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DBF On the Road: Israel

This is the first in a series of posts chronicling the places where members of our team have traveled to share the Diverse BookFinder.

At the end of June, I flew to Israel at the invitation of the English Teachers Association of Israel (ETAI), to speak at a number of events during July's "English Week." The week is hosted annually by the American Center, a department of the U.S. Embassy and "an information resource as well as an educational and cultural center with a range of activities aimed at the Israeli public," including teaching of the English language.

With Professor Jen Sundick (center, in blue shirt) and students, at David Yellin College of Education in Jerusalem

I was struck by the enthusiasm with which Israeli teachers responded to my topics of racial identity development, unconscious bias, and racial/cultural representation in children's books. I soon learned that group identity was central in the daily concerns of local people, whether they identified as Arab or Jew, Israeli or Palestinian, secular or religious, Jewish, Muslim, or Christian. I also learned about the various group-identifications within Jewish religious identity, such as Ashkenazi, Ethiopian, and Russian; secular, religious, Orthodox, and ultra Orthodox. Though my examples were drawn from U.S. experience, it seemed as if everyone could relate to the issues raised.

An informal conversation and book giveaway with teachers from mostly religious schools, with Lisa Wishman [front left] of the American Center.

Regardless of where children live, they all need books portraying children from all kinds of racial/cultural backgrounds.

Teachers felt that books with diverse characters were particularly important for Israeli schools, especially religious ones, which serve members of the same group. For instance, students with roots in Ethiopia, Russia, or Eastern Europe are in classrooms together, but they are all religious Jews. I saw people from many different groups -- Jewish and Muslim, religious and secular -- in the parks and streets of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, but local people reported that groups tend to live parallel lives with few interactions. So young people from different backgrounds may never interact with each other until they are in college or in the army. Books may be one of their only chances to "meet" each other.

EFL teachers at ETAI's annual conference
Sharing research from the Story Book Project, which led to the creation of the Diverse BookFinder.

My experience in Israel confirmed a core belief, once again: Regardless of where children live, they all need books portraying children from all kinds of racial/cultural backgrounds.

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