Last Sunday, at the final seminar of the semester for the Write On For Israel class of 2022, a piece of heartfelt but troubling advice to the students from one of the guest speakers drove home for me the depth and seriousness of anti-Israel sentiment in our society today.
The speaker, a former college admissions officer, is an alum of Write On, the two-year Jewish Week program that has helped educate and prepare high school students for the Mideast debate on campus since 2002. (Nearly 1,000 students from public, private and Jewish day schools have graduated from the program; founded with the support of the Avi Chai Foundation, its chief sponsor today is the Paul E. Singer Foundation.)
In responding to a question about whether the students, currently juniors in high school, should highlight their involvement with Write On and deep engagement with Israel in their college admissions essays, she began: “I hate to say this … it’s not what I’ve been telling Write On students the last six years when I speak to the group, and I would not have said this two weeks ago, but I think you should avoid controversy in your essays.”
She went on to explain that in the current climate, “it’s not just Israel, but any topic that is highly controversial” might have a negative effect on admissions staffs in the highly competitive quest for placement.
Clearly pained by her own advice, the woman, who in the past encouraged students to “write your truth,” said that if students “feel the need to write about Israel,” they should focus on how they have learned to engage in difficult conversations in a respectful manner, acquired qualities of leadership, and shown willingness to embrace diversity and be open-minded.
One key question that admissions officers ask themselves in reading college essays, she said, was “can you be a good roommate? That’s the litmus test.”
The speaker was being sincere, honest and focused on helping students gain acceptance into the colleges of their choice. But I was left with the lingering question: Can you be a good roommate if you’re a Zionist?
More and more, and especially in the wake of the most recent Israel-Hamas conflict, the answer for many college students may well be “no.”
I shouldn’t have been surprised.
For some time now, we’ve been aware that Jewish students – not just Zionists – are being marginalized from a variety of liberal activities on a relatively small but influential number of U.S. campuses.
“Intersectionality” is the term du jour, meaning that categories of race, class and gender are seen as “overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination and disadvantage,” according to the dictionary. In practical terms, groups that promote progressive causes, minorities, social justice, LGBTQ students, etc. tend to perceive Jewish students as “privileged” and “white,” and thus excluded. The Israel-Palestinian conflict only heightens the tensions.
According to the new Pew Research Center study on American Jews, younger Jews are less inclined to come to the defense of the Jewish State than their elders.
The troubling trend is not new, but it is increasing.
Young Jewish adults (ages 18-29) “are less emotionally attached to Israel than older ones,” the report found. “As of 2020, half of the Jewish adults under age 30 describe themselves as very or somewhat emotionally attached to Israel (48 percent), down from 60 percent in 2013.
In addition, 13 percent of young Jews support BDS (the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign against Israel).
There are numerous reasons one can cite for these disturbing statistics, ranging from the fact that younger people in general are moving further left, to the policies of an increasingly right-wing Israeli government led for the last 12 years by a prime minister on trial for fraud and bribery and closely associated with Donald Trump.
In recent days we are seeing that many Americans, including Jews, see direct parallels between the struggles of African Americans in the U.S. and Palestinians in the Mideast. They get most of their information – and misinformation – from social media, which is subject to false narratives and emotional videos that portray the suffering of Gazans without explaining that Hamas, whose charter calls for the death of Israel and all Jews, initiated the conflict.
In an increasingly binary and toxic atmosphere, you are either pro-Palestinian or pro-Israel; there is no room for historical facts, complexity, nuance or appreciating that one can be both a fervent supporter of the Jewish state and critic of some of its policies – just as many Americans love their country while disagreeing with the administration in Washington.
‘Fervent Debate is Good for Israel’
Another critical factor is that the great majority of young American Jews are woefully under-educated about modern Israeli history and culture.
John Ruskay, former CEO of UJA-Federation of New York, believes the Jewish community is too focused on Israel advocacy and not enough on Jewish education. In a paper he wrote recently for the Jewish Policy Planning Institute, a Jerusalem-based think tank, he asserted that “the conflation of Israel advocacy and Israel education has resulted in growing numbers of North American Jews ill prepared to understand and negotiate the complexity of contemporary Israel.”
Ruskay adds that “leadership avoids investing in substantive Israel education and as a result, the drift continues, gulfs widen, large numbers turn away.”
He told me the issue calls for “massive investment” from Israel and American Jewish organizations and foundations, beyond funding. The goal would be to convince the community that “fervent debate is good for Israel” and can “strengthen connection and engagement.”
Avoiding the difficult and complex issues and only presenting one side of the Israel narrative results in more and more young American Jews hearing “the other side” for the first time on college campuses, leading them to often ask, “why didn’t they tell us?”
Ruskay acknowledges that in encouraging debate over “core assumptions and policies” regarding Israel, the process will be “messy and noisy,” but he believes it will lead people to develop their own visions of “what Israel can and should be.” Otherwise, he worries, “more and more Jews turn away – not in anger, not as opponents – but because there is simply no place within our community to grapple with the complexity and contemporary Israel.”
Wonders and Dilemmas
Write On For Israel, committed to that struggle, has walked a fine line between advocacy and education from its beginning, in 2002, at the height of the Second Intifada. At the time, with suicide bombers killing Jewish men, women and children at an alarming rate, the issues seemed more stark, and advocacy was strong. Over the years, though, as events made Israeli life less dramatic but more complicated, Write On has championed education as primary. There has been a recognition that tough issues must be confronted rather than avoided. Visits to Israel, which are part of the Write On curriculum, have focused on both the wonders and dilemmas of the Jewish State.
“The challenges have increased, but so have the rewards,” noted Linda Scherzer, who has directed Write On from the beginning. “We continue because it’s important,” noting that she still hears from early graduates of the program, now in their mid-30s, who describe the two-year experience as pivotal to their Jewish identity.
But the goal is always to find a balance between love of Zion and the realities of Israeli society, understanding and appreciating both.
During the Write On session last Sunday, which was on Zoom, an instant poll found that 94 percent of the students said they were getting most of their Mideast news on social media, much of it critical of Israel, and that only a small percentage were responding to it.
Should they be more engaged?
Charlotte Korchak, an American-born senior educator of StandWithUs, an Israel advocacy program, provided context on the conflict and advice on how to counter some of what she called “the overwhelming onslaught” of accusations on social media – including from popular celebrities like Trevor Noah and John Oliver – that portray Israel as an apartheid state, guilty of racism, colonialism and ethnic cleansing. She also said the students could be most effective in engaging friends who spout these false views on social media by sending them private messages offering to talk about the issues. “Explain that you can be pro-Palestinian and pro-Israel,” she said.
In an end-of-year wrap-up in the closing moments of the three-and-a-half-hour program, several Write On students reported that they appreciated feeling encouraged, as one girl said, “to make room for other voices, see both sides and advocate our own views.”
That was deeply satisfying to hear, but the road is long and steep, and the trend lines are going the other way. The time for communal action is now.
Gary Rosenblatt was editor and publisher of The Jewish Week from 1993 to 2019. Follow him at garyrosenblatt.substack.com, where this essay first appeared.