Antisemitism, Anti-Zionism, and Jewish Education
Anti-Zionism and anti-Israel sentiments are so prevalent that if students have not encountered them as of yet, whether on social media or in person, they are sure to have to grapple with them when they begin their post-high school experience. It would be a great disservice to them if we do not prepare them adequately, and it is the nature of that preparation which will determine our students’ abilities to feel confident in the face of antisemitic anti-Zionist attacks. The questions are how and in what context to do that preparation.
Even before we begin to explore the above questions, we need to understand just how complicated the issue is. Perhaps we need to begin by identifying two important facts about anti-Zionism.
- Not all anti-Israel sentiment is anti-Zionism. If the arguments are specific to a particular government’s policies and not to the undermining of Israel as a Jewish state, then such critical voices are already part of the vibrancy of Israeli democracy today. Of course, there is always the question of whether Jews living outside of Israel should participate in that critique, but suffice it to say that critique from a place of desire to improve is not anti-Zionist.
- Not all anti-Zionism is antisemitism. Since the establishment of political Zionism in the late 1800s, a significant number of Jews and—especially important from an educational perspective—a significant number of Jewish movements and organizations have been anti-Zionist. Idealogues among them have used arguments ranging from halakha to anti-nationalism, from messianism to communism, from anti-separatism to assimilationism, and none can objectively be identified as antisemitic.
Second, we need to acknowledge the relative paucity of resources we have at our disposal. Jews have been dealing with antisemitism for a long time, and professionally for nearly a century. By contrast, the current anti-Zionism is relatively new and there are limited resources available.
Third, internal philosophical debate within the Jewish community makes it difficult to formulate clear paths to provide the necessary resources. For example, Jews outside of Israel are just as divided as Jews inside Israel regarding the optimal political horizons for the Jewish State. There is no consensus on critical issues such as one state vs two states, carrots vs sticks, pride vs practicality, hope vs fear. According to the 2020 Pew Study of American Jews, only 35% of 18-29 year olds believe that caring about Israel is essential to being Jewish. In many cases, Israel is no longer the source of unity but has become a lightning rod for fierce internal debate.
Perhaps one of the most important things to consider in how to teach about Israel, and how to help our students understand if what they are hearing about Israel is antisemitic, is the language used. Language can be highly contentious and carries subtle, or not so subtle, messages. The language used by everyone involved is loaded—occupied land, liberated land, or disputed land—what does each mean, what do they imply, and what prejudices does each reveal or try to engender? Are the people being criticized in Israel described as Israelis, Israeli Jews, or Jews, and what difference does it make? When students learn to recognize the subtleties, the coded messages conveyed by language, they can begin to make sense out of what they are reading and hearing.
The context in which anti-Zionism is examined can have a significant impact. If taught as its own unit, it can receive proper attention but will likely be missing context. Presented as an extra-curricular unit can have the benefits of attracting the most interested students, but the disadvantage of the lack of exposure to the broader student body. Taught as part of a class on Israel and Zionism could be valuable as it can provide an important foil to the narrative being explored, but caution should be given to it becoming too much of an interruption to that narrative.
All this leads to the central issue of content, which is integrally connected to the question of why we are teaching about Israel at all. If we are looking to understand why Israel was a necessity, that would involve a historical approach and an examination of the early Zionist philosophies. If we are interested in our students taking pride in Israel, we could explore Israel’s success as the little-nation-that-could-despite-all-the-odds, start-up nation, Israeli contributions to medicine, climate, sustainability, irrigation, the arts, literature, resource management, culture, ethical codes of its military, and humanitarian efforts around the world.
If, however, we are interested in teaching about Israel so that our students are prepared to deal meaningfully with anti-Zionism, then we must supplement those other areas with additional exploration. They need to understand how Israel deals with its minorities—primarily Christians, Muslims, Bedouins, and Druze. They need to understand the language and perspective that the Palestinians take on the events of 1948 and 1967, on the Oslo accords and the Intifada, on terrorists and freedom fighters. They need to hear the voices of those who have no access to citizenship and few rights, whose lives—including freedom of movement and the ability to earn a living—are currently governed and limited by a government imposed on them. Understanding the complexities enables students to hear the other side without feeling threatened, to separate fact from fiction, and to respond meaningfully.
The question of when to begin teaching this complexity is not a simple one. Many have argued that it needs to begin in the teen years, after students have already built an emotional bond with Israel and when they are developmentally capable of dealing with multi-faceted and complicated issues. Perhaps that needs to be rethought. Students cannot afford to wait until their teen years to learn that Israel “is complicated,” and many leave Jewish educational environments before they hit their teens. That would leave students completely unprepared for the realities they will face—even in their teen years—in school, on the playground, and in every public venue in which they interact with the broader world. Their pollyannish perspective on the mythical, magical, pristine Israel of the rose-colored glasses will quickly be challenged and shattered, leaving them prone to the antisemitic and anti-Zionist voices surrounding them.
Accomplishing this education requires investment in curriculum, in teacher-training, in school hours, and in professional support. It may be difficult, but it is necessary.
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