There’s never been a more important time to be an informed Jew.
Anti-Semitism in Europe is the worst it has been since the Holocaust. College students across the U.S. are being marginalized for supporting Israel. American Anti-Semitic incidents increased for the first time in nearly 10 years. Our communities grow more divided over the issues surrounding Israel with each passing week. How we come together and reverse this trend is not merely a question of Jewish vitality but of Jewish survival.
Before I started working at JUF, I relied on others to keep their fingers on the pulse on what was happening in Israel. I looked to rabbis, educators and informed friends for cues on when to wave my Israeli flag, when to be concerned for my fellow Jew and when to pray for peace. It was hard enough to follow American current events that could have a direct impact on me, so I let others keep tabs on Israel.
Growing up, my Israel education consisted of learning to love Israel abidingly. Israel’s culture, people and history were celebrated at every opportunity, its difficult trials all plot points on a narrative of big dreams and survival against all odds. Then I first witnessed it firsthand on Birthright Israel, a trip crafted to reinforce these same notions.
I am not bitter for having inherited our communal doctrine of total solidarity with Israel. In fact, I believe it’s a necessity to stand firmly by the one dot on our planet that welcomes, normalizes and celebrates Jewish life. I only regret not developing the skills that would have led me to that conclusion on my own.
Missing from my Israel education was the fostering of my own curiosity about Israel. Not about its culture or its beauty (believe me, since I was a kid I longed to know what floating in the Dead Sea felt like), but its history and its modern day complexity. The whole package is important, but knowing how hummus is made won’t lead me to the knowledge I need to feel confident speaking up when someone accuses Israel of being an apartheid state guilty of countless human and civil rights violations.
In an attempt to cultivate positive associations and connections between young people and Israel, we created an entire generation of Jewish Americans who know how to love Israel, but not how to discuss it, debate it or stand up for it. Some can – their education, which admittedly is in some cases likely similar to my own, fostered an interest in living in Israel, studying it and staying on top of the news there. But in the face of this fact-skewing PR onslaught against Israel, most of us are sitting quietly. We wish we knew more. We wish that we could speak more confidently from a place of truth about Israel as much as from a place of love.
And on the front lines, which today are unfortunately our college campuses, we are scrambling to teach these skills to our teens and college students. Organizations across the country, including Hillel and JUF’s Israel Education Center, have done a marvelous job arming students with the knowledge and resources they need to stand up to this thinly veiled anti-Semitism, but it’s a reactive strategy, and we also need a proactive one. Perhaps the framework is already there, but it needs some changes.
That starts with changing the dialogue. The environment for talking about Israel is prickly. Those who completely support Israel are often afraid to speak up against the criticisms outside our community; those who question Israel though they love it are afraid to speak up inside our community. That leaves only the extremes doing all the talking, and that’s a shouting match, not a dialogue.
That’s why being informed – as well as open-minded – is so critical. Only those who feel confidently educated about Israel can begin to shape the conversation and help to create an environment where all Jews can love Israel and also be willing to disagree about it. After all, we, as Americans, know quite well that patriotism and extreme partisanship can coexist meaningfully. Yet we are nervous about allowing for that space to exist in our Jewish communities. Only when it does, however, can we expect our college students and teenagers to feel confident facing the voices that wish to expose their doubts about Israel in order to drown them into silence.
Like many Jews, I read the headlines and I wonder if history really is doomed to repeat itself. Despite the endless mantra of “Never Again” that echoes this Yom HaShoa and at all the remembrances each year, will we still live in legitimate fear of being exterminated? Will the disparaging irony of Israel being called “Nazis” and “genocidal” remain part of the lexicon that perpetuates modern anti-Semitism? All I know is that if we want change, if we want peace – that starts with us. It always has.