Why Jewish High School Students Don’t Learn About Israel

The single greatest threat to the State of Israel could very well be American Jews, but not who you might think: Left unarmed with no notion of Israel as a real state–a country with income inequalities, sexism and racism, civil rights shortcomings, domestic violence and warring versions of Zionism–the latest crop of Jewish day school, Hebrew school and new Israel Studies graduates may be unprepared to take the reins of the Jewish community in due time. Ameinu, the UPZ, Hashomer Hatzair and Habonim Dror have long been committed to a vision of social justice which requires a frank education about the laudable — but very incomplete — state of the Jewish state.

La Mala Educación
Why Jewish High School Students Don’t Learn About Israel
Zach Luck

I watched helplessly as a few students broke down crying at the end of a session with Anat Hoffman, the director of the Israel Religious Action Center. Hoffman spoke about the IRAC’s minority religious rights campaign, which fights against the Orthodox establishment’s monopoly over marriage and other lifecycle events. She illustrated a political and cultural divide that defines many political debates in Israel, and she forced the students to consider the ramifications of its latest manifestation: posters plastered all over Jerusalem by extremist religious elements that called for violence against homosexuals in response to this summer’s planned—and ultimately canceled—World Pride march. Some observant students who had never considered religion’s political primacy in Israel felt that their beliefs were under attack, and many found their core allegiance to the state shaken.

These students were among 26 of Jewish America’s leaders-to-be on a selective program for rising high school seniors with whom I spent last summer in Israel, as their counselor. Despite the war that broke out this summer (and the disruption it caused in some of our planned programming), Hoffman’s talk was one of the most frequently referenced events in students’ end-of-summer reflections. The participants’ reactions and the terms in which they discuss these experiences have made me realize that the American Jewish community had set the vast majority of them up for disappointment and frustration with the State of Israel and their own Jewish identities. These experiences led some of the students not only to angst and confusion but also to a sense that they had been betrayed by the Jewish educational system that had raised them.

An active Reform youth group leader had been convinced by her Jewish education that she would be embraced with loving arms by Israeli society, that she would feel “finally at home as a Jewish person.” When she found a society without the slightest interest in rushing to accept a religious, progressive Jewish-American woman on her own terms she experienced a crushing sense of “disillusionment.” Upon her return to the States she was afraid at first to explain to friends the complicated relationship with Israel she had developed, convinced that such comments would be understood as “blasphemous.”

During a late-night conversation on the heels of a long day meeting with Palestinian youth and a Palestinian academic, a rabbi’s son told me that while he still believed that Jewish people deserve a country, he was now convinced that everything else relating to Israel he had learned in a decade of Jewish day school was lies. He would never again, he claimed, assume that he knew anything about the conflict until he had looked for himself far beyond any source provided him by his Jewish educators.

His education is typical of many young American Jews on the subject of Israel, and he is right to question its foundations. The organized Jewish community has come to the conclusion that the best form of education about Israel is the presentation of a series of uncomplicated, beautiful images of the country. The students whose frustrations I describe were, respectively, products of the educational systems of the Orthodox, Reform and Conservative movements. These systems share little else as fully as their inability to prepare students for even the slightest complications to their idealized presentations of happy, sturdy, falafel-eating Israelis and a nearly faultless, mostly undivided Israeli society.

One might argue that Hebrew schools and day schools have no responsibility to teach Jewish kids about the more sordid complexities of life in Israel or of Israeli history. These schools, the philosophy would go, educate young people at a time in their lives when such nuance would be lost on them, and the goal of convincing them to support and feel connected to Israel is so important that we can’t allow our educational model to be burdened with things that really are best left for a time when students are older.

Yet these same students, somehow, have managed to form nuanced, informed views on practically every other topic one could think of throwing at them. Talking to the participants, I learned new and fascinating things about—among other things—women’s movements in Brazil, American poetry, and the politics of scrabble competitions. Their opinions were well-informed and represented a wide spectrum of positions on the American political issues of the day, from gay marriage and the War on Terrorism, to free trade agreements and Hillary’s prospects in ’08.

Knowing that the world was divided on these issues and that there were reasoned, well-articulated counter-arguments never once convinced these motivated and intelligent students to give ground on their opinions, much less break down crying, crushed at the realization that their views had been based on frighteningly over-simplified versions of reality.

So why did these exemplars of Jewish young people get such good educations on everything but Israel? Why is it that those who have the most impressive Jewish educational pedigrees often have the least to contribute to conversations about the political questions that matter in Israel?

We trust high school students to learn about painful divisions in U.S. society and horrendous moments in American history without the slightest fear that they will be convinced to run off to join the ranks of the Taliban or become ardent supporters of Al-Qaeda. Yet the fear that these students, if similarly informed about Israeli history and politics, would become “too critical” of Israel seems to underlie much of the shoddy education Jewish young people receive on the topic.

Is American Jewish support of Israel based on such shaky foundations that an open and honest conversation about the complicated realities of the country would bring that support to its knees? Is there no concern that many students, when ultimately faced with the facts that Israel is not so simple and perfect a place, be shaken so violently that they abandon interest and faith in the Jewish community altogether? Is there no consideration that this type of conversation could in fact help Israel? One could certainly hope that Jewish young people with informed, reasoned positions on Israeli political questions might be better long-term allies than those that have nothing to offer a conversation on the matter but tired rhetoric.

The mainstream American Jewish community educates its young people in a way that fails not only those students but the community at large. The current situation leads many of the Jewish people’s brightest young people to become suspicious of their educators and cynical about their education. The community is poorly served by spending its resources on setting up summer camps, Hebrew schools, day schools, and youth group programs on young people who ultimately lose faith in and respect for these educations. Furthermore, the same population fails to live up to its responsibilities to truth and its own ideals (that it finds a way to live up to on so many other controversial topics) by refusing to have the open, informed conversation necessary to create the lessons that students need.

Rather than another glossy poster of sunbathing Israelis with “Eilat” and the El-Al logo displayed across the bottom, teachers and students alike would be better off with posters depicting crying settlers being carried out of their homes in Gaza. Instead of another cliche image of an Israeli solider praying next to Hasidic Jews at the Western Wall, classrooms need pictures of women at that same wall being attacked as they attempt to read aloud from the Torah. And instead of another image of tough young women and men in uniforms, we should see soldiers at a checkpoint facing a long line of frustrated Palestinian workers and students.

Israelis are not afraid to speak frankly and openly with high school students about the inequities and challenges facing Israeli society and U.S. society. There is no doubt that pictures of the darker moments of the American Civil Rights movement appear in Israeli textbooks on U.S. history. So why are we American Jews afraid to have such a conversation when it comes to Israel? Education itself has been nearly sacrosanct for Jewish people and this tradition runs strong in the American Jewish community, yet that same community is avoiding its educational obligations to itself and its children on this topic. Until we find a new way to educate young people and talk as a community about Israel, more generations of bright, politically engaged American Jews will find themselves with no response to the realities of Israeli society but tears of frustration and confusion.               

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