How to Help Students Grapple with a Complicated Israel

Jewish tradition teaches us how to engage in constructive disagreement, where the goal is to learn and to strengthen relationships, rather than to win an argument. 

Yet when the subject is Israel, or more specifically, the Arab-Israeli conflict, American Jews face pressure to make falsely binary choices. Nuanced opinions are usually sidelined. So writes Jennifer Anolik, of Moving Traditions, in a recent article.

Israel has always been complicated, and this complexity is only increasing. 

The question for us as Jewish educators is how to how to provide supportive spaces for young people to grapple with nuance when it comes to talking and teaching about Israel.

Shying away from teaching about modern Israel is not an option. It's the Jewish homeland, and the base from which the story of the Jewish people unfolds. 

It’s essential that our students gain an understanding of Israel’s place in the historic, cultural, political, and religious development of the Jewish people so that we can address contemporary complexities, such as the Arab-Israeli conflict, in a developmentally appropriate way,” according to Rich Walter, formerly of the Center for Israel Education at Emory University.  

“Israel, like any country, is not a finished product. As a maturing nation, it is still learning to deal with many complexities. But when we only present Israel in the context of anti-semitism and what others have done to the Jewish people, we fail to help our students understand the importance of self-determination and choice," says Walter.

This approach lies at the heart of Israel...It's Complicated, a curriculum for grades 5-7, which was developed in collaboration with the Center for Israel Education.   

Israel…It’s Complicated is designed to help students grapple with the complexities and nuances of modern Israel, and develop their own personal connections to the state. At the same time, it provides both an overview of the Jewish historical connection to the land and a portrait of today’s modern Israeli culture. 

The course uses primary documents, real quotes from real people, vivid contemporary photos, and activities relevant to students lives to give them an understanding of the multifaceted place that is Israel today. A companion Teacher Resource Guide contains a curated collection of tools to create a rich curriculum for students. Some of the activities in the course include videos, music, and other digital elements, which can be found at the Israel...It's Complicated web page.

The student material is also available in digital turn-page format, so you can teach the course from any location.

This approach to teaching Israel is grounded in the work of Sivan Zakai, a professor at Hebrew Union College who directs the Children’s Learning About Israel Project. Her research suggests that it’s vital to establish a healthy dialogue about complex subjects in order to promote a feeling of security for our kids. (Read more here)

There is a wide variety of activities within the course. Here’s a sample activity that gives students a simple way to practice compromise and work together toward a common goal. It’s part of a unit on Jewish democracy and how democratic values shape the State of Israel.

Of course, for any activity to achieve its goal, children need information. They can’t discuss a concept or have an opinion in a vacuum. Israel...It's Complicated provides that context.

The following activity is an introduction to learning about how people in the Knesset – Israel’s legislative body - form coalitions and manage to work together even though they disagree. Students actually experience compromise—which is how anything ever gets done in Israel. And in life.


                                                                SAMPLE ACTIVITY: THE CANDY BAR



Milk chocolate


Dark chocolate

Chopped nuts

White chocolate

Chocolate chips


Peanut butter chips




Crisped rice


Toffee bits


Peppermint bits


Your favorite candy


  • Have students work with a partner to invent a new candy bar. Each bar can have up to three fillings or toppings. They can use the list or come up with their own ingredients.
  • Ask: When you disagree about what fillings or toppings to use, how can you compromise to create a candy bar you’d both like to eat?
  • Invite students to share their answer with the rest of the group.
  • After they have heard other teams’ ideas for new candy bars, ask them to choose to one or two teams with similar tastes to their own and form a “coalition” to make a candy bar that members of the new team can all agree on. What compromises must they make to reach consensus?

This is a simple – and fun – way to demonstrate how disagreement and collaboration shape the underpinnings of Israel’s government.

Learn more about Israel... It's Complicated here.




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