The situation is grim, if not alarming: Jerusalem is increasingly on the defensive diplomatically, faced with a United Nations vote for a Palestinian state in September, and a range of outside efforts aimed at undermining the legitimacy of the Jewish State, from boycotts to flotillas. What’s more, there is concern that the circle-the-wagon response in Jerusalem to these threats can lead to more problems; witness the recent passage of anti-boycott resolution in the Knesset that has been widely criticized as undemocratic, even among mainstream Jewish organizations.
True, Israel advocacy groups are proliferating, offering programs, websites and curriculum, many of them first-rate in presenting Jerusalem’s case and countering critics. But at the same time the number of Americans who care about the Jewish State in a more than superficial way is decreasing.
Polls continue to indicate that Americans favor Israel over the Palestinians by wide margins. But the findings also suggest that most Americans would not be willing to have the U.S. involved with either side in the event of a Mideast war. Other surveys find increasing indifference on the topic.
There is a growing recognition among some American Jewish leaders that Israel advocacy is not enough because it provides answers to questions that most people aren’t asking. We need a fresh and creative approach.
First, let me be clear. I am a believer in Israel advocacy and have seen its positive impact, particularly through Write On For Israel, the program sponsored by The Jewish Week with funding from the Avi Chai Foundation. Now in its ninth year, it continues to provide a select group of high school juniors and seniors with the Mideast facts and moral confidence to be effective supporters of Israel on campus. The program has a proven track record of success as our graduates have taken on leadership roles as freshmen and sophomores at colleges around the country.
But the foundation for effective advocacy is education, and there is far too little Modern Israel education in our community. Even top day schools spend far more time focusing on ancient Jewish history than on the complex Mideast events of the 20th century that frame the current conflict.
Could it be that because of our long history as a people, the curriculum never quite makes it to modern times?
Our children learn about the ancient Maccabees but couldn’t tell you much, if anything, about key Zionist leaders like Ben-Gurion, Jabotinsky, Begin and Dayan. Even an authentic, living hero of the Jewish people like Natan Sharansky is little known, and the gap in our educational efforts is taking its toll.
John Ruskay, the executive vice president and CEO of UJA-Federation of New York, says the issue “requires urgent focus.”
“We as a community need to renew Zionist education, an issue we’ve neglected, and we are seeing some of the results with younger people now,” he recently told The Jewish Week. “We are not well served by conflating Israel advocacy and Israel education. Since 1948 we’ve asked people to rally for Israel, and they did. But we didn’t provide the educational frameworks that would allow them to grapple with the challenge of developing their own vision of what Israel can and should be, and working through tough issues. For ultimately, such a process strengthens connection and commitment.
“Too many in our community,” he added, “young and old, are intellectually naked when it comes to the complexity of contemporary Zionist education, and these include many of our future professional and lay leaders.”
The results of the current focus on advocacy rather than education is that mainstream American Jewry is left uninformed and often uninterested when it comes to the complex and troublesome issue of Israel vs. much of the world. And young people who receive an advocacy pitch without a solid grounding in Israel education are particularly prone to having their beliefs challenged and shaken.
As evidence, a study by the Melton Center for Jewish Education at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, first reported on here in February, found that presenting day school students with information on both sides of the Israel issue and letting them draw their own conclusions is more effective than shielding them from criticism or being perceived as forcing on them the “correct” response.
Most students were vague and uncomfortable when asked to define “Zionism,” and were reluctant to describe themselves as Zionists.
Rabbi Donniel Hartman, president of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, asserts that Israel advocacy programs “often fail to achieve their end.
“When the case for Israel is grounded only on a factual narrative,” he wrote in an essay entitled “Engaging Israel: Beyond Advocacy,” “it is often unconvincing to those who hold a counter factual perception. In general, positions are rarely formed purely around facts, but rather by ideological, moral and psychological propensities which then construct factual narratives to reinforce the preexisting commitment.”
Rabbi Hartman argues that the majority of committed American Jews, and especially younger ones, “lack a language to understand or articulate their feelings about Israel” as well as a framework to combat delegitimization campaigns. He maintains that’s because the standard arguments for supporting Israel – a safe haven in event of another Holocaust; the Jewish State is in danger; and Israel is a key ally in the war against evil empires – are irrelevant and no longer apply.
According to Rabbi Hartman (the son of the institute’s founder, Rabbi David Hartman), American Jews feel safe in the U.S., perceive Israel as more Goliath than David, and are not engaged by the notion of America going to war, again.
He has developed a curriculum for his institute offering a “new Israel engagement narrative” that is not crisis-centered but based mostly on “Jewish values” and the notion that Israel is “a work in progress,” one welcoming Jews around the world to help shape.
It’s a thoughtful, sophisticated approach and recognizes that talk about Israel must maintain standards of pluralism, tolerance and morality held dear by American Jews.
It’s good to know that, in addition, other educational institutions are exploring their own ideas about how to present, teach and engage with Israel in ways that reflect the new realities, including a generation of American Jews less emotionally attached to Jerusalem than their parents and grandparents.
There is a recognition taking hold that people’s views on Israel are not just about policies, like settlements, but about people and values and connecting on a personal level. There’s no one magic approach that works for everyone, but it’s clear that advocacy is best when it is grounded in education, and we need a lot more of it.
This idea of thinking of Israel in a new and meaningful way that brings us closer to understanding, appreciating and making real the Zionist dream is not a simple task. But it’s critically important, now — for Israel and for us.