I was lucky in 2003 when I was hired to teach Hebrew. I had landed a job that encouraged me to bring together my personal and professional love for Israel. I would be teaching first and second-year Hebrew at a public high school in one of the Chicago suburbs. An ardent Zionist at the time with graduate degrees in Hebrew, English, and Education, I had the necessary credentials. My greatest qualification, though, was my deep love for Israel. A few years later, I began to question my feelings for the country and challenge the Zionist curriculum I was teaching. I felt complicit in teaching students a one-sided narrative of Israel. As a result, by 2011, I was pushed out of the program.
I refer to this personal experience as someone who has witnessed first-hand how teaching the Hebrew language has become increasingly politicized in Chicago suburban public schools. Despite flagging numbers of students interested in Hebrew in at least one of the schools that offer the language, local private Zionist organizations have been pushing to build and fund these Hebrew programs, to write Zionist curricula, and to encroach on public schools.
Most importantly, young Jewish students are being taught that the only way to be a Jew is to profess an unwavering love of Israel. The message of these Hebrew programs is clear: If you’re going to learn Hebrew, you’re going to learn to love Israel. No room exists for students to master the language while disagreeing with Israel’s policies. Presently, of the 21 public schools that offer Hebrew in the U.S., seven are in Chicago’s north suburbs, and all seven are using the Hebrew classroom as a veritable Zionist safe space for Jewish students.
Community supporters of these Hebrew programs are also labeling criticism of Israel a form of anti-Semitism. Used in this way, the term actually reflects the “new anti-Semitism” Neve Gordon wrote about recently (in the London Review of Books). Gordon describes the redefinition of this term as “the form of criticism of Zionism and of the actions and policies of Israel.” The shift in its meaning moves from historical anti-Semitism and further equates Zionism and Jewishness. Gordon states that the Israeli government depends on this “new anti-Semitism” to protect it from criticism. It effectively silences any discourse on Palestine. In Hebrew classrooms, the Palestinian narrative is silenced, too, and no room exists for students to criticize Israel’s actions.
Hebrew instruction was politicized when I started to teach the language back in 2003. But recent efforts by pro-Zionist private organizations to help build these Hebrew programs are covering up the larger issue of outside organizations “Zionizing” curricula and exploiting the limited resources of public schools–and their students–for their own Zionist political agenda. At first glance, it might seem that learning Hebrew should go hand-in-hand with learning about Israeli culture. But teaching Hebrew in public schools becomes tricky because students are taught a form of nationalism–a one-sided narrative that upholds Zionism–all under the guise of learning the language of Israeli culture. For the teachers, who are often Zionists, teaching Hebrew is inextricable from teaching about Israel.
Currently, the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago is one of the private pro-Zionist organizations promoting public school Hebrew programs. Its website features a page called “Hebrew in the Public Schools,” with pictures and quotes from students lauding the program, with help from their enthusiastic Hebrew teachers. “Each instructor brings a deep passion for Hebrew while teaching about the culture behind this modern language,” the site boasts. “Students learn to speak Hebrew as if they were walking along the streets of Tel Aviv in Israel!” At first, this sentence might seem innocuous. A student taking Italian, for example, should want to speak Italian as if walking the streets of Rome, and Spanish students should want to learn the language spoken on the streets of Madrid.
But the students who take these other foreign languages are not a bunch of Jews in one class learning to love “their” country, spending public school time learning nationalistic songs and dances designed to perpetuate an unwavering love for the country. Teaching students Hebrew as though they are walking the streets of Tel Aviv might be fine, ultimately, if these students also had opportunities to learn about the Palestinians who are forbidden from walking the streets of Tel Aviv, and who walk with different narratives down the streets of other cities quite close to Tel Aviv.
iCenter for Israel Education, based in Northbrook, Illinois, is another private Zionist organization that is bringing in millions of dollars to get young Jews to love Israel. Like the Jewish Federation, iCenter works with Hebrew programs inside public schools.
This past September, iCenter wined and dined World Language department chairs from several of the Chicago north shore suburban public high schools on an all-expense paid political junket to Israel. The goal of this recent trip was for the department chairs to witness the Hebrew language thriving in the modern country first-hand–walking the streets of Tel Aviv–and, ultimately, for them to return home with a passion to build the Hebrew programs at their schools. The trip was designed to solidify the importance of teaching Hebrew, and with that, a love of Zionism, Israel, and a total erasure of Palestine.
Binnie Swislow, a consultant to iCenter who works with the local public school Hebrew teachers in the area, helped coordinate the recent educators’ trip. According to her website bio, Swislow grew up in a Zionist home, moved to Israel as a teenager after the Six Day War in 1967, joined the IDF, and served in the army during the Yom Kippur War. Swislow’s Zionism is both personal and professional. As in many of the staff bios on iCenter website, Swislow’s love of Israel shows up symbiotically in her private life and work life.
Bringing the public school department chairs to Israel gave Swislow the opportunity to show them first-hand the Hebrew language thriving in the country. “What I wanted them to realize,” Swislow told the Chicago Tribune after the trip, “was the diverse narratives of Israel’s people.” The “diverse narratives” Swislow talked about don’t include Palestinians, of course.
Like other Zionist organizations, iCenter, which funded the recent trip, brags of Israel’s “diversity” as a way of sanitizing Zionism. Its mission statement states:
Through content that draws on Israel’s richness and diversity, delivered by passionate and knowledgeable educators, children develop meaningful relationships with Israel and understand Israel as core to their Jewish identities.
The shiny and colorful iCenter website is carefully worded to make Israel look like the progressive, vibrant, Westernized country that the department chairs saw on the recent trip. On the site, subheadings like, “The Israel Experience,” “Relating and Relationships,” “Diverse Narratives,” “Modern Hebrew,” “Jewish Identities,” and, my favorite, “Curricularizing Israel,” are just a few links that circle and orbit around the hub, a section titled, “Educational Approach,” giving the impression that iCenter’s approach to education is integrative, holistic, and well thought-out by experts–a multi-faceted way to teach about Israel.
iCenter’s website is overwhelmingly shiny and glossy. The glimmer comes from the huge amount of Zionist money iCenter has. Everyone on the Board of Directors is involved at high levels in AIPAC, the Jewish Federation, Hillel, private Jewish day schools, and Jewish philanthropy. iCenter’s tax form states it received 3.8 million dollars in contributions and grants in 2015. Its executive director, Anne Lanski, made over $290,000. This amount is more than most public high school administrators make, and five times more than the average American teacher’s salary.
The iCenter’s website also features looped short nostalgic videos of what American Zionists love most about Israel, a fabricated reality of what they believe Israel to be: people sitting in outdoor cafes, children learning the Hebrew alphabet, an espresso at Aroma Cafe, buses motoring up a scenic stretch overlooking the coast. The Mediterranean Sea washes over the camera lens in one of the videos. Each time I watched it I was mesmerized–the sea bathed me in a Zionist baptism.
Another video shows a man and a woman sitting in a pool of primary-colored balls with some bigger ones that have English and Hebrew writing on them. I tried to describe this image to my husband. He couldn’t picture what I was saying. “They’re in a pool of balls?” I explained that it looks like they’re in a hot tub together except the water is actually balls. As I said this out loud, I realized how ridiculous it sounded, and how sexual, too. The man and woman are up to their neck in balls. They’re each fondling a big yellow one. On the man’s ball is written, “Create a secret handshake.”
It’s standard practice to sexualize Israel in pro-Zionist propaganda. It happens on Birthright trips, in Jewish youth movements and summer camps–and in public school Hebrew classrooms. One of the goals of sexualizing Zionism is so that Zionists will marry other Zionists and have Zionist babies. “Educating the heart and mind about Israel,” iCenter website states, “begins the day a child is born.” Scroll down a bit and you’ll be asked, “What’s your Israel story?”
My “Israel story” was not unlike other Zionist Jews. I was in love with a country I had been told was my birthright by those I believed and trusted. I planted trees to help the forest grow, finding out later that underneath these forests were ethnically-cleansed Palestinian villages. At age ten, my Rabbi told me that I was a daughter of Israel, bound to do great things for the small country. I made my parents proud. I navigated the Israeli landscape in my twenties–it was presented as an overly-sexualized playground and I treated it as such–and was given positive reinforcement at every turn.
And I had the honor of being paid to teach my passion for Hebrew and Israel to public school students in the U.S. It all came crashing down later when I finally understood that all of Israel is Palestine. Now, I’m trying to reconcile how to love and be loved in my family without compromising my support for Palestine, and to stand firm in the belief that being Jewish doesn’t have to mean supporting Israel.
Currently, iCenter and the Jewish Federation are the two driving forces in Chicago’s northern suburbs behind these Israel clubs and Hebrew programs. In 2015, the Jewish Federation set up a division devoted solely to the promotion of Hebrew in public schools. A 2016 article in the Jewish Federation’s media service, the Jewish United Fund (JUF) News, celebrated the growing success of the seven public school Hebrew programs in the Chicago area, with Israel at the center of the curriculum:
“SAFA, the Foundation for Promotion of Hebrew Language and Israel Culture in Public Schools, is named for the Hebrew word for ‘language.’ JUF established SAFA in April 2015 to be the first foundation aimed at promoting the study of Hebrew and Israeli culture in the public schools.”
According to the article, a committee at the JUF, which is part of the Jewish Federation, is devoted to building Hebrew programs in public schools and helps to recruit students. The committee also organizes “Israel experience” programs for the public school Hebrew students. These Hebrew classes have become safe havens for Jewish students, an Israel lovefest that is occurring in government-sponsored public schools which are supposed to be neutral institutions.
A photo in the article also shows enthusiastic young Hebrew public school students during their “Israel Day,” when they take over the school lobby, turn it into a shuk, and sell falafel and hummus and other “Israeli” national foods. Cultural appropriation of Palestinian food isn’t new, of course. A month ago, Rachel Ray sparked a Twitter storm for her “Israeli nite” food fest tweet, which featured a meal comprised of entirely Arab dishes. These Hebrew students who participate in their school’s “Israel Day” are being taught to show their enthusiasm for something others call cultural appropriation–all made possible by adults–under the roof of a public school that is supposed to be committed to teaching all sides.
“Israel education begins with knowledgeable and passionate educators who can tell their own Israel stories,” iCenter site boasts, “and ends with learners whose stories live in dialogue with the People, Land, and State of Israel.”
As a Hebrew teacher, I participated in “Israel Day” at my school, too. I believed I was teaching the culture behind the language, unaware I was also violating the separation of church and state. When Zionist organizations like Shorashim, Birthright, Young Judea–iCenter didn’t exist yet when I taught Hebrew–came to the school, I saw it as a show of support. The public school where I taught had no money for field trips. No problem, these organizations would say, and they’d pay for everything: buses, a hip venue, Israeli entertainment, and kosher food, catered, with blue and white cutlery, napkins, and tablecloths.
These private Zionist organizations know that public schools have limited resources of time, teachers, and money. When I was teaching Hebrew, they would come in and run groups called “Israeli Culture Club,” “Hebrew Club,” or “Club Israel.” They would bring pizza. They would make menorahs during Hanukkah, sit in sukkahs during Sukkot. They would bake hamentashen during Purim. They would teach Israeli dancing. One group brought a Bedouin tent for the students to drink tea in–with no Bedouins, of course–a kind of foreplay for when these young Jews go to Israel on Birthright or other Zionist programs and spend their requisite night together in a Bedouin tent, sans Bedouins, in the West Bank they’ll call the Judean Desert.
When the students were socializing, they’d be asked for their contact info. Non-Jews generally don’t take the class, so it’s a goldmine for Zionist scouters. I once had a Chinese student enrolled in my Hebrew class. She was excited about learning Hebrew, but she dropped the class after a month because she said she felt like an outsider. “There’s no room for me here,” she told me. “It’s clear this class is just for Jews.”
Recently, iCenter, the Jewish Federation, and community members have been working tirelessly to help save the Hebrew program at Evanston Township High School, located just north of Chicago. Though the language has been offered at the school since the 1970s, enrollment the last couple of years has been low. As recently as 2014, 90 students were enrolled, but only 34 are currently in the program. Members of the community spoke about the program at the last two school board meetings, which are streamed live on YouTube. Curious about how the debate would unfold, I binge-watched the two meetings. Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, all the comments presented a one-sided narrative of Israel, conflating Zionism with Judaism.
A current 11th grade Hebrew student at the school spoke to the board about the vital connection between Hebrew and Israel. “It is important to have a representation of Israel and Judaism in the school,” she said. The student also talked about how secure she feels as a participant in the school’s Jewish extracurriculars. “Hebrew and Israeli Club are very inclusive and welcoming and a safe community for Jews,” she said. Based on her comments, it seems Jewish students are being taught that they won’t feel secure unless they have a designated place to love Israel with other Zionist Jews.
Swislow, who doesn’t live in Evanston but who has been heavily involved with supporting the program, used a quote by Nelson Mandela to support her position of promoting Hebrew: “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.” Swislow seemingly missed the remarkable irony of quoting an anti-apartheid activist to express her love for Hebrew and Israel.
A parent warned of the “rise of anti-Semitism” at this “critical juncture,” and talked about “additional steps the school needs to take to protect Jewish students.” With this last comment, I stopped watching the board meeting and went to bed. The implication was that Jewish students need a Hebrew program in part because of the increase of anti-Semitism.
By 2009, during my sixth year teaching Hebrew, I understood that the myth of Israel as it had been presented to me was very different from the reality. In my Hebrew class, I tried to show the Palestinian narrative, but Hebrew parents called and complained I was using the Hebrew class for my own agenda. In a sense, they were right; I was trying to show both sides in a class rooted in perpetuating one side. To try to do anything else was seen as propaganda. I understood my students’ positions. I had grown up with beliefs similar to theirs. But I had changed, and my shift had no place in how Hebrew instruction is taught.
I didn’t have to try to reconcile my politics with teaching Hebrew much longer. In 2010, towards the end of my seventh year, a mousy girl with a long skirt and long sleeves came to my classroom one day to observe the class. I later found out that she was the daughter of the Vice President of the School Board and would be replacing me. She was certified to teach math and had actually never taught before, but she loved Israel, and in the eyes of the Zionists on the School Board, her politics made her more qualified than me.
A few weeks ago, after the two school board meetings at Evanston Township High School I witnessed on YouTube, some concerned parents, community members, and a few folks from the Jewish Federation and iCenter met with the administration at the school to talk about the future of the Hebrew program. It was a closed-door session, but people in the community are talking about the meeting. They tried to persuade the administration why Zionism is not racism. Some said that Jerusalem has always been the capital of Israel. They asserted that Jewish students need a Jewish space to be protected during the day. The visitors to the school came as experts on Judaism, Zionism, and Israel–seamlessly conflating all three words as ambassadors and protectors of Jewish youth.
As of now, nothing has been decided about the future of Evanston Township High School’s Hebrew program. Students at the school will begin to register for courses for the 2018-2019 school year in mid-January. In the meantime, however, Hebrew teachers, with outside help, are being given carte blanche to promote a one-sided narrative of Israel in their public school classroom. They’re teaching their students that Israel is the victim and not the oppressor. They’re preaching that only one way exists to be a Jew. And they’re perpetuating the idea that criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic.
Private Zionist organizations like iCenter and the Jewish Federation are encroaching on the public sphere, foreclosing opportunities to encourage students to think for themselves. Where do Hebrew students go if they begin to question Zionism? Who will tell them it’s OK to think differently from how they’ve been raised? Fewer places exist for students to think critically when it comes to Israel/Palestine yet there’s simply no shortage of resources for young Jews to learn to love Israel, in the public or private sphere.
And when these young Hebrew students become adults, perhaps they’ll sit in their own hot tubs of primary-colored balls and reminisce about the first time they went to Israel and whisper to each other their “Israel Story.” Maybe they’ll marvel at how beautiful the Mediterranean Sea was the first time they saw it, how golden is the hue of Jerusalem, how righteous Israel’s policies are. Perhaps they’ll cry the “new anti-Semitism” if people don’t agree with them. They’ll have all the support they need to keep believing their myth of Israel is real.
Or maybe they’ll see a crack in Zionism, a fissure in their myth, a breach in the seemingly polished landscape that will lead them to unlearn the narrative they were taught. Maybe they’ll think for themselves, tell others that a passion for justice and dignity is not anti-Semitic, and recognize that room exists to both love being Jewish and to hate Israel’s racist policies. If they can take that leap, they’ll join the struggle for justice in Palestine with others who have already been fighting for decades.