Dear High School Senior,
The spring of your senior year is an exciting time in your life. You most likely are feeling a well-deserved sense of accomplishment on the verge of completing your high school career and, for those of you going on to college in the fall, a sense of anticipation as you look forward to campus life and a new level of independence. But there may also be a healthy dose of anxiety as to how you will fare on your own.
Many Jewish students seek out colleges with a strong Jewish presence, including a critical mass of co-religionists and an active Hillel and/or Chabad House. I wonder, though, how many of you have taken into account The Israel Factor on your intended campus.
For example, do you know the level of student activity regarding the Mideast conflict, especially at a time when the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement against Israel, much of it generated by non-students, is growing on liberal campuses around the country? Are there pro-Israel groups at the college of your choice?
These days, unfortunately, the government in Jerusalem is a target of widespread criticism, particularly regarding its Zionist ideology and its dealings with the Palestinians. I worry that too many Jewish students are not aware of what they will face and what they will be hearing in the classroom and on campus, from professors and fellow students, about Israel the oppressor, Israel the apartheid state, etc.
The tactics of the BDS advocates often are over-the-top. They are meant to shock and grab attention and they can be disturbing to encounter. You may face “die-ins,” where pro-Palestinian students play dead in protest of civilian deaths during the most recent Gaza war. You may face mock checkpoints, where you will be asked for your ID, echoing the treatment of Palestinians seeking entry into Israel proper. And you may face mock eviction notices where students find notes taped to their dorm room doors in objection to the fact that some Palestinian homes are cleared out to make room for Jewish residents.
Many of you have positive feelings about Israel in your gut, developed over the years from your home life or involvement with a synagogue and/or Jewish education in your early years. Perhaps even a trip to Israel. But you may feel less than confident if called on to explain or defend some of Israel’s controversial policies.
Is Israel is the main source of blame for the lack of a peace agreement with the Palestinians?
How is it that Israel came to control Arabs living in the West Bank?
Why does the United Nations pass so many resolutions critical of Israel?
Are the charges true that the Israeli army is brutal in its methods of warfare?
How would you respond to a BDS protest?
The Mideast is not a burning issue on many college campuses, and some pro-Israel advocacy groups exaggerate the problem so as to enhance their fundraising appeals. But Jerusalem is increasingly on the defensive as countries around the world voice support for the creation of a Palestinian state, and much of the growing anti-Israel sentiment in this country emanates from college campuses.
The truth is that successive Israeli governments have sought to make peace with the Palestinians and have been willing to make major compromises, including ceding territory to make it happen. But each effort has been rejected without a counteroffer, and Palestinian leaders have promoted or allowed violent attacks on Israeli civilians.
Yes, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is complicated, with each side clinging to parallel narratives that never seem to meet. The result is that many young American Jews, confronted with a complex history of charges and counter-charges, simply walk away from the issue rather than explore the facts. It’s especially difficult to respond to a group of passionate anti-Israel advocates on a college campus when you are unsure of what’s true and what isn’t.
That’s why in 2002 The Jewish Week launched an Israel educational program called Write On For Israel to prepare high school juniors and seniors for these types of challenges, giving them the context and confidence to make Israel’s case when they get to college. At the time the second intifada was in full force. We never anticipated that in 2015 the project, which has had more than 400 graduates, would still be necessary. The sad fact, though, is that Write On is needed now more than ever, and a number of pro-Israel education and advocacy groups have come on the scene.
Whether or not you feel you have a solid understanding of modern Israel, you should know that there is a wealth of information available online, in books and in documentary films. For a sampling of sources that offer range and depth in learning more about Israel today, you can check out websites like israeled.org, standwithus.org and myjewishlearning.com; recent best-selling and highly praised books like Yossi Klein Halevi’s “Like Dreamers: The Story of the Israeli Paratroopers Who Reunited Jerusalem and Divided a Nation” and Ari Shavit’s “My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel”; and inspiring new films on the Israel Defense Forces such as “Above and Beyond” and “Beneath The Helmet.”
Your college years are not just about academics and career paths. They are about growth on all levels, including a time to appreciate and deepen your Jewish identity and discover personal ties to the culture, people and society of our ancient homeland. You are likely to find that the rebirth of modern Israel is, if not miraculous, one of the great success stories of the 20th century. It’s about an ancient people reviving the Hebrew language and setting out to fulfill its dream of recreating a state for all Jews. It’s about establishing a safe harbor in a turbulent world, a vibrant democracy where religious tradition and cutting-edge innovation can coexist, not always easily, but with great energy and potential. And all of this taking place in a tiny land surrounded by those hostile to the very concept of a Jewish state in the region.
It’s an inspiring story, but don’t take my word for it. You owe it to yourself to see why your connection to the State of Israel should be viewed as a source of deep pride, even as we strive to see it fulfill its biblical mandate, and ours, to be a light unto the nations.
Enjoy the journey.