Parents Have a Hebrew School Problem
I can recall my sophomore year at UC Berkeley vividly. Many of us participated in interviews and discussions about studying abroad during our junior year. Those thinking about studying in Israel discussed the recent assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin at the hands of another Jewish Israeli. What was striking was the number of young Jewish people on campus who assumed this was the first time that a Jewish Israeli had ever killed another Jewish Israeli. Nobody had heard of such a thing. Israel was supposed to be a utopia for Jews. Sure, Israelis argued with one another, but killing each other? That wasn’t the Israel people had grown up hearing about. While it is true that Israel’s homicide rate is relatively low—there are between 100 and 200 people, on average, murdered every year—utopia it is not.
This episode represents the fundamental problem with Israel education in the Jewish community in North America. Parents talk glowingly of their indigenous homeland that they love. However, most Jewish parents outsource their children’s education about Israel to Hebrew schools and/or Jewish camps. They think it’s taken care of: “I send my kids to Hebrew school; they will be fine!”
There is one major problem, though. They don’t teach about Israel in any significant way at most Hebrew schools or Jewish summer camps; they teach primarily about Judaism. It’s been this way since before I was a child, and it’s still this way now.
I see this with my nephews. Growing up in Los Angeles, both went to Jewish pre-school and kindergarten, then after-school Hebrew school from first grade through their bar mitzvahs. They also attended Jewish summer camp since they could walk, first Jewish day camp and then Jewish sleep away camp. Yet they don’t know a thing about Israel, about its founding, its history, or the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Sure, they can tell you about all the stories in the Bible. About the Maccabees and Hannukah, Queen Esther and Purim, the exodus from Egypt, and Moses. They know the songs and can sing them with gusto. They also, of course, know everything there is to know about the horrors of the Holocaust. They have read Elie Wiesel’s “Night” and “The Diary of a Young Girl” by Anne Frank. My oldest nephew even looks like he could be Frank’s twin brother. I kid you not. So, it’s not like they are too fragile to learn about Israel.
Hebrew schools and the Jewish summer camps don’t teach about Herzl, Jabotinsky, Begin, Golda, Ben-Gurion, and Rabin. They don’t teach about the breakup of the Ottoman Empire or the Balfour Declaration. They don’t teach about the San Remo Conference, the Hebron Massacre, the White Papers, the Irgun, the Peel Commission, and the United Nations’ (UN) vote for partition. They don’t teach about the P.L.O., Black September, Hamas, Gaza, the first intifada, the second intifada, and UNRWA. They don’t teach about 1948, 1967, 1973, and 2000. And they certainly don’t teach about the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement or about Arab-Israelis and the Abraham Accords. Instead, they only are told Israel is a magical land. Utopia.
Jewish kids must understand what the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) organization is before stepping foot on campus. Young Jews growing up in America tend to be liberal and progressive, like most young people in America today at the universities most Jewish kids will attend. A recent survey of Harvard graduates found that 34% support BDS. In comparison, just 21% oppose it, with the rest not having enough information to decide, while 78% of students also considered themselves “Progressives.”
Jewish kids must understand what the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) organization is before stepping foot on campus.
The anti-Israel boycott movement rhetoric is salient because it has reinvented itself in the language of progressive causes. Activists suggest that to stand for social justice, environmental change, women’s rights, the LGBTQ+ community, and indigenous communities is to stand with the Palestinians. They have also co-opted all these causes with duplicitous aims.
BDS doesn’t mention that they were created as a political weapon that seeks the demonization, delegitimization, and eventual elimination of the State of Israel. That doesn’t sound as progressive. So instead, the BDS movement presents a black-and-white narrative, insinuating that Israel is uniquely evil.
However, many Boycott activists are also no longer hiding their true aims. For instance, the leading BDS organization at the City University of New York (CUNY), Within Our Lifetime, openly supports Palestinian militant groups and proclaims that “they don’t want two states; they want all of it.” BDS, in general, also explicitly rejects “coexistence” and working with even progressive groups if those groups don’t embrace “co-resistance” to dismantle the State of Israel.
In reality, it is Zionism and Israel that have brought progressive change to the Middle East. As I recently wrote in my piece for Sapir, Israel is the remarkable story of a conquered and colonized people miraculously reestablishing a country in their indigenous homeland—a country that has brought democracy to a region that has known only kings, dictators, and theocracies. It’s a country in which the environment is protected, where there is socialized health care, and where the LGBTQ+ community is flourishing while members of this community are violently persecuted in every other country in the Middle East, including the Palestinian Territories. It’s also a country in which a woman was elected prime minister within 20 years of the founding of the state and where minorities run the country’s biggest bank, sit on the country’s supreme court, and within its governing coalition. This is all unimaginable in any other country in the Middle East.
Your kids also need to understand the interplay between antisemitism and Israel. More than 80% of American Jews say Israel is an essential or important part of what being Jewish means to them. But if Israel is deemed to be a racist, apartheid state on campus, and our children support that state, then they are accused of supporting apartheid and racism. This makes our children complicit, as only those who are truly deplorable would support such hate. This twisted logic allows anti-Israel activists to justifiably condemn our children and ostracize them.
No country has been demonized by the world in such a coordinated and calculated effort, and for such an extended time, as Israel. One need look only at the voting in the United Nations as evidence. In over 65% of instances in which a member state is criticized in a UN General Assembly Resolution, that state is Israel, with no other member state being criticized in more than 10% of resolutions. The Palestinian question also concerns roughly a third of all resolutions voted on at each UN General Assembly session. Since its inception, in the UN Human Rights Council, Israel has been condemned on more than 90 occasions, with Syria a distant second at 35 and North Korea in third at just 13. If Abba Eban, one of the most gifted and articulate speakers to ever walk the halls of the United Nations, cannot change minds in its chambers regarding Israel, what sort of chance do our children stand, especially if they are not prepared?
The anti-Israel activists are trying to rewrite history. If our children don’t understand that history, they will fall victim to the fallacious vitriol spewed in their direction.
Anti-Israel activists have zoomed in and changed the language of discourse. As Dr. Einat Wilf recently noted, there has been a transition from the “Arab-Israeli Conflict” to the “Israeli-Palestinian Conflict” and then from “occupation” to “Apartheid,” which is all designed to gradually erase the memory of the original declared Arab goal in 1948 of eradicating the State of Israel and denying the state any legitimacy. Instead of Israel being an island of a few million Jews surrounded by hundreds of millions of Arabs, Jews are now seen as the majority oppressors. Instead of an occupation that allows for Israel to exist, Israel is now an apartheid state with no right to exist. In the BDS narrative, there is no solution except for the eradication of Israel, and the Palestinians are merely innocent victims of manufactured colonialist oppression.
The Boycott activists also encourage their peers to see Israel through America’s racial lens, over-simplifying the conflict in an effort to make it familiar to Americans. It’s about white supremacy and white people oppressing people of color. The fact that a majority of Jewish-Israelis are from the Middle East, in addition to many from the Ethiopian community, and that Americans couldn’t tell a Palestinian from an Israeli if their life depended on it, does not matter. Palestinian nationalism is celebrated, while Jewish nationalism is villainized.
My nephews almost already resent Israel because their parents talk about the country glowingly. It’s a land they know essentially nothing about beyond that it is the Jewish homeland. But you know who does know all about Israel? Young Palestinian and Arab children growing up in North America. They grow up learning the history of the Nakba, Palestine, and all the talking points that come with this. They have been indoctrinated with their anti-Israel talking points since birth.
When these two groups of children eventually meet on a college campus, the Jewish kids are outmatched. The Arab kids wax poetic while the Jewish kids look on dumbfounded.
The above is precisely what happened to (at least) one of the founders of If Not Now. She talks about this openly—how she showed up at UC Berkeley thinking Israel was a utopia, and then Palestinian students destroyed her, making her think everything she believed about Israel was a lie.
The fact that these anti-Israel students were perpetuating misinformation didn’t matter. She had no retort. She wasn’t prepared; she was let down by all the Jewish parents who relied on the Hebrew schools and the summer camps to do their job. Trust me; your kids aren’t ready for the war zones and hostility awaiting them when they get to college. At best, they will feel defeated; at worst, they will be calling Israel an apartheid state at your next Shabbat dinner: the opposite of your utopia.
She wasn’t prepared; she was let down by all the Jewish parents who relied on the Hebrew schools and the summer camps to do their job.
As the proverb goes, it’s late to begin digging a well when you are already feeling thirsty.
Parents need to stop relying on Hebrew schools to educate their children about Israel, and start teaching them about Israel before they get to college—whether at home, through high school organizations like Club Z and StandWithUs, through sending them on summer month-long ulpans to Israel during high-school, or by taking them to Israel and having them learn about the history with you first hand. They need to know the talking points—the good and the bad. They need to know the narratives and the counter-narratives. And they need to understand both Israeli and Palestinian history, the land’s history. We need to give them a fighting chance. And while we should not rely solely on Hebrew schools, encourage these programs to adopt an Israeli history education program.
As Sun Tzu stated: “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, you will also suffer defeat for every victory gained. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.”
Protect your Shabbat table. The ball is in your court, don’t fumble.
Ari Ingel is an attorney and the Director of Creative Community For Peace. You can follow him on Twitter at: https://twitter.com/OGAride