Dear High School Graduates,
As you complete your high school studies, many of you are looking forward to college at a unique moment in Jewish and American history, a time of great opportunity as well as deeply disturbing trends on campus, and elsewhere.
The world is becoming increasingly complicated. Simple terms and narratives no longer apply, be they about democracy, religion or gender. But I encourage you to open your minds to the complexity of an issue rather than turn aside in frustration. More specifically, my charge to you is to re-examine, explore and embrace your Jewish heritage and values so that they are a source of inspiration as you confront new challenges. And I hope you will expand upon a Jewish education that you may feel was completed soon after your bar or bat mitzvah. That rite should have marked the beginning, not the end, of a life of mature search and discovery.
University life always comes with its own pressures, but lately a traditional goal of the college experience has been turned on its head. Rather being a safe place to discuss, debate and grapple with new ideas, the campus has been the scene for stifling others’ views. In today’s identity politics, “your right to be heard is earned by your experience of discrimination,” as New York Times columnist David Brooks noted last week.
This has become a problem for a number of Jewish students, especially those who support Israel. For example, at Oberlin College, a bastion of progressivism in the Midwest, anti-Semitism has become a troubling issue, exacerbated by the backlash created when a popular professor, who is black, was called out by the board of trustees for her Facebook posts suggesting Jews were responsible for 9/11, and that ISIS was under the control of the Mossad. As Nathan Heller wrote in The New Yorker in a piece on campus life at Oberlin, “students and faculty … felt pressured to make an awkward judgment: whether to ally themselves with the black community or whether to ally themselves with the offended Jews.”
In the either/or climate prevalent today, and in the spirit of intersectionality, you can’t really sympathize with the cause of, say, gay or black students if you align yourself with Israel. Unless you have been oppressed in a certain way, you have no right to criticize others — or even to have a say in the discussion. Heller interviewed a Jewish Oberlin student active in liberal causes who was sharply criticized for speaking up on a new school policy regarding sexual harassment.
“I’ve had people respond to me, ‘You could never understand — your culture has never been oppressed,” the student laughed. “I’m, like, ‘Really? The Holocaust?’ ”
At a time when Israel has become the target of student radicals, and when the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement against Israel is gaining traction on some campuses — and becoming a focus of serious concern in our community — you owe it to yourselves to learn more about the world’s only Jewish state. While “Zionism” has become a dirty word to Israel’s critics, and a confusing one to many Jews, it represents one of the most outstanding achievements of the 20th century, the rebirth of an ancient people in the home of their biblical ancestors and a salvation from persecution for millions of Jews. I encourage you to read up on it.
High school graduates face a vastly different campus landscape than in years past. Getty Images
The more you learn about modern Israel, the more you will take pride in its accomplishments in a host of fields — including science, medicine and technology — that are improving the lives of countless people around the world. And the more you study the Israeli-Arab conflict, the more you will understand its layers of complexity. Beware of simplistic narratives, whether they come from supporters or critics of Israel. Those of you who have been taught that Israel can do no wrong will be challenged and thrown off balance by detractors on campus who cite a litany of complaints about inequality and occupation. Without a deeper understanding, your faith in Israel could be undermined.
That is one of the reasons The Jewish Week, with financial support from the Avi Chai Foundation, created Write On For Israel, an educational program for Jewish high school juniors and seniors to prepare them for the anti-Israel activism they are likely to experience on college campuses.
Write On began in 2002, at the height of the second intifada, a time when Jewish students on campus were shaken and put on the defensive by pro-Palestinian students and professors. Jewish students we spoke with at the time supported Israel emotionally but felt inadequate in responding to the misinformation, half-truths or out-of-context information hurled at them.
The Write On program, with its educational core and variety of speakers — journalists, Israeli officials, Jewish campus leaders and others — and a trip to Israel to provide first-hand encounters, has given students the historical facts and moral confidence to speak up for Israel when they get to college.
The program, now on its own financially, held its 14th graduation ceremony this week and has more than 500 alumni who credit Write On with strengthening their understanding of the Jewish state.
Our graduates know full well that Israel, like America and other democracies, is imperfect. It is not a Jewish Disneyland, a place for us to visit, take in its beauty, its historical and religious sites, its exotic foods and pulsing energy, and then return home, our Jewish batteries recharged. It is a real place, a vibrant society, home to millions of diverse Jews, Christians and Arabs who, for the most part, live in peace in a democratic society, surrounded by chaos and violent upheaval in the region.
Be wary of those on the right or left who offer simple solutions to a difficult, longstanding religious and political conflict. Find out which of the parties has proposed peace plans and which has refused each offer. Ask yourself why the BDS movement seeks to delegitimize Israel, and only Israel, describing the Jerusalem government as one of apartheid when its Arab citizens have more freedom than in any Arab state.
Your college years should not be a time to seek protection from unfamiliar words and ideas but rather a period of inquiry and self-discovery. In the age of Me First, reflect on the timeless values of a Judaism that promotes the collective while teaching the world that each of us is created in the image of God.
Your family and community have faith in your ability to find the wisdom embedded in our faith, if only you take the time to look.
Enjoy the journey.