What Is To Be Done? Educating Jewish Day School Students about Israel

by: Roz Rothstein and Roberta P. Seid

Roz Rothstein is the co-founder and International Director of StandWithUs. Roberta P. Seid, Ph.D., is an historian and the Education/Research Director of StandWithUs.

Recent research has suggested that Jewish students are not as deeply attached to Israel as former generations were. (See https://www.lookstein.org/online_journal/index.php?id=219) Is this true? If so, what can be done about it? What role should Jewish Day Schools play?

StandWithUs [SWU] was founded in 2001 to counter the rising tide of anti-Israel misinformation and bias that came with the Second Intifada. SWU’s mission is education: telling the inspiring story of Israel through proactive programs; challenging misinformation with facts, challenging bias by restoring balance; challenging prejudice and extremism by exposing them.

Although we now create materials for high schools based on our experience, a central thrust of our work has been with students who have already matriculated into college. As a result, we have a unique perspective on how their high schools and communities prepared them to face anti-Israel challenges on the college campus. We believe that schools and communities have both succeeded and failed, and we have developed strategies to reinforce the successes and repair the failures.

Late in 2001, we began receiving phone calls from frantic students who did not know how to handle the ugly and intimidating anti-Israel events on their campuses and the anti-Israel bias in their classrooms. We have worked with an exponentially growing number of students ever since.

We encountered three types of Jewish students who illustrate the successes and failures of our schools and communities. One group was attached to Israel emotionally, but had no idea how to defend it from the onslaught of anti-Israel bias and misinformation. Their backgrounds had successfully instilled an attachment to Israel, but had not educated them or given them the tools to defend and justify that attachment. They simply did not know even elementary facts about modern Israel’s history or its raison d’etre. They were easily shaken by the attacks. The second group had only a vague attachment to Israel, and was even somewhat indifferent to it. They didn’t see how Israel and its fate particularly affected them, their lives or their identity as Jews. Their schools and communities had failed to inspire any attachment to Israel, or to educate them about basic facts. Some of them could then be seduced to enter the third, smaller group that, uninspired and uneducated about Israel, slipped into the ranks of the campus anti-Zionists.

In some ways, these attitudes are a product of the remarkable success of Jewish assimilation in America, and especially of Israel’s remarkable success. Between the 1940’s and the 1970’s, there was awe and excitement about the miracle of Israel’s rebirth and survival. Even the non-Jewish world viewed Jews as the romantic underdog, the survivors who had defied British colonialism and successfully defended themselves against the onslaught of five Arab armies just hours after they declared independent statehood.

Historian Howard Sachar captured the world’s mood. When Israel was admitted to the UN and hoisted its flag there, observers

asked themselves whether only four years had passed since the Star of David had been identified primarily as the seal of doom worn by concentration camp inmates. The rise to independence of history’s most cruelly ravaged people transcended the experience, even the powers of description, of case-hardened journalists and social scientists alike. It appeared somehow as if a new law of nature had been born.

This sense of a resourceful, heroic people fighting insurmountable odds grew as Israel made the desert bloom, absorbed hundreds of thousands of impoverished Jewish refugees from the Middle East and Europe, and built a boisterous democracy that gave equal rights to all religious and ethnic minorities. And it grew yet more with little Israel’s earthshaking military victories in the 1967 and 1973 wars, and with its spectacular rescue of Jewish hostages from Entebbe in 1976.

Throughout these initial two to three decades, the Jewish community rejoiced in the almost magical re-establishment of Israel, and Jews felt a new found pride in being Jewish. Rabbis, day school teachers, and the community as a whole talked about Israel’s founding, and followed news about Israel with rapt attention. There was an outpouring of support in bond drives and other fund-raising efforts, and a profound appreciation and identification with the Jewish State.

But the younger generation did not get this sense. In the 1980’s, Israel began to be regarded as a “given,” a country whose survival was no longer in jeopardy. The miracle had matured into an established state. Complacency set in. Young Jews were taught that they should love Israel, but the focus in many Jewish Day Schools became Jewish culture and debates about religious issues. The fervent attachment to Israel dissipated. Israel was a great place to visit, but it was no longer widely regarded as an extraordinary chapter of 3500 years of Jewish history. Israel had become a major regional power, a close ally of the world’s only superpower, and an economic success.

These remarkable achievements, coupled with the rise of fashionable theories of post-modernism and post-colonialism and their anti-American undercurrents, seemed to put Israel on the wrong side of progressive causes for the first time in its modern history. Many began to invert reality, describing Israel as a Goliath and its enemies as David.

The Second Intifada, which began in September 2000, brought only one blessing. It was a wake-up call that we had not educated the younger generation, not prepared them to defend Israel against the anti-Israel propaganda campaign that erupted on campuses, in classrooms, in the media and elsewhere, not inspired them with love for Israel or pride in Zionism which has become a dirty word in college communities. Israel is under renewed attack, and our young people have not been prepared to meet the challenge.

Our task, and the task of the Jewish Day Schools, is to repair this failure.

These are challenging times that require us to rethink how to offer young people information and inspiration, motivation and connection to Israel, and an understanding of how Israel fits into the long history of the Jewish people, and into the ideals of social justice.

These goals have been SWU’s mission, and we have developed strategies, educational materials, and programs to help achieve them. We hope that Jewish Day Schools will also be on the front lines of these efforts, and make teaching about Israel a priority in their curriculum.

Our own work has focused on three areas.

1. Supplying basic information. We discovered that students and many community members, despite their loyalty to Israel and desire to defend it, did not know basic facts about modern Israel’s founding, size, geography, government and history. As a result, we produced Israel 101, a colorful, 44-page booklet that lays out the facts and provides a broad perspective on how and why Israel was founded, about the wars and terrorism and Israel’s efforts to defend itself, about the society and government Israel created, and about its struggle to establish peace with its neighbors. Jewish Day Schools are invited to use our curriculum or develop similar material that puts the facts within the riveting dramatic narrative that is Israel’s history.

SWU also created a Teacher’s Manual for Israel 101 that provides discussion topics, activities and additional resources such as films and novels that teachers can use for each unit. For example, it provides links to Steven Spielberg’s film archive, which has extraordinary footage of modern Israel’s early years and of Jewish communities world-wide that bring Israeli and Jewish history vividly to life.

We have also created several series of smaller pamphlets and brochures that use photographs to show Israel’s multiculturalism, its cutting edge innovations, and its geographic and cultural diversity. Our timeline, Israel at 3060 (http://tiny.cc/dYL6h), proved especially effective.

Our purpose was not just basic education. We wanted to lay out the simple facts about Israel’s past because they have been so distorted by the anti-Israel campaign, and to restore awareness about some of the forgotten history that is central to Israel’s past, such as the “forgotten Jewish refugees” of the Middle East. These forgotten facts can help win the hearts and minds of students. Finally, we wanted to inspire to students with the breathtaking story of the Jews, dispersed for 2,000 years, joining together to fight what seemed to be insuperable odds to re-establish their national independence. As David Ben Gurion allegedly remarked, “If you don’t believe in miracles, you are not a realist.”

2. Using the anti-Israel accusations to our advantage. Jewish Day Schools should also become more strategic by assessing what their students will encounter when they go to college. SWU turned the anti-Israel campaigns into an advantage. We worked backwards, taking the most common anti-Israel accusations, deconstructing them, and using them to educate and prepare students to defend themselves and Israel.

We learned that college students would hear that Israel is an apartheid state, a Nazi-like state, a racist state, a theocracy, imperialist and colonialist, always plotted to ethnically cleanse Palestinians, and is persecuting Christians and other non-Jews. Students needed to know that these are Orwellian inversions of the facts.

Something positive emerged when we developed rebuttals for these “hot button” topics: students learned that Israel, in fact, struggles to and succeeds in living up to the ideals of Western civilization – liberty, human and civil rights, diversity, the rule of law, humanitarianism. The anti-Israel claims also forced us to produce deeper and more long-range analyses of the Jews and Israel’s past. In short, refuting the anti-Israel accusations instilled new knowledge and new pride about Israel.

SWU developed multiple resources to address these issues, from our Internet resources such as Stand4Facts (http://www.stand4facts.org/) which deconstructs anti-Israel speakers and their arguments to our Know the Facts series of small booklets which cover a range of topics, from comparing the civil and human rights and the freedom of ideas in different countries in the Middle East to Israel’s peculiar relationship with the UN. In all of these materials, we create graphic layouts that make the well researched, documented facts easy to read. We invite Jewish Day Schools to use any or all of these materials, and we will be happy to work them to create materials tailored to their needs.

3. Inspiring students to be pro-Israel. Finally, our penultimate goal has been to instill in students a passion for Israel and a connection to it that will enrich their lives, and will inspire them to stand up for Israel – not with defensiveness, but with pride and confidence and with the knowledge that in doing so, they are standing up for the noblest values.

Anti-Israel campaigners have worked hard to separate Jews and Israel by claiming they only denounce Zionists, and by using anti-Zionist Jews as regulars on the campus lecture circuit. They have also tried to make Israel’s supporters seem to be advocates of non-progressive values. And finally, we have found that many Jewish students seem reluctant to stand up to support their own people as though this is selfish or too parochial.

In addition to the educational materials described above, we have developed several strategies to reverse these trends and to instill passion for and pride in Israel and a profound motivation to defend it –along with the sense that defending it is right and just.

One of our most successful programs has been Learn Israel (http://www.learnIsrael.org) which does not address the conflict or the contentious issues, but rather focuses on Israel’s stellar achievements in technology, medicine, biotechnology, environmental preservation, and other cutting edge innovations. The presentation concludes with how Israel has brought these innovations to people around the world in its many humanitarian programs. We also have developed an accompanying curriculum for elementary school through high school. When some college students at UC Irvine, one of our most problematic campuses, recently saw the program, one Jewish student left the classroom with his eyes shining, saying, “I’ve never been so proud to be Jewish.” A non-Jewish student walked out shaking his head saying, “I had no idea. The Jews are incredible. What a terrific country.”

In addition, we have helped Jewish students by educating them, by organizing conferences with them, by sponsoring knowledgeable guest lecturers, and by providing educational materials that show Israel is on the right side of social justice issues, that show that in defending Israel, one is not just defending one’s own, but also defending cherished values.

We hope that Jewish Day Schools give the study of Israel a central place in their curriculum. SWU is dedicated to partnering with students and teachers. We will do whatever we can to support the critically needed effort to educate students about Israel to ensure they will become informed young adults who are confident and proud about their heritage, their history, and the miracle of Israel’s rebirth and of what it has achieved.

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