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Teaching the History of Zionism and Israel

Daniel P. Kotzin

I have taught “The History of Zionism and Israel” at the University at Buffalo for several years, and it is one of the most challenging courses I teach. It is also one of the most rewarding. Here’s why.

The course is challenging to teach because, at least the last few times I taught the course, there were anti-Israel student protests occurring on campus. Sometimes, the themes of those protests spilled over into my classroom.

The course is challenging to teach because unlike most other topics in Jewish history, often students arrive in class with very biased understandings of Israel, both from a pro-Israel and anti-Israel perspective.

The course is challenging to teach because of the diverse backgrounds of my students, much more diverse than other Jewish history courses I have taught. The student demographic has included Jewish students, Christian students, and Moslem students; it has also included History majors, Political Science majors, and Engineering majors. Some students have a strong background knowledge on the subject, while for others this is their first college-level history course.

All the challenges of this course make it a joy to teach. For me, the most important element for the success of this course has been making history the focus - the history of the Zionist idea, the history of the Yishuv, the history of modern Israel.

This focus on “history” enables me to demonstrate consistently throughout the semester the complexity of the history of Zionism and Israel. In contrast to the more singular presentations of Zionism and Israel that tend to influence the general public, I present the course as the history of “Zionisms”, and a history of many “Israels”. In this way, the history reflects the diverse ideas and experiences of the Zionist movement and Israelis. So, for example, I use Arthur Hertzberg’s classic The Zionist Idea so that students read for themselves the diverse array of Zionist ideas. I have found that Anita Shapira’s recent publication of Israel: A History complements Hertzberg’s book very well as it is a comprehensive book on the history of Israel, providing readers with a broad spectrum of the Israeli historical experience.

Texts alone, though, do not make a course. The success of my approach I attribute to the structure within which students “read” the texts. For each reading assignment, students are required to submit a reading journal in which they are expected to identify the main idea in the reading and record their personal response to the reading. In this way, the reading journals become the platform for our class discussion. I begin each class by asking students to share what the assigned text made them reflect on. Student reflection pieces are key, for they enable us as a class to get at the history, beginning from the place of the student and heading towards the historical subject being studied. For example, if students share that they found Theodore Herzl too idealistic, the opportunity is presented to focus on how he developed those ideas, the context in which he expressed them, and what he hoped to accomplish by expressing them. Thus, rather than sit in judgment of Herzl, I focus the class on seeking to understand him in his historical context. Or, when later in the course students question the motives behind the decision by Israeli leaders to attack Egypt in 1956, we can together investigate their reasoning.

Ultimately, the reading journals are the central tool for my pedagogy. By providing students with the opportunity to share how they read the texts, how each student understands the historical subject becomes the focus, enabling us as a class to narrow in on the historical subject itself. This opens up the classroom space to very rich discussion, for we discuss the historical subject with the student views very much in mind. If students did not have the opportunity to share how they “read” the assignments, if they did not have an opportunity to share their judgements, those judgments would still be there, but not be acknowledged. By creating a safe space for students to express their perspectives, those perspectives are addressed, but from the perspective of history.

One semester a pre-med Palestinian student enrolled in my course. Throughout the semester, she freely shared her perspective and experiences, enabling us as a class to have vibrant and fascinating discussions. Her enrollment in the class meant that the Jews in the class had the opportunity to examine the history of Israel from a Palestinian perspective; and it meant that my Palestinian student had the opportunity to examine the history of Israel from a Jewish perspective. We all, myself included, really learned history that semester.

Daniel Kotzin is an associate professor at Medaille College in Buffalo, New York. He also teaches part-time for the Institute of Jewish Thought and Heritage at the University at Buffalo.