Are Jewish camps too pro-Israel?

A push by an anti-Zionist group to undermine support for Israel isn’t about being even-handed.

Activists with the group IfNotNow. Source: Facebook.
Activists with the group IfNotNow. Source: Facebook.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

According to some young American Jews, it’s time to start telling kids the truth about Israel. Upset about what they consider to be a steady diet of pro-Israel propaganda that ignores the plight of the Palestinians, some who are employed as counselors at various camps have, with the help of the IfNotNow organization, launched an effort to use Jewish summer camps to begin educating their charges about the Palestinian narrative about the conflict. As far as they are concerned, camps and other Jewish institutions need to get on the right side of what they consider the great outrage of our time: indifference to the sins of the “occupation.”

And the place to start, they say, is by educating (or should I say, re-educating) Jewish campers.

Those promoting this effort have all the enthusiasm of youth and the passion of true believers. Seen from their point of view, all they are doing is seeking to put some balance into the education that kids are getting about the Middle East and to tap into the idealism that comes naturally to those involved. And for some of them, their desire to say Kaddish—the Jewish prayer for the dead—for Palestinians who have been killed during the violence in Gaza since IfNotNow’s founding in 2014 seems to embody the sort of universalist approach that resonates with many American Jews.

Activists with the group IfNotNow. Source: Facebook.

But camp directors, donors, parents, and most especially, the impressionable kids this group is out to influence shouldn’t be deceived. What this effort represents is not balance, but imbalance when it comes to truth about Israel and the Palestinians. Indeed, rather than point up how badly the official Jewish community is misleading Jewish kids about what’s going on in the Middle East, this story is a reminder of how our institutions of learning are failing at giving children any education at all about Israel that is worth anything.

What’s more, it also represents the problems associated with the Jewish community’s obsession with preserving a big tent encompassing every possible view, even if it means sacrificing important principles such as support for Zionism.

Irrespective of any debate about the desirability of a more even-handed approach to the conflict, the group organizing the effort by these counselors is not a trustworthy resource.

IfNotNow professes to be neutral about Zionism, the right to a Jewish state or the BDS movement. But not having an opinion about efforts to deny Jews the same rights that left-wingers would never think of denying to others isn’t being neutral; it’s part of a campaign to undermine support for Israel irrespective of its policies or where its borders are drawn. While the group and its supporters keep talking about the “occupation,” the problem is that we don’t know exactly what they’re talking about.

The people they’ve been so interested in saying Kaddish for—Hamas members killed in the fighting in Gaza while assaulting Israel’s border en masse during so-called “Marches of Return” aren’t confused about the meaning of the term. When they say “occupation,” they’re not referring to Israel’s presence in the territories it occupied in a defensive war of survival in 1967. They’re talking about all of Israel, including the territory inside the 1967 lines.

IfNotNow can’t claim to be just a garden-variety advocate for a two-state solution. Trusting its supporters to teach kids wouldn’t so much facilitate a more open discussion as it would promote a debate about whether Jews had any rights at all to live in peace in their own homeland—or to defend themselves against people who aim to do them harm.

To resist the group’s efforts to impact programming at Jewish camps is not the same thing as insisting on spoon-feeding kids only one side of the complex history of the conflict. IfNotNow’s consciousness-raising about “occupation” isn’t about hearing both sides; it’s about shoving down children’s throats a narrative about Jews colonizing the indigenous people of the country, rather than teaching them about Zionism being the national liberation movement of the Jewish people that rebuilt the Jewish homeland.

Yet the real problem at the heart of this controversy is the notion that Jewish kids have only been given one side of the story up until now.

To the contrary, most children at Jewish schools (both day schools and those at synagogues) and camps are hardly being taught anything about Israel, or the facts about the century-old war that has been waged against Zionism and the Jews. That’s why most of them are hopelessly ignorant about things that Israeli peers grow up understanding—no matter what their politics might be. The overwhelming majority of American Jews are unprepared when faced with the sort of anti-Israel propaganda they’ll face on many college campuses. All IfNotNow seeks to do is give them a head start on being indoctrinated in the catechism of Israel’s creation as original sin and Israeli self-defense as an atrocity under just about any circumstances.

What Jewish kids need is not propaganda, but solid nuanced education about the conflict that enables them to know the facts and understand the arguments before making up their own minds. So rather than just push back at this effort, this should serve as a wake-up call to schools and camps that they’ve got to do more and do better when it comes to teaching young people about Israel.

As much as it is easy to fall for the argument that this is just a bunch of idealistic Jewish kids who want to do the right thing, letting IfNotNow get a foothold in mainstream Jewish camps is the antithesis of supporting Jewish values. Kids shouldn’t be sheltered from the truth about a difficult issue. But neither should they be entrusted to people who seek to undermine support for a Jewish state—period. Parents and camp administrations need to ensure that this insidious effort to undermine rather than supplement Jewish education is stopped in its tracks.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS — Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.

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