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‘Dreams Deferred’ is a wakeup call regarding Israel

Rabbi Seth Winberg reviews "Dreams Deferred: A Concise Guide to the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict and the Movement to Boycott Israel" by Prof. Cary Nelson.

When I meet a Jew born in "Generation Z" (after 1995), I like to casually assess their knowledge of Judaism and Israel by asking them two questions: who was Abraham's wife, and what happened in 1967? About 75 percent of them get both wrong. Jewish day school graduates do better with Abraham's wife, and the renewal of the Jewish homeland in 1948, but many cannot say what happened in 1967.

Ignorance of the Six-Day War has far-reaching implications for effective Israel advocacy on college campuses and for basic Jewish identity. Most Jewish young adults support a two-state solution, but lack basic knowledge to respond to anti-Israel activists. At a Chicago student government meeting in 2014, no one corrected an activist who declared that Israel is currently occupying Gaza. (Israel left Gaza in 2005.)

Cary Nelson, professor of English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and former president of the American Association of University Professors, has edited a collection of 60 scholarly essays to help explain the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Dreams Deferred: A Concise Guide to the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict and the Movement to Boycott Israel (Indiana University Press) contains 396 pages of essential information for anyone who cares about the delegitimization of Israel. Encyclopedia-style, short essays in alphabetical order cover topics such as "anti-normalization," "apartheid," "divestment campaigns," "the Intifadas," "Iron Dome," "the Nakba," and "the West Bank." Several are devoted to aspects of anti-Semitism and of the anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) campaign.

All the contributors support a two-state solution and some are critical of Israel's military occupation of the West Bank: "Israel cannot indefinitely contain a second-class group of Palestinian non-citizens and sustain its core values," writes Nelson, who promotes a progressive Zionism.

Nelson rejects attempts to isolate Israel. He admits that American college and university administrations have largely rejected BDS campaigns-in 2007 about 450 university presidents publicly opposed academic boycotts; in 2014 over 250 presidents reissued similar statements. On the other hand, student government campaigns use propaganda that demonizes Israel to impact how other students think and talk about the conflict in the long term. Nelson understands that repeated and constant exposure to negative buzzwords (apartheid, human rights violator) persuades some students that Israel should not exist. The main concern, then, is that BDS campaigns lead to prejudice against Israel, and by extension, Jews.

Nelson also gives a voice to the Palestinian viewpoint. The title Dreams Deferred (taken from Langston Hughes' black civil rights poem) here evokes both the Israeli dream of living in peace and the Palestinian dream of self-determination. In his chapter on the Nakba, Nelson quotes Palestinian sociologist Samih Farsoun's claim that most Palestinians fled in 1948 because of "mortal fear created by systematic terror campaigns conducted by the Israeli state forces." As a counter to Farsoun, Nelson cites Israeli historian Benny Morris' research-that there were no official orders to expel Arabs from Israeli towns, but some Arabs were forced out and others fled. Then Nelson quotes journalist Ari Shavit's My Promised Land (2013) on the alleged massacre and expulsion of Arabs in the town of Lydda in July, 1948.

For a book so fiercely critical of anti-Israel activism to show compassion towards the plight of the Palestinians is positive. It makes the book more credible. But Nelson, a careful writer, surprisingly fails to note the widespread scholarly criticism of Shavit's version of history. Morris, for example, criticizes Shavit for not acknowledging that Arabs started the war and for creating the impression that the Lydda events were representative of Zionist behavior in 1948 altogether.

Not everyone will embrace Nelson's brand of Zionism but the book's thoroughness and ease of use will be an asset for anyone dedicated to Israel.

Of course no single book can motivate students to defend Israel. Only when we provide young Jewish adults with a place to celebrate Shabbat with peers, learn Torah with a mentor, and do service under a Jewish banner will they gain the confidence to bear the heavy load of defending Israel's image and reputation in a hostile world. 

Seth Winberg, a rabbi, is executive director of Metro Chicago Hillel, one of the city's fastest growing communal organizations. The book is available on

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