3 more things we do wrong when we talk to our kids about Israel

We want our children to be close to Israel, to understand and accept its triumphs and its flaws, not just for Israel’s sake, but because it strengthens us as a community
Customers enjoy dining at restaurants after they were recently re-opened, in Tel Aviv on March 07, 2021. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Customers enjoy dining at restaurants after they were recently re-opened, in Tel Aviv on March 07, 2021. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

I was honored to get many kind notes from my piece Three Things We Do Wrong When We Talk to Our Kids About Israel. I also appreciated getting some very thoughtful feedback and suggestions of what I had overlooked. With gratitude to my critics, I am pleased to offer three more things we do wrong when we talk to our kids about Israel.

We pretend Israel is perfect.

The urge to lionize Israel is understandable. The existence of modern-day Israel is a miracle that our ancestors – as recently as a couple of generations ago – could only dream of, and a reality that far too many of our brothers and sisters have laid down their lives to protect. What’s more, no other country is subject to such vituperative criticism (and existential threats), although in reality, we know Israel to be an oasis of democracy in a desert of dictatorships. Why get down into the mud of the country’s flaws when there is so much good we can highlight for our children?

Because our rosy narrative fails the only test that matters: inspiring our children to love Israel as we do.

According to the 2021 Pew survey, barely a third of American Jews under 30 said that Israel was an important part of their Jewish identity, and one in four said it played no role at all. Any honest examination of the issue suggests a re-think of what we are doing wrong.

I work for The Jewish Agency for Israel, an organization entirely enmeshed with Israel’s history. There may be a day that I can walk the halls of our headquarters in Jerusalem without people bumping into me as I stop to read plaques about former Jewish Agency leaders David Ben Gurion and Golda Meir, but that day has not yet come. Yet even I must recognize that Israel’s leaders, like those of every nation on Earth, have sometimes made decisions that weren’t fully in accordance with the highest ideals of the Jewish state.

We must tell our children not only of Israel’s triumphs, but also of its struggles. We should share the stories of the difficult aspects of Israel’s history and current social challenges throughout the country’s varied sectors. The struggle of fundamentally good people forced to make hard decisions is far more compelling than a fairytale of perfect people inventing smartphones and cherry tomatoes. And from a purely strategic level, the first time that our children hear of these events should not be from people who will cast them in the worst possible light.

My parents brought me up to love Israel, and I am eternally grateful to them. I am also grateful to the Israeli counselors at Camp Young Judaea who raised the harder issues, making me reconcile my idealism and Zionism. They had faith that I would come to love Israel for its flaws. We should extend the same courtesy to our children.

We forget that Israel is fun.

This is hard for me to admit, but I’m beginning to suspect that many kids are not interested in reading biographies of Ze’ev Jabotinsky. Rather, they want to experience life.

Fortunately, Israel has so much to offer them. It is a young country with the average age of its citizens being 30.5. Compare that to America at 38.5, the UK at 40.4 and France at 42.3. The streets of Israeli cities pulse with young life.

When I talk to participants from The Jewish Agency’s Masa Israel Journey, an immersive program enabling thousands of young Jews to spend several months in Israel, they sometimes speak of the uniqueness of the Old City. But nearly every single one of them talks about coffee shops in Tel Aviv or spending weekends in the north with new friends. They hum along to Israeli pop songs and have a favorite place to get sabich.

Since not every young Jew will spend significant time in Israel, we at The Jewish Agency are committed to bringing Israel to them. This summer, thousands of our young Israeli emissaries will come to American summer camps. They will play a role more important than any diplomat and joyfully bring Israel to life for our kids.

We forget that Israel’s story is our story.

To be Jewish is to be part of an unbroken chain spanning millennia. For thousands of years, our people yearned and prayed together for Israel. Although many of us are also proud citizens of other great countries, we must never relinquish the special bond – that passes through Israel — that makes us who we are.

A few months ago, perhaps it felt antiquated to speak of Israel as a refuge for imperiled Jews. As Israel welcomes 25,000 new Jewish citizens from Ukraine, Russia and Belarus, it no longer feels that way. Before 2022 comes to a close, 3,000 Ethiopians will join their relatives in Israel and make a new home in the Jewish state. We North American Jews are a proud part of that story. Most of us did nothing to deserve the good fortune that allows us to live in peace, security, and prosperity, but we recognize, and indeed embrace, our obligation to our fellow Jews who find themselves in vastly different circumstances.

The Jewish Agency Chair of the Board Michael Siegal once told me, “to be a Jew is to never be alone.” He is right on so many levels. But while tikkun olam and love of community are part of that equation, there is absolutely no question that the Jewish state is a strong part as well. We want our children to be close to Israel not just for Israel’s sake, but because it strengthens us as a community as well.

About the Author
Dan Elbaum is head of North America at The Jewish Agency for Israel and the president and CEO of Jewish Agency International Development.
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