Two years ago, when the Gaza war began, Moriel Rothman felt caught in the middle.
Then a sophomore at Middlebury College, he was distressed by what he saw as the “disproportionate” number of Palestinians killed.
“The statements coming from Israel advocacy groups weren’t resonating for me,” he recalled. At the same time, the pro-Palestinian rhetoric was “falling flat,” with its claims that Israel was deliberately targeting civilians.
Then Rothman, who was born in Israel but grew up mostly in the United States, discovered J Street, the pro-peace-process lobby, whose educational arm is now on 50 campuses.
“People were saying the things I want to say, looking at the issues the way I look at them,” Rothman, who is now president of J Street U’s Student Board, told The Jewish Week. “I was with people who could say, ‘I love Israel and also certain things Israel is doing I feel uncomfortable with, and I have complete empathy for the Palestinians.’”
J Street U, according to supporters like Rothman, “has brought a number of students back into the world of pro-Israel activism.
“They stepped out because they wanted to be pro-Israel, but they couldn’t be pro-settler, pro segregated roads in Hebron, pro not letting chocolate into Gaza — all these points that we were being asked to ignore.”
While some Israel supporters might cringe at Rothman’s “I love Israel but…” attitude, particularly when there seems to be so little nuance from the Arab world or from those who insist Israel is equivalent to apartheid South Africa, this Zionist yet critical approach appears to be gaining ground even among more centrist Jewish groups.
Six months after Peter Beinart’s influential New York Review of Books essay alleging that American Jews’ disengagement from Israel stems from a communal establishment that insists they “check their liberalism at Zionism’s door,” and nearly three years after the much-hyped establishment of J Street, a consensus appears to be emerging that the Jewish community needs to go beyond cheerleading, fundraising and defending the Jewish state from its many critics.
Even centrist players like Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, the Jewish Agency for Israel, the David Project and people in the Jewish federation system are calling for more open, critical discussions about Israel and are emphasizing that Israel education needs to incorporate a range of perspectives and should be separated from Israel advocacy.
Last month, Hillel formally separated the two, spinning off its Israel Campus Coalition into a separate nonprofit focused solely on advocacy while creating an Israel Engagement Center to better coordinate educational programs.
In the lingo of Makom, a new arm of the Jewish Agency whose tagline is “Renewing Israel Engagement,” diaspora Jews need spaces for both “hugging” and “wrestling with” Israel.
What is the difference between education and advocacy?
According to Robbie Gringras, Makom’s artist in residence, Israel engagement and education is “about trying to get people to be Israel’s lovers” — albeit lovers who argue and debate — whereas advocacy is “Israel’s lawyers.”
“If you are a lover of Israel, you’ll be a much better lawyer for it,” he told The Jewish Week. “But not everyone who loves Israel is going to be a lawyer.
“We feel that Israel is important to Jews not only because it has enemies,” he explains. “If you mix up the two jobs, if you say engagement with Israel is only about defending Israel, then you’re working from the agenda of its enemies only. We feel that Israel is fascinating and challenging and central to everyone’s Jewish identity wherever they live, whether for good or for bad, and in the Jewish community we need to be delving in, asking questions.”
Whereas previous generations of American Jewish students first learned about Israel through idealized narratives that omitted mention of, or gave little credence to, Palestinian grievances, today’s educators are increasingly aware that students have access to a wide range of information and are just a mouse click away from the wealth of anti-Israel rhetoric on the Internet.
David Bryfman, director of the New Center for Collaborative Leadership at New York’s Jewish Education Project (formerly BJENY-SAJES), is a consultant to the iCenter, a new Israel education think tank/training program funded by the Jim Joseph Foundation and Schusterman Family Foundation.
Like many in the world of Israel education and advocacy, he emphasized that the old narratives and approaches to engaging diaspora Jews with Israel are no longer effective.
“My grandparents believe the whole world is out to get us and the whole world is out to get Israel,” he said. “Whether that’s true or not, I don’t think most young people agree with that, and you can’t assume they’re going to become foot soldiers or advocates for Israel.”
The problem with an advocacy-oriented approach to education, he said, is that it is “almost by definition black and white.”
“Most kids today recognize that nothing in the world is black and white, especially when it comes to Israel,” he noted, adding that with young children “there is nothing wrong with talking about the warm fuzzies and mythical parts of the culture,” but by the teen years, Jewish students “should be able to deal with the complexities of Israel.”
“If you present it all in day school, youth group and camp, that’s different than when they first hear of a 1947 massacre while they’re in a college class,” he said.
The David Project, which has had a right-of-center reputation stemming in part from its controversial film, “Columbia Unbecoming,” about anti-Israel bias among Middle East studies faculty at the university, has begun taking a more nuanced and less combative approach. It says it “divides” its educational programs, mostly aimed at high school students, from its advocacy efforts, which are mostly on college campuses.
In its advocacy work, the group is hoping to reach “fence-sitters on the left who might be contemplating [boycott, divestment and sanctions],” said David Bernstein, the David Project’s new executive director. “It’s far more effective to engage the left on BDS than to war with them.”
Education, said Bernstein, is about “promoting inquiry,” whereas advocacy training is “giving skill sets.”
However, he emphasized: “Even the best education is not value neutral. We’re not teaching Ahmadinejad’s perspective — or Kahane’s for that matter.”
The sense among all the players, however, is that Israel education has been inadequate, and that many Jews, and their teachers, have a thin grasp of facts pertaining to the history of modern Israel.
This week, Stuart Zweiter, the director of the Lookstein Center for Jewish Education in the Diaspora, posted on the group’s listserv that the Jewish Agency’s Natan Sharansky had told him he had “found in his travels to North American college campuses that Jewish students were uninformed as well as scared to speak up for Israel.” Zweiter also wrote that a Jewish foundation professional visiting a Jewish high school, heard from students that they “love Israelis but don’t love Israel.”
Israel education is “a well-intentioned field that’s been searching for itself,” said Barry Chazan, a consultant for the iCenter, who was involved in developing Birthright Israel, the free Israel trips for young diaspora Jews.
“Since 1967, there have been six, seven, maybe eight initiatives by various central agencies [for Jewish education] to try to develop a serious approach to it, but it’s been a complicated subject because, among other things, the larger question of the role of Israel in American Jewish life is a complicated subject.”
According to Chazan, whose iCenter has developed certificate programs training people to be Israel educators and which runs regional conferences, there is now “a serious attempt to make [Israel education] a field, with clear pedagogy, with a clear notion of how it fits into the larger context of Jewish education, with clear commitment to an Israel experience as a central part, and a clear commitment to using 21st-century techniques, including technology, to focus on contemporary Israel while at the same time linking to the historical.”
Asked about the education versus advocacy rhetoric, Chazan said, “I’m not sure these are contradictions. To deal with the questions of advocacy, which are genuinely important, one has to begin in preschool.
“The problem is that too many people when they finally face the advocacy issue and delegitimization efforts, they haven’t first heard the legitimization story.”
As for the difficulty of teaching Israel when there are major points of contention, like the settlements and the feasibility of the peace process, Chazan said, “There are diverse positions on a lot of issues in Jewish life, like the Bible, but everyone agrees it’s a linchpin of Judaism.”
Despite the increased talk about encouraging critical thinking and separating education from advocacy, the Israel education landscape is a diverse and, at times, confusing one, in which there are a number of players and generally an agenda: ensuring that young Jews will, if nothing else, ultimately feel connected to Israel and will recognize its legitimacy as a Jewish state.
A case in point is the new partnership among the David Project, Jerusalem Online University and the Jewish National Fund to offer a multimedia course for high school students.
A press release for “Israel Inside/Out” says the new course, an adaptation of a college-level course already offered by the three-year-old JOU, “teaches students about the history, politics and current events of Israel and addresses the complexities of the Middle East conflict from both the Israeli and Palestinian perspectives.”
The release quotes Rabbi Eric M. Lankin, the JNF’s chief of institutional advancement and education, saying Israel Inside/Out “provides a balanced perspective so that students can learn the whole story and enter college with clear, confident views.”
Yet the faculty members touted in that same announcement — Alan Dershowitz, Martin Gilbert, Dore Gold and Bernard Lewis — are hardly known for having “Palestinian,” or even necessarily “balanced” perspectives when it comes to Israel. (While not listed in the press release, the college version on which the new course is based does feature some voices from the left, including representatives of the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem and the Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group.)
Adding to the sense that “Israel Inside/Out” has a bias, the founder of Jerusalem Online University, Rabbi Raphael Shore (former chief operating officer of Orthodox outreach organization Aish Ha Torah) is the producer of “Obsession,” a documentary about radical Islam that drew criticism in 2008 when Rabbi Shore’s Clarion Foundation distributed copies to 28 million voters in U.S. swing states. At the time, Atlantic Monthly writer Jeffrey Goldberg wrote on his blog that the film is “the work of hysterics … designed to make naive Americans believe that B-52s filled with radical jihadists are about to carpet-bomb their churches, and are only awaiting Barack Obama’s ascension to launch the attack.”
More recently, Rabbi Shore, who remains on JOU’s board, has produced “Crossing the Line: The Intifada Comes to Campus,” a documentary about anti-Israel activism on American college campuses that is promoted on the JOU site and featured in the college version of its “Israel Inside/Out” course.
Much of the course’s material has been contributed by Hasbara Fellowships, an Aish Ha Torah advocacy-training program that, according to its website, brings hundreds of students to Israel each year for 16 days of “pro-Israel education.”
In an interview with The Jewish Week, representatives of JNF, the David Project and JOU seemed at times to contradict each other and themselves on their goals.
JNF’s Rabbi Lankin said, “The goal is not to teach balanced. The goal is to teach the truth.”
Said Todd Young, the David Project’s director of education, “Our goal is content that is academic at a high level, allows students to debate and wrestle with some of these very challenging issues.”
Amy Holtz, JOU’s president, said, “It’s all about getting the kids to think and reach their own conclusions.”
As long as they do not conclude that Israel has no right to exist.
Said Rabbi Lankin: “I think it’s very important to recognize that in the environment we’re in, where Israel is being vilified on a regular basis, that we make it very clear that Israel’s legitimacy is not open for question.”