. It does, however, work in so far as it illustrates the fundamental point that you can teach a love for something while at the same time allowing for a variety of understandings and expressions of that love. (And perhaps a variety of understandings of the entity being loved as well, i.e., a variety of ways of understanding what Israel is).

    But I take your point that this remains a kind of 'happy medium' between no indoctrination (or 'value transmission', as I'd prefer to call it!) and complete indoctrination.

    I have a few problems with what you wrote though:

    (1) You write "Why should a Jew not be allowed to be part of a Jewish community and disagree with the idea of a Jewish state?"
    - I never said or suggested they should be; in fact I think the opposite.

    (2) You write of a 'trickery of trying to make someone choose a particular identity?'
    - I don't think that 'trickery' is involved unless the educator is dishonest about his / her intentions and / or the methods used. I don't see any problem with an educator essentially saying 'I think that people who are born as Jews should be engaged with Jewish culture, and I'm going to try to persuade you of this by offering the most compelling presentation of Jewish civilization I can.'