Sunday, September 26, 2010

Learning the Narrative of the other

Just read this article in Ha'aretz and thought it was worth sharing. Apparently, the Israeli Education Ministry pulled a textbook from a Sderot High School. Why? Because it portrayed the Palestinian Narrative as well as the Israeli one.

Let's be clear; this isn't historical revisionism nor the primary history textbook for the High School, this was for an elective unit for 11th graders, and has gone through years of research and production and peer review, AND was endorsed by the Foreign Ministry:

Work on the textbook, which is entitled "Learning the Historical Narrative of the Other," began 10 years ago as part of a joint project initiated by (the late ) Professor Dan Bar-On of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and Professor Sami Adwan of Bethlehem University, with input from numerous Israeli and Palestinian history teachers.

The completed edition of the textbook was published last year. It includes material on the genesis of the Zionist movement in the 19th century through events of the past decade. Each page in the book is divided into three sections of equal size. The Israeli narrative is presented on the right, the Palestinian narrative on the left, and down the middle are empty lines in which the students are asked to fill with their thoughts.

Last year, Michal Wasser, a history teacher at Sha'ar Hanegev, began using the textbook in specialized and expanded lessons for students who opted for the five-unit track. The class consisted of 15 11th-graders who will submit a final paper on the topic of their choice. The course work is in addition to the regular curriculum that is geared toward the matriculation exam. Last month, Haaretz ran an article about the experimental history course at Sha'ar Hanegev. During that period the head of the Sha'ar Hanegev regional council, Alon Shuster, hosted a delegation of Swedish mayors who sought to advance a joint educational initiative based on the textbook, a venture to encompass students from Israel, the Palestinian Authority and Sweden.

Critics portray the Education Ministry's reaction as 'kneejerk', 'pavlovian', 'narrow-minded', etc. What makes me especially sad is the irony of the situation. Sderot, as some of us know, is right on the edge of the Gaza Strip, and was (and continues to be) a primary target of Hamas Qassam rockets from Gaza. Their playgrounds, schools and other public spaces have been redesigned with reinforced roofs and extra bomb shelters because of the constant barrage. Their rate of enlistment in the IDF remains among the highest. And THEIR CHILDREN wanted to learn the Palestinian side of the story. Of all Israelis who have a right to want to close a door on understanding, they are the most willing, most interested in bringing these two people together. That it was undermined by political appointees looking to score points saddens me profoundly and illustrates (for me, anyway) one of the many barriers to peace that, despite the violence, regular Israelis and Palestinians are still seeking.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Coming up for Air.

Now that the High Holidays are slipping into the past (and what a wonderful experience they were!) I'm able to come back up. Sermons can be found at the Beth Emeth website. I'm incredibly proud of my staff and the lay-people, was thrilled with the attendance (especially at the family services) and thought the whole experience was wonderful. Except one, which is gnawing at me even days later.

It happened in Neilah, the last service of Yom Kippur. At one point, I heard the sound of a happy child coming from the back. I looked over and saw a family that comes pretty regularly, and tries to bring their preschool-aged daughter when they can. I saw an usher go to them and then lost track, but when I looked up they appeared to be in the same spot, so I figured all was well.

All was not well. The usher had asked them to leave, and worse, several congregants had shot the family dirty looks. As it happens, the daughter who was making the noise has special needs (and nearly died when she was born), so for the family, this is an extra-sensitive issue. They constantly weigh whether they should bring their beautiful girl out in public where they know she'll be stared at and she'll have trouble keeping quiet, or keep her at home and deny themselves--and her--the opportunity to be with their community.

To be fair to the usher, she was VERY apologetic (no names to protect everyone here, and don't even try to guess), and felt terrible that she'd upset this family while trying to protect the worship experience for the rest of the congregation, and I know the family in question bears her no ill will. However, that they feel embarrassed about coming to THEIR synagogue, and bringing their daughter to worship, fills me with sadness and disappointment. No one should be turned aside, especially for the sounds of children.

I have NEVER kicked kids out of a service (one exception: b'nai mitzvah, and that's only because our 13-year old service leaders' nerves are usually so rattled as it is!); for me, as a shaliach tzibbur, I'm horrified at the thought that our kids--and by extension, their parents--should be kicked out for making a little noise. And the answer is not to ghettoize them in family and tot services (though those are good for other reasons). We need to always make sure that everyone knows they're welcome.

At Yom Kippur morning, I talked about the need to be accessible. As a Reform congregation, we work hard to be accessible to people with all kinds of challenges and abilities, and from all walks of life: we have English readings for non-Hebrew speakers, ramps for those who cannot use stairs, large print and braile books, audio boosters for those hard of hearing, etc. We do whatever we can to be as inclusive as possible--that should extend to our young families as well. And if that means the kids are going to make joyful noise, and if it means the parents come in chinos and a sweater because they didn't have time to change, FINE BY ME. Let them come! The seventh of the Sheva Berachot, the blessings for a wedding, thanks God for the sound of children at play. I am grateful for that sound and always have been (even before I embarked on Fatherhood), because well we should be aware, the alternative is unsustainable. Our gates should always be open.

Okay, rant over. Shana tova to all and more updates soon.