I can recall my sophomore year at the University of California Berkeley vividly. Many of us participated in interviews and discussions about studying abroad during our junior year. Those thinking about studying in Israel discussed the recent assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin at the hands of another Jewish Israeli. What was striking was the number of young Jewish people on campus who assumed this was the first time that a Jewish Israeli had ever killed another Jewish Israeli. Nobody had heard of such a thing. Israel was supposed to be a utopia for Jews. Sure, Israelis argued with one another, but killing each other? That wasn’t the Israel people had grown up hearing about. While it is true that Israel’s homicide rate is relatively low—there are between 100 and 200 people, on average, murdered every year—utopia it is not.
This represents the fundamental problem with Israel education in the Jewish community in North America. Parents talk glowingly of the indigenous homeland that they love. However, most Jewish parents outsource their children’s education about Israel to Hebrew schools and/or Jewish camps. They think it’s taken care of: “I send my kids to Hebrew school; they’ll be fine!”
There is one major problem with this: They don’t teach about Israel in any significant way at most Hebrew schools or Jewish summer camps. They teach primarily about Judaism. It’s been this way since before I was born, and it’s still that way now.
I see this with my nephews. Growing up in Los Angeles, both went to Jewish pre-school and kindergarten, then Hebrew school from first grade through their bar mitzvahs. They also attended Jewish summer camp since they could walk—first Jewish day camp and then Jewish sleepaway camp. Yet they don’t know a thing about Israel, its founding, its history or the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Sure, they can tell you about all the stories in the Bible: The Maccabees and Hannukah, Queen Esther and Purim, the exodus from Egypt and Moses. They know the songs and can sing them with gusto. They also, of course, know everything there is to know about the horrors of the Holocaust. They have read Elie Wiesel’s Night and The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank. My oldest nephew looks like he could be Frank’s twin brother. I kid you not. So, it’s not like they are too fragile to learn about Israel.
Hebrew schools and Jewish summer camps don’t teach about Herzl, Jabotinsky, Begin, Golda, Ben-Gurion and Rabin. They don’t teach about the breakup of the Ottoman Empire or the Balfour Declaration. They don’t teach about the San Remo Conference, the Hebron Massacre, the White Papers, the Irgun, the Peel Commission and the United Nations’ vote for partition. They don’t teach about the PLO, Black September, Hamas, Gaza, the first intifada, the second intifada and UNRWA. They don’t teach about 1948, 1967, 1973 and 2000. And they certainly don’t teach about the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement or Arab-Israelis and the Abraham Accords. Instead, they are only told Israel is a magical land. Utopia.
Jewish kids must understand what the BDS movement is before they set foot on campus. Young Jews growing up in America tend to be liberal and progressive, like most young people in America today at the universities the majority of Jewish kids will attend. A recent survey of Harvard graduates found that 34% support BDS. In comparison, just 21% oppose it, with the rest not having enough information to decide, while 78% of students also considered themselves “progressives.”
The BDS movement’s rhetoric is salient because it has reinvented itself with the language of progressive causes. Activists suggest that to stand for social justice, environmental change, women’s rights, the LGBTQ+ community and indigenous peoples is to stand with the Palestinians. They have also coopted all these causes with duplicitous aims.
BDS doesn’t mention that they were created as a political weapon that seeks the demonization, delegitimization and eventual elimination of the State of Israel. That doesn’t sound very progressive. So instead, the BDS movement presents a black-and-white narrative, insinuating that Israel is uniquely evil.
However, many boycott activists are no longer hiding their true aims. For instance, the leading BDS organization at the City University of New York (CUNY), Within Our Lifetime, openly supports Palestinian militant groups and proclaims that “they don’t want two states; they want all of it.” BDS, in general, also explicitly rejects “coexistence” and working with progressive groups if those groups don’t embrace “co-resistance” to dismantle the State of Israel.
In reality, it is Zionism and Israel that have brought progressive change to the Middle East. As I recently wrote in a piece for Sapir, Israel is the remarkable story of a conquered and colonized people miraculously reestablishing a country in their indigenous homeland—a country that has brought democracy to a region that has known only kings, dictators and theocracies. It’s a country in which the environment is protected, where there is socialized health care and where the LGBTQ+ community is flourishing even as members of this community are violently persecuted in every other country in the Middle East, including Palestinian-ruled areas. Israel is also a country in which a woman was elected prime minister within 20 years of the founding of the state and where minorities run the country’s biggest bank and sit on the country’s Supreme Court and in its governing coalition. This is all unimaginable in any other country in the Middle East.
Your kids also need to understand the interplay between anti-Semitism and Israel. More than 80% of American Jews say Israel is an essential or important part of what being Jewish means to them. But if Israel is deemed to be a racist, apartheid state on campus, and our children support that state, then they are accused of supporting apartheid and racism. This accuses our children of being complicit in evil, as only those who are truly deplorable would support such hate. This twisted logic allows anti-Israel activists to justify condemning and ostracizing our children.
No country has been demonized by the world in such a coordinated and calculated way, and for such an extended time, as Israel. One need only look at voting patterns at the U.N. as evidence. In over 65% of instances in which a member state is criticized in a U.N. General Assembly Resolution, that state is Israel, with no other member state being criticized in more than 10% of resolutions. The Palestinian question also concerns roughly a third of all resolutions voted on at each General Assembly session. Since its inception, the U.N. Human Rights Council has condemned Israel on more than 90 occasions, with Syria a distant second at 35 and North Korea in third at just 13. If Abba Eban, one of the most gifted and articulate speakers to ever walk the halls of the U.N., could not change minds in its chambers regarding Israel, what chance do our children have, especially if they are not prepared?
Anti-Israel activists are trying to rewrite history. If our children don’t understand that history, they will fall victim to the fallacious vitriol spewed in their direction.
Anti-Israel activists have changed the language of discourse. As Dr. Einat Wilf recently noted, there has been a transition from the “Arab-Israeli Conflict” to the “Israeli-Palestinian Conflict” and then from “occupation” to “apartheid,” all of which is designed to gradually erase the memory of the original Arab goal of eradicating Israel and denying the state any legitimacy. Instead of Israel being an island of a few million Jews surrounded by hundreds of millions of Arabs, Jews are now seen as the majority oppressors. Israel is now called an apartheid state with no right to exist. In the BDS narrative, there is no solution except the eradication of Israel, and the Palestinians are merely innocent victims of manufactured colonialist oppression.
BDS activists also encourage their peers to see Israel through America’s racial lens, over-simplifying the conflict in an effort to make it familiar to Americans. They claim the issue is about white supremacy and white people oppressing people of color. The fact that a majority of Jewish Israelis are from the Middle East, that Israel contains a large Ethiopian community and that Americans couldn’t tell a Palestinian from an Israeli if their life depended on it, does not matter. Palestinian nationalism is celebrated, while Jewish nationalism is villainized.
My nephews almost resent Israel already because their parents talk about the country in glowing terms. It’s a land they know essentially nothing about beyond that it is the Jewish homeland. But you know who does know all about Israel? Young Palestinian and Arab children growing up in North America. They grow up learning the history of the “Nakba,” Palestine and all the talking points that come with this. They have been indoctrinated with them since birth.
When these two groups of children eventually meet on a college campus, the Jewish kids are outmatched. The Arab kids wax poetic while the Jewish kids look on dumbfounded.
This is precisely what happened to (at least) one of the founders of the anti-Israel group IfNotNow. She talks about this openly—how she showed up at UC Berkeley thinking Israel was a utopia, and then Palestinian students destroyed her, making her think everything she believed about Israel was a lie.
The fact that these anti-Israel students were perpetuating misinformation didn’t matter. She had no retort. She wasn’t prepared. She was let down by all the Jewish parents who relied on Hebrew schools and summer camps to do their job. Trust me, your kids aren’t ready for the war zones and hostility awaiting them when they get to college. At best, they will feel defeated. At worst, they will be calling Israel an apartheid state at your next Shabbat dinner: the opposite of your utopia.
As the proverb goes, it’s late to begin digging a well when you are already feeling thirsty.
Parents need to stop relying on Hebrew schools to educate their children about Israel, and start teaching them about Israel before they get to college—whether at home, through high school organizations like Club Z and StandWithUs, through sending them on month-long ulpans in Israel during high school or by taking them to Israel and having them learn about its history firsthand. They need to know the talking points—the good and the bad. They need to know the narratives and the counter-narratives. And they need to understand both Israeli and Palestinian history—the land’s history. We need to give them a fighting chance. And while we should not rely solely on Hebrew schools, we must encourage them to adopt an Israeli history education program.
As Sun Tzu said: “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, you will also suffer defeat for every victory gained. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.”
Protect your Shabbat table. The ball is in your court, don’t fumble.
Ari Ingel is an attorney and the Director of Creative Community for Peace. You can follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/OGAride.
This article was originally published by Jewish Journal.
Be a part of our community
JNS serves as the central hub for a thriving community of readers who appreciate the invaluable context our coverage offers on Israel and their Jewish world.
Please join our community and help support our unique brand of Jewish journalism that makes sense.