As summer break approaches for American college students, thousands of our Jewish peers across the country will embark on their first visits to Israel through Taglit-Birthright. This program, which has brought almost 300,000 Jewish young adults to Israel over the past 13 years, free of charge, hopes to leave participants with a lasting love for Israel and a stronger connection to Judaism.
This past December, as we participated in Birthright through Dartmouth College Hillel, Israel, in our minds, shifted from being merely an abstract conception to something that felt tangibly, overwhelmingly real. Never before had we felt such a strong connection to our people’s homeland.
Despite our strong Jewish upbringings, including K-12 attendance at Jewish schools, we had never before felt a real passion for the Jewish homeland. Yet, when we walked around the shuk in Jerusalem and bonded with the Israeli soldiers who accompanied us, we started to feel a strong connection to the State of Israel. Experiencing Israel’s many natural and historic wonders, from the Dead Sea to Safed, deepened our desire to learn more about the country.
And yet, while we enjoyed our falafel and posed for pictures on Masada, part of our Israel education was missing. Although our tour guide did not fail to teach many fun facts, she skimmed over some of the important ones. When we were driving towards Jerusalem and could visibly see the refugee camps and settlements in the West Bank, our tour guide remained silent. In some cases, she actually pointed in the opposite direction to show us the landscape or certain buildings, barely touching on the more contentious topic of the Israeli occupation. When we tried to ask, our questions were deflected. Indeed, we were curious about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict but left the country feeling intellectually unfulfilled in that regard.
As Jewish college students who want to explore the challenges that Israel faces in a realistic and honest way, we found ourselves frustrated by the one-sided education and utter lack of critical discussion regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Put simply, we returned from Israel feeling incapable of being pro-Israel advocates on campus; with such a small piece of the story, how could we talk to our peers about the complexities, nuances, and narratives that form the fabric of one of the world’s most intractable conflicts?
Upon returning to campus, we felt the need to delve deeper into some of the issues that our trip had ignored, primarily Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territory and its quest for peace with the Palestinians. That void was filled by J Street U, a pro-Israel, pro-peace group that works to open up the discussion on Israel in the American Jewish community; the student arm of J Street, the organization pushes for American diplomatic leadership to achieve a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which threatens Israel’s Jewish and democratic character and Israel’s security. As active members, we have been able to learn and discuss the hard facts of Israel’s politics and history in an open and nuanced fashion. During weekly lunch discussions on important topics — like Obama’s trip to Israel and the Oslo Accords — we are becoming more knowledgeable about Israel and, consequently, are becoming better Israel advocates each and every day. Understanding what Israel truly needs to flourish and survive, we know what to advocate for — a two-state solution, a vibrant democracy, internationally recognized borders, and a lasting peace.
As American Jewish college students, we’ve been taught to think critically about all other issues, neglecting to apply that same critical lens to the immense challenges that Israel faces. We refuse to ignore them any longer.
After an unforgettable 10-day trip to a country that we can now feel connected to, we are grateful for the opportunity Birthright presented us with. But if Birthright wants young American Jews to create lasting connections to Israel, and to be well-informed advocates for Israel back on college campuses, it has the responsibility to allow its curious and thoughtful attendees to learn about and wrestle with the difficult questions that we have been wrestling with at our campus chapter of J Street U.
Israel is much more than just a tourist destination. Ignoring its hard truths and problems does it no favors. To be a real advocate for Israel, to be the most pro-Israel that we can be, our community must celebrate Israel’s achievements while dealing with its many challenges.
Axel Hufford and Steven Povich are freshmen at Dartmouth College serving on the board of J Street U at Dartmouth. Hufford, who grew up in Rye, N.Y., and attended Community Synagogue of Rye, serves on the board of Dartmouth College Hillel and is pursuing a major in government. Povich, from Wellesley, Mass., is majoring in economics.