Question Marks and Exclamation Points

Makom, the Israel Education Lab of The Jewish Agency for Israel, empowers educators, rabbis, activists, and arts and community leaders across the spectrum to ask tough questions and articulate compelling visions for their communities in the area of Israel education and engagement. Here, Robbie Gringras, Makom's creative director, outlines the Four Hatikvah Questions, an initiative usable with lay committees and in educational settings that can help frame Israel in your communities. Makom facilitates in-depth training in the Four Hatikvah Questions for communities throughout North America, in your community or in Israel. For more details, write to Robbie Gringras.


It’s been quite a year as far as Israel in the Jewish community goes. We no sooner recovered from the drama of PM Netanyahu’s speech in Congress than we flew head-long into the struggle for and against the Iran deal. We’ve weathered another Israel Apartheid Week, ever-growing concerns over BDS, and the challenges of an unpredictable presidential primaries run.  


Sometimes it seems that we live in three different worlds when it comes to Israel: the sharp edges of the politics, our own invigoratingly complex feelings towards Israel, and the world of Israel education. How do we bridge the chasms between these worlds? How do we address the politics, the personal, and the educational in a consistent way that allows for a breadth of perspective, political difference, and even some fun?  And how do we celebrate Israel from within these worlds and chasms? 


What are the Four Hatikvah Questions (4HQ)?  


To explore these chasms, perhaps paradoxically, we start by going global and looking outside the Jewish bubble to address issues throughout the world. Be it climate change, immigration, war, or poverty, the issues the world is dealing with seem to revolve around differing answers to four fundamental questions:  


  • How do we stay safe in this ever-more dangerous world?  
  • Who are “we” and what do “we” do? (What does it mean to be “American” or “Canadian”? What is our national way of behaving? How should we treat our fellow Americans or Canadians, as opposed to those who are not?)  
  • How can we be free? (Are our democratic rights still strong? Our freedom of speech and choice still intact? Even when they clash with our desire to stay safe?)  
  • How do we relate to our land? (Who should be allowed to cross our borders? If the land is ours, is it ours to exploit or to protect?)  


Our main drive is to point out that Israel, too, is constantly grappling with the tensions within these four fundamental questions. In this way Israel is not foreign to us; rather, it is at the heart of most of what is important to us all:


  • Security,
  • Identity,  
  • Freedom,  
  • and Place.

This quartet of issues is summed up evocatively in the penultimate line of Israel's national anthem, Hatikvah: “To be a People, Free in Our Land” | Lihiyot Am Chofshi Be’Artzenu | להיות עם חופשי בארצנו.   


  • Lihiyot TO BE - How do we stay safe?  
  • Am (JEWISH) PEOPLE - Who are “we”, and what do “we” do? (What does it mean to be Jewish? What is a Jewish way of behaving?)  
  • Chofshi FREE - How can we be free?   
  • Be’Artzenu IN OUR LAND - How do we relate to our land?   



We find our way through the morass of information and feelings about Israel by framing them according to these Four Hatikvah Questions (4HQ). How might I understand the current policy of the Israeli government on x issue according to these four questions? (How) Might I answer them differently? Who else in Israel has different answers? Or a historical example: When the Law of Return was passed, what were the Knesset’s answers to these four questions?   

We empower learners to reach their own answers and insist only that they address all four questions. It is educationally insufficient (and politically disingenuous) to address some questions to the exclusion of others. For example, for us to look at the conflict with the Palestinians only through the question of Freedom – such as the democratic rights of Palestinians – without also asking questions about Israel’s security needs would be insufficient. Likewise, to solely address Israel’s security requirements while ignoring questions of Freedom would also leave us lacking.   


How does this work in practice? We have 3 concrete examples (out of many) to share with you:


  • The Jewish Education Project has received funding from UJA-Federation New York to partner with Makom on a long-term teacher training in 4HQ. Teachers will undergo an eight-day 4HQ training seminar/tour in Israel, learning how to plan curricula, write lessons, and teach Israel through 4HQ.   
  • After attending a workshop on 4HQ, the Israel director at the Jewish Federation of St Louis decided to frame their teen trip to Israel around 4HQ. Their pre-trip preparation (together with parents) will introduce the framing, and throughout the trip the participants will be encouraged to interpret their experiences through the perspective of 4HQ.  
  • Students at HUC went on a 4HQ walking tour of Jerusalem, guided by Makom. From the matters of life and death addressed when remembering the bombing of the King David Hotel to issues of Jewish relations with non-Jews at the YMCA, the group moved from questions of “To be” to “People” and so on.  


Happily, 4HQ can also inform our approach to Yom Ha’atzmaut. Rather than focusing on cold falafel and birthday cake, we can transform the question marks into exclamation points. What are we celebrating? We are celebrating the fact that for the first time in two thousand years, since May 14, 1948, we have been able to answer all Four Hatikvah Questions with a resounding “Yes!”  


  • To Be? – Yes!  
  • Peoplehood? – Yes!  
  • Free? – Yes!  
  • In Our Land? – YES! 


In this brilliant illustration above, Shay Charka captures the nine-day roller-coaster between Yom HaShoah and Yom Ha’atzmaut. Imagine how we might have answered the Four Hatikvah Questions in 1945!  


We have made great progress. Still, do we share questions about threats to our ongoing existence? Certainly. But the desparate arguments will wait for us until the next day. Do we disagree about the ways in which our Jewish heritage, solidarity, and values are expressed? Sure. But let’s put the disagreements on temporary hold, and address them later. Are we concerned about Israel’s democratic structures and discourse? Do we agree on the borders of our Land? On relations with the Palestinians, who say it is their Land too? All crucial questions. With the Four Hatikvah Questions we can explore them on the other 364 days.  


Imagine a Yom Ha’atzmaut celebration that chose to focus on these four blessings. The songs, the dances, the speeches, the parties, the performances, that celebrate the four-fold answer of “yes.” We might say that Yom Ha’atzmaut is the day on which the Four Hatikvah Questions turn into exclamation marks.  


For reflection and discussion:  

  • Have you had similar struggles to those described in balancing Israeli politics, your personal feelings and Israel education? How does it play out in your work? 
  • Do the Four Hatikvah Questions (4HQ) resonate with you?  
  • How can the 4HQ help educate your community on Israel? 
  • Given the three examples above, can you see a way to incorporate a new idea or curriculum into your community like these proposed by Makom? 

For further exploration: