My older son just graduated from his Jewish day school in DC and will attend public school next year. He will have his Bar Mitzvah this Fall and continue on with a program at our synagogue. But his formal Jewish education, barring some unexpected change, is over for now.
Because of that education, he has the base that mainstream Jewish organizations and “pro-Israel” advocates always worry about with American Jewish kids, i.e. he has a connection to and love for Israel. We’ve taken him to visit once, and he has a solid understanding of the country’s people, history, and culture. His Hebrew is good, and his faith in Judaism is strong.
So – who in the community do we direct him to for purposes of education about politics and the conflict? He won’t be convinced that Israel is some kind of monstrous land filled with nothing but evil, as the mainstream seems to worry. Nor will he believe that Israel is filled with nothing but those who believe in peace, Judaism and hi-tech, if only the Arabs would leave them be.
He knows that Israel is a real place, with real people and real problems. So who do we turn to in our community to develop his foundation further? Where do we go to ensure that he develops an honest understanding of the situation? Where do we turn for the nuance that allows him to draw his own conclusions, rather than easy points that are simply meant to be repeated?
Or is that something that can only be done at home, assuming my wife and I can keep him interested?
I ask first in the wake of the new “devastating” survey that shows that American Jewish college students are increasingly distant from Israel. Interestingly, the survey found that the more pro-Israel organizations teach kids about issues in Israel other than the conflict, the less connected they feel. But, by the same token, the more Israel is seen as an “issue” rather than a real place with real people, the less engaged kids feel with it. (There are doubts about this survey, of course, but no one can question that this is a well-known trope and organizing/fundraising principle for many parts of the Jewish community – whither our children and their connection to Israel?)
The answer for the survey organizers is more visits to Israel, which seems to make sense. But they focus on “prophylactic Birthright-Taglit trips before university.”
Prophylactic? Against what? And why is a Birthright-created trip the right protection? That is a discussion for another day, but it brings me back to the question – is Birthright the answer for me? Is their approach the way to educate our son?
Maybe when he’s older, but we need to deal with now. He’s going into 7th grade and has several years in front of him before such a trip would be possible. So who in our community takes up his education now?
I ask as I think about just a few recent pieces. First there are these powerful pieces about the electricity cuts to Gaza (Amos Harel asking Israelis what they would do) and Israeli army abuses. What does he learn about the Occupation and its impact on Israeli society? Is Israel a place that can be this brutal?
Then there is this compelling if distorted essay claiming that arguing for an end to Occupation is really a veiled death threat against Israel. So does he not listen to the articles about the electricity cuts and army? Can he believe they are true but also defend Israel against those who really do hope for its destruction?
Can he be taught about all sides of the reality and also that Israel can be a country and place that deserves his faith and support? Can he learn that there is a distinction among Israel, the Occupation, and the overall conflict? Who will do that? Or is that, as Chemi Shalev recently wrote, an increasingly impossible position?
Sure, I know well about the New Israel Fund (it is, after all at the core of his existence – my wife and I met through NIF), but NIF is not specifically focused on educating his demographic. So by the time he’s ready for what NIF can teach him and asks of him, he may already be too far away and uninterested.
Where is the American Jewish education on Israel that teaches him to stay engaged, to struggle with facts and arguments from all sides, and root his beliefs in what he has learned and his over-arching faith?
There is Reframing Israel (which I have written about before), but it sadly is not mainstream in any way yet. No doubt there are other examples. And, of course, even this curriculum comes from a specific perspective. It is one that I happen to agree with, but that is not the point of asking the community to educate him.
Or is it? Maybe that’s the crux of the issue right now. The American Jewish community, from all sides, is seemingly afraid of a truly Jewish approach to education on Israel – provide a range of facts, ideas, and perspectives and allow kids to develop from there. That is the core of what he learned in Jewish day school, yet whether I send him to If Not Now, AIPAC, Federation, J Street, etc., he will not get nuance and competing views. He will get talking points.
Maybe it’s me who is naïve in imagining that something like this — a community that can take on education around a difficult and complex issue that could involve admission of problematic behavior from “our” side — is possible in the 21st century. Especially within a divided community.
I hope not. I would love for readers of this to provide examples. Or even just your own desires and expectations for how our community should educate my son and his peers.
In the meantime, my wife and I will continue to do our best to build on his love and faith for Judaism and Israel by showing him that neither is perfect but certainly worth fighting for.