If 2000-2010 was the decade of delegitimization, when Palestinian attacks on Israel’s existence gained renewed traction, 2010 was the year of delegitimization-lite.
More and more Jews responded to the relentless criticism of Israel by internalizing it.
True, most rejected the radical caricature of Israel as a racist or apartheid state deserving destruction. But absorbing the anti-Israel poison in the atmosphere, increasing numbers, especially among liberal Jewish elites, attacked Israel as fundamentally broken, caricaturing Zionism as a right-wing enterprise.
This neo-conning of Israel accepted the Israel-as-keystone-to-world peace delusion, indulged in the occupation preoccupation that the settlements constitute the main obstacle to peace, viewed liberalism and modern Zionism as increasingly incompatible, and bought the pro-Israel monolith myth, that the Jewish community squelches criticism of Israel.
Angry leftists and defensive rightists overlooked the Brandeis surveys showing growing support for Israel among young Jews, thanks especially to Birthright Israel, along with the debate raging about Israel within the community.
This apparent crisis, even if exaggerated, triggered much soul searching, including debates about how to teach Israel. Inevitably, in such a politicized environment the debate degenerated into a clash about how critical to be when trying to teach young Jews about Israel.
Educationally, we risk creating a mess. If adults struggle to sift through conflicting arguments, positions and emotions, how can we expect our students to absorb a coherent message?
To reframe the debate, we should re-conceptualize Zionist education. We need a revitalized Jewish history curriculum to teach the rise of Zionism and the realities of Israel as the result of a long historical process. However, Zionism should be taught as part of Jewish civics, exploring our rights and responsibilities as Jewish citizens in the modern world.
A Jewish civics curriculum makes explicitly Zionist assumptions, that we are a people with a civics to teach. Jewish civics starts by teaching belonging, explaining our deep, multi-dimensional connections to Judaism and Jews, to Israel and the Jewish people. If done effectively, it rejects probationary Judaism, what-have-you-done-for-me-lately Judaism, a transactional Judaism making Jewish identity contingent on Judaism being useful for us, and dependent on Israel’s good behavior.
Jewish civics then moves from being to becoming. Our connection to Judaism becomes not simply a static piece in a modern person’s jigsaw puzzle of identities but a dynamic engine that helps us become better people while improving the world.
Jewish citizenship entails understanding peoplehood, realizing Judaism is more than a religion. It means learning how belonging to community enriches us and obligates us. It means understanding tikkun olam as a way of fixing the world through being Jewish not by escaping from Judaism. And it means studying Israel and Zionism in context — the context of rights and responsibilities, and, yes, rights and wrongs, challenges and dilemmas.
Zionism taught as Jewish civics involves understanding Zionism’s historical roots, Zionism’s mission to fix Judaism, to make it whole and historical and multidimensional again. It explores Zionism’s character, emphasizing action, not just identity.
Israel taught in the context of Jewish civics sidesteps the whole Israel right or wrong debate in two crucial ways. First, emphasizing belonging also makes the connection to Israel more integral, more natural, fewer contingents. It roots our Israel connection in our shared, enduring roots, not in the latest headlines. And by teaching Israel as part of the process of becoming, we carve out room for a wide variety of political responses while empowering a range of civic responses, meaning opportunities to build it, improve it, engage with it, dream about it, and find fulfillment through it.
Done effectively, a Jewish civics curriculum could be particularly empowering in the modern world and deliciously counter-cultural. It could move our youth beyond the internet’s passive, isolated, meta-community, with its false Facebook “friends” and virtual experiences. It could root our youth in the eternal us, in longstanding traditions, rather than the me-me, my-my, more-more, now-now of contemporary culture.
Civics skill-building could actually turn some of the time that young people spend surfing the net into more productive time, as they master the skills of citizenship 2.0, including learning how to fight anti-Semitism and anti-Zionist hate propaganda on the web. And it can unite young Jews all over the world, because young Israeli Jews need a new Jewish civics as desperately as do young American, Canadian and British Jews. n
Gil Troy is professor of history at McGill University and a research fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. He is the author of “Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today,” and, most recently, “The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction.” firstname.lastname@example.org