Framing Israel: The Distortions of the New Boycott-Driven School Curriculum
Max Samarov & Amanda Botfeld write in The Tower:
Education is important. What shapes our youth shapes the future, and so we need to craft our school curricula carefully. So it is worth carefully deconstructing the troubling new K-12 curriculum, Reframing Israel, produced by Rabbi Laurie Zimmerman. The curriculum was introduced at the beginning of the school year, and Zimmerman claims that more than 10 Hebrew schools have already adopted it. The stated goal of Reframing Israel is “teaching Jewish kids to think critically about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.” But is this the actual impact of the curriculum?
The answer is no.
First, it is crucial to note that the main author and the majority of contributors to Reframing Israel are part of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel. This includes the writer of the curriculum’s “historical overview of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”
This is deeply problematic, because while BDS sells itself as a movement for justice and human rights, its ultimate goal is the elimination of Israel and the violation of Jewish rights to self-determination. According to recent polls, only four percent of American Jews strongly support BDS, and the overwhelming majority see the denial of Israel’s right to exist as racism. Members of the Jewish community are of course free to support anything they choose, but responsible parents and educators should take BDS’s agenda into account when thinking about the goals and biases of Reframing Israel.
At first glance the curriculum appears well-balanced, filled with pride-building activities like learning Hebrew songs and creative exercises aimed at building understanding of both Israeli and Palestinian narratives. The educational method is also well thought out, encouraging students to actively engage with diverse points of view instead of expecting them to “passively accept the information.” These aspects of Reframing Israel could indeed help Jewish kids think critically about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
It is therefore disturbing that when digging a little deeper into the material, the message becomes overwhelmingly anti-Israel and pro-BDS. This is particularly apparent in the “Historical Overview” and “Key Terms” sections, which guide the majority of the curriculum.
The historical overview begins by downplaying the relationship between the Jewish people and Israel, focusing on religious instead of historical and archaeological aspects. Sections about the Jewish connection to the land are prefaced with phrases like, “in Jewish tradition,” or “according to the Hebrew Bible,” rather than being anchored in the certainty of well-documented historical facts. The overview says that “for centuries before the creation of the State of Israel in 1948, this area was known, to outsiders and to residents alike, by the Roman name ‘Palestine.’” It omits the fact that the Romans chose this name hoping to erase any Jewish connection to the land, in the aftermath of an unsuccessful Jewish revolt against their rule. What is never comprehensively stated is that Jews are indigenous to Israel; that Israel is the birthplace of their identity, language, religion, and culture; that Jews maintained a continuous presence in Israel for over 3,000 years; and that Jews who were forced to live in exile maintained their unique connection to the land throughout their history.
Likewise, the overview whitewashes the centuries of institutionalized oppression, discriminatory taxation, and violence Jews faced under Muslim rule across the Middle East, including in the Holy Land. Instead, it states that
Following the founding of Islam in the seventh century CE, Jews and Muslims, as well as local Christians, generally lived, worked, and worshiped peacefully alongside one another in what many today call the “Holy Land.” Excepting the period of the Crusades, it was only toward the end of the nineteenth century that sustained tensions began to emerge among the different communities of the region.
Jewish communities are also described as being “well-integrated,” and having “flourished” in most times and places. Anti-Semitism is mentioned only in relation to Europe, and not the Middle East. This ahistorical distortion of facts is to be expected in anti-Zionist propaganda, which seeks to blame the existence of Israel for all tensions between Muslims and Jews. It does not, however, belong in a curriculum designed to educate young people with historical accuracy. The reality is that Jews in the Middle East were subjected to second-class citizenship at best and brutal violence at worst. Many visitors to the region reported how Jews were mistreated throughout the centuries. For example, when Karl Marx travelled to the Holy Land in 1854, he wrote that the, “Jews at Jerusalem are the constant objects of Muslim oppression and intolerance.” Reframing Israel simply whitewashes this history. It fails to acknowledge that for the Jewish people, diaspora meant 1,900 years of dispossession and oppression across both Europe and the Middle East.
Unfortunately these outright distortions of history continue as the overview shifts to Israel’s 1947-1949 War of Independence. Arab forces involved in the beginning of the war are described as “no match for the well-trained and equipped Haganah,” ignoring the fact that these Arab forces were equipped by the British and able to lay siege to Jerusalem, nearly starving 100,000 of its Jewish residents to death. Historian Benny Morris is cited to support the notion that Palestinian refugees were “deliberately pushed out,” yet Morris himself has explicitly stated that “no systematic policy of expulsion was ever adopted or implemented” by Israel. The controversial account of Palestinian civilians being killed in the village of Deir Yassin is covered uncritically, while the numerous accounts of Jewish civilians being killed during the war are never mentioned. Finally, while the overview effectively blames Israel for the Palestinian refugee crisis, it equivocates and fails to hold Arab leaders responsible for the simultaneous dispossession and plight of 850,000 Jewish refugees from Arab states.