Voices from the Field
This week has brought great sorrow and angst as Operation Tzuk Eitan (Protective Edge) expands to include ground forces in an effort to end Hamas’ ability to fire rockets and carry out attacks on Israeli civilians. Government officials braced the Israeli public for casualties in what they knew would be a difficult operation. Indeed, our worst fears turned to reality as, the IDF suffered its first casualties this past weekend.
Amidst the tragedy and sorrow there are several stories that have emerged that are sadly emblematic of an Israel that we try to teach every day. Each of these follow themes that we use in our classrooms and in our camps in a way that is disconnected from conflict and tragedy. Today, however they are very connected.
The Many Faces of Israel
Understanding Israel’s diversity, both within its Jewish population and its Muslim, Druze, and Christian citizens, is an important part of knowing the Israel of today. A program called the Israel Lens - adapted from the Jewish Lens program, is a stunning example of how we teach students to explore the diversity of Israel and understand both its challenges and triumphs. Through this lesson, we attempt to individualize the collective and humanize the sometimes difficult project of pluralism.
This week, Ghassan Alian, the first Druze to serve as commander of the Golani Brigade of the IDF was wounded in action and treated for injuries to his face and eyes at Soroka Hospital in Beersheva. That night, thirteen of his soldiers had been killed, and he immediately requested to rejoin his troops in Gaza, which he did upon his release three days later.
But not before paying respect and tribute to the family of one of his soldiers.
Gabriel Ben-Nahim was also wounded on that day and treated at Soroka hospital. His parents, living in France, heard the news and were on the next plane to Israel. Hearing this, Alian made his way to the Ben-Nahim Family:
Reporter Judy Maltz, Haaretz, described the encounter:
Suddenly, a great hush falls over the room, as the crowd breaks up to make way for a special wheelchair-bound visitor, himself dressed in Soroka hospital pajamas. Col. Alian, the Golani brigade commander who was seriously injured in fighting Saturday night, makes his way toward the intensive care unit, accompanied by a contingent of military personnel.
A bandage over one eye and bruises all over his face and head, Alian announces that he’s come to see how his soldiers are doing. Before making his way through the swinging door, though, he wheels himself in the direction of a mother sitting on a bench, who holds back tears as she takes his hand.
She and the rest of her family, from the north of Israel, have been sitting here since Sunday afternoon waiting for word on her son, she reports, who has meanwhile undergone surgery to reset his jaw.
Alian… is then wheeled in the direction the Ben-Nahims. “Yes, I remember giving your son his beret at the ceremony,” he tells Gabriel’s father, Robert.
Acharei, After Me
Much as Col. Alian reminds us of the duty of a commander to his soldiers, we have used the Israeli Army value “Acaharei” as way to bring to light for our learners the unique moral code of the IDF. In the Goodman Initiative for Modern Israel History, the program, “Acaharai, What Kind of Leader am I?” is intended to have campers weigh the moral code which instructs commanders to lead their troops in battle (rather than command from afar), against their own understanding of leadership in their own lives.
Every good lesson needs a counterpoint, and MK Dov Lippman (Yesh Atid) provides us with a stark example in a blog post from the TImes of Israel. In an act of kindness, Lipman brought soldiers on the border ice cream which had been donated by a community in Silver Springs, MD. He remarked about how the young men, serving the country so bravely, were also our children, a point made poignant by their reaction to cold ice cream on a hot day. He also remarked on the actions of one of the commanders:
There was another moment which demonstrated a second dimension to why our soldiers are so special. As I approached some tanks and offered the commander ice cream, he said “first give to my soldiers.” In the Israeli army, commanders usually go first withe call “acharai” – “follow me.” But here, he did not want to go first. The man in charge who could sit back and enjoy some ice cream while his soldiers are preparing their tanks instructed me to first give his soldiers. That is the way it works in the Israel Defense Forces. The commander’s job is to take care of his soldiers – by leading them into battle, and by making sure there is enough ice cream for them before he takes. And in turn, the soldiers see this model of leadership and learn what it means to bear responsibility and to lead.
We will add this story to our “Acharai” program to both enrich our learners’ understanding of the role of a commander in the IDF, but also to help address the larger question of “What does good leadership look like?” When does leading look like following? What other big questions about Judiasm and about Israel can we re-examine with the tragic stories that are emerging this week.
All of Israel is Responsible for Each Other
As part of perhaps the most tragic story we have heard to date, we know that lone soldiers (hayalim bodedim) -- volunteers from outside of Israel, have been among those killed in the early phase of the ground operation in Gaza. Their death strikes a unique blow to our conscience, as we evaluate our own personal answers to the questions of “When would we step in to help? and For whom are we responsible?
For several years, we have use a resource from Toldot Yisrael: a mini-documentary entitled “The Volunteers: Answering the Call of History.” The piece documents the stories of various volunteers from around the world to Israel’s War of Independence. The stories are evocative of the questions above and are stark in the portrayal of “everyday” Jews, who put their lives on hold to help Israel in a time of need.
Sean Carmeli, who was raised by Israeli parents in South Padre Island, TX, chose to return to Israel for school and to perform his military duty. Like his comrades Ghassan Alian and Gabriel Ben-Nahim, he became a soldier in the elite Golani Brigade.
Carmeli, however, was killed in that Saturday night ambush and was laid to rest on Monday in Haifa’s Neve David cemetery. Carmeli was a passionate fan of the Maccabi Haifa Soccer team, and realizing this, the football club made the following appeal on their facebook page:
This is a request from us to Maccabi Haifa fans and this is your chance to make a big difference. Sean Carmeli, killed last night, was a lone soldier and we don't want his funeral to be unattended. The funeral is tonight at the military cemetery in Neve David in Haifa at 9 pm. Let's give respect to hero who died so that we could live. It's the least we can do for him and for our people. (see original Hebrew post below)
An estimated 12 - 20,000 people showed up to his funeral.
A similar story can be told about Max Steinberg, whose parents made their first trip to Israel to bury their son. At Har Herzl, 30,000 mourners showed up to pay respect.
Carmeli’s and Steinberg's heroism, Macabi Haifa’s call to action, and the response of Israelis remind us of the expression Kol yisrael arevim zeh bazeh (All of Israel is responsible for each other). Seen as a call for unity and a way to heed a particular Jewish mission, in these stories, we can explore with our students, both the extent of our own willingness to take that responsibility, and the different ways in which that responsibility can be manifest.
Finding moments in the tragic events of today is difficult, and it’s tempting to be drawn into silence as we grieve and lament. Yet this tragedy can help us reframe some of the themes that are familiar tools to us as educators and convenient lenses for our students to gain a deeper and richer insight into Israel.
Online Resources in this Post
- Haaretz Article about Ghassan Alian and Gabriel Ben-Nahim
- Times of Israel article about Alian's appointment as commnander of the Golani Brigade
- Blog Post in the Times of Israel by Dov Lippman
- Times of Israel article about lone soldiers
iCenter Resources in this Post
- Acharei: What Kind of Leader and I, from the Goodman Iniatiative Database
- Toldot Yisrael's Volunteers: Answering the Call of History
- When Would You Step into Help, from the Goodman Iniatiative Database
Adam Stewart has been involved with Israel education and teen travel experiences for fifteen years and is the Director of the Goodman Camping Initiative. Adam has taught at the Newberry Library Center for Public Programs and Loyola University Chicago, has lectured on topics in Jewish history and culture, and has served as an educational consultant to a variety of Jewish organizations.
Over the last few weeks, as sirens have filled our collective heads, and passion, compassion, and vitriol consumed our Facebook feeds there has been one tune that has been playing over and over in my head.
The Last War (Ha Milchama Hachrona) sung by Yehoram Gaon, whose haunting chorus is: “I promise you - my little girl, that this will be the last war.”
We have sung this song many times before, and can only imagine the countless number of parents who over time have cited lyrics similar to these to their children in many languages in all corners of the world. Once again these lyrics have failed us.
My friends and colleagues, some here and some in Israel, have expressed almost every emotion imaginable – they include concern, grief, sorrow, determination, anger, hurt, empathy, despair, hatred, fear, frustration…the list goes on.
I also cannot help but think of all of the Jewish educators in the world, those at summer camp and in southern hemisphere classrooms today, and those who in a few short weeks will be seeing the fresh faces of children coming back to school after their summer vacations. In conversations with many of you, I can sense the anxiety of what you will say and do in relation to this summer’s events in Israel.
But this piece is not about what an Israel educator ought to do. Nor is it about what to include when educating about these conflicts or when it is developmentally appropriate to do so - both are clearly important topics for educational settings to address. This piece is about something even more fundamental - acknowledging that our educators, just like our learners, are real people.
It is true that Israel education must be about "more than just the conflict." But many Jewish educators often neglect educating about the Arab-Israeli conflict and in some cases use this as a backdrop to avoid educating about contemporary Israel at all.
But as recent events have once again shown us, to avoid educating about the matzav, is to deprive our youth of authentically dealing with reality. A Jewish educator for whom Israel is integral, must include the totality of Israel in one’s “curriculum” - including her culture, people, religions, geography, language, politics – and yes, also her conflicts. To teach about Israel’s conflicts educators need time to process their knowledge, thoughts and feelings on this most vexed issue. And they must be given a space to do so that is free from judgment and filled with compassion.
I am advocating for every educational leader (or leader of educators) to consider facilitating what could be a most difficult conversation. I am asking you to consider asking your educators (and ancillary staff) to be their real selves and not simply your employees. This is the conversation when you ask people to talk about their relationship with Israel, and how the current escalated conflict is impacting them.
The discussions that I am advocating for are not ones where people are trying to convince others that they are right and others are wrong. The conversations that I am suggesting occur are ones in which ask more fundamental questions:
- When was the first time in your life that you thought the situation in the Israel?
- How do you keep informed about the situation in Israel in a way that advances your thinking?
- What are some of your life experiences that have challenged the way you think and feel about the situation in Israel?
- When you contemplate the situation in Israel today, how do you feel and what do you think?
You must establish some ground rules– including no pre-judgments, no advocating for political positions, and no disclosure beyond the bubble. Allowing for everyone who wants an opportunity to express themselves is vital, ensuring that no one monopolizes the time is critical, and to ensure that the conversation ends when it needs to end is respectful. This is not therapy because there will be no resolution. But it is a conversation of trust, authenticity and integrity.
Only once educators have had the opportunity to talk openly and safely about these questions for themselves and to their colleagues can we ask them what and how they want to teach their learners – our children.
As I write this piece I am reminded of the words of Parker Palmer who writes:
“Teaching, like any truly human activity, emerges from one’s inwardness, for better or worse. As I teach, I project the condition of my soul onto my students, my subject, and our way of being together. The entanglements I experience in the classroom are often no more or less the convolutions of my inner life. Viewed from this angle, teaching holds a mirror to the soul. If I am willing to look in that mirror, and not run from what I see, I have a chance to gain self-knowledge and knowing myself is as crucial to good teaching as knowing my students and my subject.” 
In these troubling times I urge all of us to hold a mirror to our souls, especially those among us privileged to be the educators of our people.
 Lyrics to this song can be found at http://www.hebrewsongs.com/song-hamilchamaha%27achrona.htm.
 The matzav, literally translated as the “situation” is the term that over the last few decades has come to represent the ongoing conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.
 Palmer, Parker. The Heart of a Teacher. Change Magazine, Vol. 29, Issue #6, pp. 14-21, Nov/Dec 1997.
Dr. David Bryfman is an Australian born-and-bred Jewish educator who has worked in formal and informal Jewish educational institutions in Australia, Israel, and North America. David has a broad array of educational interests that include Israel education, experiential Jewish education, technology, and Jewish adolescent identity development. David currently serves as the Chief Innovation Officer at The Jewish Education Project in New York and as an educational consultant to the iCenter.
When the photo you see here made the rounds on Facebook and other social media on the 10th day of Operation Protective Edge, it was hard not to emit a gasp. So many small children... so well-trained to gird against the potential of a rocket crashing into their day care center.
Think about that for a moment: The boys and girls in the picture are not even two years old, and already they are targets in Hamas' war on Israel. They can't possibly understand the significance of that fact, yet it's the only reality they have ever known.
More than half the population of Israel has become targets of Hamas' campaign to wipe Israel off the map. As easy as it may be - especially from afar - to focus on how unsuccessful Hamas has been at achieving its goals, there's not a person in Israel who has not been affected by the 1,000+ rockets and missiles that have rained down on the country since early July.
That picture of toddlers taking a defensive position is only one example of the jarring reality that made Israel's ground offensive inevitable. Social media outlets have been filled with stories of infants being whisked into a safe room just moments after being born, of weddings interrupted by sirens, of teen trips from America adjusting their itineraries to keep participants safe, and more.
The daily reality on the other side is even more bleak. Unlike Hamas, the IDF has proven its ability to achieve its goals, and regardless of your opinion about the decisions made by the leaders on both sides in this confrontation, it's undeniable that many innocent Palestinian civilians are paying an awful price.
There's no shortage of analyses that dissect every imaginable angle related to the military, political, strategic, moral, short-term and long-term implications and significance of what is unfolding in Israel and Gaza right now See, for instance:
- The Tragic Self Delusion Behind the Hamas War by Haviv Rettig Gur
- Hamas is playing a dangerous game with Gazan lives, Op-Ed in the Washinton Post
- What, Exactly, Is Hamas Trying to Prove?, By Jeffery Goldberg in the Atlantic
- The Bizarre Moral Criticism Against Israel, by Eric Yoffe in Time
But what tends to get lost in this rush of commentary is perhaps the most important aspect of the story: the people at its core.
For many of us, those people include family and friends who live in Israel or are visiting. Take a moment, if you haven't already, to check in with them. Ask them how they're doing, what the situation looks like from their vantage point, if they need anything. In all likelihood, the simple act of asking will mean the world to them - and you'll get an authentic perspective that will help you broaden your understanding of the complex issues.
As you read about the latest developments, and as you think about how to relate to them in your roles as educators, remember those toddlers in the day care center. Remember the IDF soldiers and reservists who are on the front lines. Remember the millions of civilians - on both sides. Above all else, remember that this is a story about people.
Carl Schrag is a journalist and educator whose passion for Israel infuses everything he does. A former Editor of The Jerusalem Post, Carl currently serves as Program Director of Write On for Israel, a competitive Israel education and advocacy training program for high schools students in Chicago.