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Yearning for Zion in Israeli Education: Creating a Common National Identity

From: Journal of Jewish Identities
Volume 6, Number 1, January 2013
pp. 1-21 | 10.1353/jji.2013.0001

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:


The ship is searching furtively, clandestinely,
A black night, a furious sea, the hearts throb there in hope
Listen out, land of our heritage, listen out
A weary son has returned to you.
A dreaming son has returned to you.1

This poem appeared in the Israel Reader for the Fourth Grade. The reader was a basic textbook for students, from first grade onwards, designed for teaching literature and language. The poem embodies the Zionist motif of bringing the Diaspora Jew to the Promised Land, based on an exiled people’s eternal connection to its original birthplace, one of the most widely-accepted axioms in Jewish life. The Reader for the Fourth Grade editors did not include this poem due to literary or academic considerations. It is not a gripping literary work. Rather, it was chosen for its ideological message. The relationship between Jews everywhere and the Land of Israel is an indisputable premise of Jewish-Israeli discourse. This article examines how the Israeli national school system communicates an ethos (yearning for Zion) in 1950s and 1960s textbooks by adapting the major components of the Zionist narrative: the myth of a promised land and of a fatherland, the collective Jewish memory of longing for Zion, and the use of sacred and historical sites to foster a sense of geographical continuity.

Anthony Smith, the researcher of nationalism, would have viewed this poem as a “connection to a defined (particular) homeland,” the fifth criterion in his definition of the nature of an ethnic community.2 Adherents of the primordialist school would have seen evidence in this assertion of the existence of a shared cultural tradition, thousands of years before the development of the modern nation-state.3 The sociologist Eric Hobsbawm would have viewed this verse as an example of invented tradition, because in his opinion, the Jews’ aspiration to return to the Land of the Forefathers, meaning Zionism, is merely a result of modern tradition.4 Benedict Anderson would have considered this poem to be the fantastical process of a national community, by its sons scattered in various territories.5 The link between the Jewish People, the Land of Israel, and their connection to Zion, is a desire, recognized for many years, that proves the existence of an ancient ethnic identity.

The communication and dissemination of a formative ethos using educational tools is typical of national education systems. (It should be noted that the term national education has two meanings. The first is education for national identity. The second is state education in which the state is responsible for the financial aspect and curriculum, resulting in all students sharing the same curriculum.) The state curriculum at the center of this discussion was compiled after the passage of the State Education Law in 1953. The first part of the national curriculum, for the first to fourth grades, was published in March 1954; the second part, for the fifth to eighth grades, appeared in December 1955. Textbooks were published based on this new curriculum.6 The authors of this curriculum were senior teachers who, although sometimes highly qualified, had no expertise in curriculum planning. They regarded themselves as the standard-bearers of a Zionist cultural revolution that would shape the minds of future Israeli generations. The establishment of the Curriculum Department in 1966 reflected a new approach to curriculum, a trend that defined curricula as reflecting the disciplinary structure of a specific field of knowledge.7

The choice of the poem illustrates the point made by the critical educational researchers Peter McClaren and Henry Giroux that schooling and education are central tools in constructing identity, and that they do so in various ways. One method is reproducing norms and learned knowledge through the national curriculum. The basis of my study is that the curriculum, as Sleeter and Grant state, “always represents somebody’s version of what constitutes important knowledge and a legitimate worldview.”8 This approach claims that every display of knowledge is the result of a conscious or unconscious choice at a given time. In other words, the choice and organization of the material determines and defines which knowledge is valid and important, and which is of secondary worth. In this...

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