Tens of thousands of college students — many on Taglit: Birthright Israel, and others on Masa Israel Journey and other program s— are currently criss-crossing the State of Israel. They will consume literally tons of falafel balls, and walk hundreds of thousands of steps, as they weave their way up the ramps to Masada, and collectively make thousands of visits to iconic sites such as Mount Herzl, Yad Vashem, and the Western Wall.
I just returned to the United States from an extended visit in Israel, including two weeks during which I brought my two children, aged 9 and 11, to Israel for the first time. In many of the places that we visited — Masada at sunrise, Mahane Yehuda on a Friday afternoon, the plaza at the Western Wall, and even the dining hall of Kibbutz Moran in the Galilee — we saw the familiar Birthright lanyards and heard the characteristic patter of young people enjoying the country and one another’s company.
I had the privilege of leading a Birthright trip two summers ago, and the experience has stuck with me. I’ve been able to keep in touch with many of the students on that trip, and even had the opportunity to visit with one while in Jerusalem this past month (she, like several on our trip, has already returned for extended visits to Israel). The 10-day experience for those students was profound, as I hope the experience that my own children had on our trip will be profound for them. But the decisions about how to present the country for first-time visitors — what to see and emphasize — are not easy ones, as my family encountered as much as any trip for college-age kids. Should we visit more archaeological sites, synagogues, and sites of Israeli history? Or should we spend more time rafting, hiking, shopping, and visiting the (admittedly delicious) De Karina chocolate factory? When the primary limiting factor is time — the secondary limiting factor being the energy levels and the ability to sustain focus of young bodies — getting the mix right is tricky.
It’s tricky, too, because so much of Israel’s essence is the overlapping layers of politics, security, history, and everyday life. Is it enough to visit the Caffit cafe on Emek Refaim Street in Jerusalem’s German Colony neighborhood, to have the children enjoy a tasty meal? Or should we also explain to them the history of European “colonies” in Jerusalem? Or point out the security guard at the front door, and mention how one brave restaurant worker saved 50 patrons much like ourselves from a would-be suicide bomber at the very same café just a few years ago?
As we delight in pointing out the signs of Jewish history throughout the land and the telltale eucalyptus trees of the Zionist pioneers, do we also point out the signs of non-Zionist habitation — the olive trees, terraced hills, and prickly pear cactus plants that often indicate non-Jewish inhabitants no longer present? Is it enough to walk the ancient streets of Tzfat, visit the synagogues of Kabbalah mystics and studios of modern-day artists, and see the amusingly creative wax sculptures at Safed Candles? Or should we also spend time relating to the precarious state of the Jewish community in the town — which had already been the victims of a massacre perpetrated by the local Arab community in 1929 — on the eve of Israel’s independence in 1948, when the British officials dividing the town between Jews and Arabs urged Jewish residents to flee for their lives; and, when, in spite of it all, the Jewish defenders of the town were able to save the Jewish community, while many Arab inhabitants of the city fled, including the family of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas? How much detail is enough, and how much is simply too much?
In short, the challenge of framing a visit to Israel is no different in many respects from the challenge that Israel activists face in framing discussions of Israel, whether on campus or elsewhere. How much is providing a positive experience and forming positive memories? How much is imparting factual knowledge? How much is community-building, and how much skill-building?
Ultimately, as I’ve written here previously, effective Israel advocacy follows in many ways the most effective patterns of Jewish practice over generations in seeking a blend of each of these elements. But neither the Jewish tradition nor effective Israel advocacy seek to sugar-coat the reality of Israel’s past and present. Indeed, Israel is all of these things at once — energetic, forward-looking, positive and exciting, but also ancient, rooted in history and meaning for many peoples and faiths, and full of facts that are subject to multiple interpretations over time, just as a historical site becomes significant to many over time. The apocryphal tomb of King David on Mount Zion is simultaneously a Jewish shrine — it gained heightened significance during the division of Jerusalem after Israel’s War of Independence — the purported site of Jesus’s Last Supper, and the site of an Ottoman mosque.
The effective presentation of Israel displays all of these facets, factually as well as engagingly. It does not shy away from those facts that might make us uncomfortable. It embraces complexity, because reality is complicated; and Israel, more than anything else, is not an ideal or abstraction but a real, living place with real, living people. The complexities of Israeli reality are far more engaging and effective as a basis for advocacy than the overly simplified, and ultimately misleading, narrative of Israel detractors. And, indeed, most of the very best Israel advocacy organizations in the campus environment and elsewhere embrace complexity, and expose those whom they seek to engage not only to Israeli Jewish perspectives but also to the perspectives of Israeli and Palestinian Arabs and others. Instead of the old acronym of KISS — “Keep It Simple, Stupid” — effective Israel advocates have learned to keep it complicated. In my family, at least, that still forms an acronym — KICK, or Keep It Complicated, Kuperberg — that reminds us that good, complicated Israel advocacy provides an effective kick in the pants.
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Stephen Kuperberg is executive director of the Israel on Campus Coalition, an organization dedicated to weaving and catalyzing the campus Israel network to create a positive climate regarding Israel on campus, and publisher of Israel Campus Beat.