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A generational divide around antisemitism and Israel

Our news cycles in recent weeks have been filled even more than usual with antisemitic incidents, Holocaust related controversies, and anti-Israel diatribes. Like other Jewish adults, I want our youth to be as outraged as we are when we see blatant distortions, ignorance, hatred and violence perpetuated against Jews. As an educator, I also want our Jewish youth to be knowledgeable and empowered to stand up against antisemitism and anti-Zionism wherever it manifests itself.

But as someone who has worked with, studied and researched teens for the better part of the last three decades, I also have some rather sobering news to share: Just because adults want youth to think and feel a certain way about something doesn’t mean that they do or will. In fact, the inverse might be true: when adults loudly demand that youth think and act just like their parents and grandparents, the likelihood increases that young people will “walk the other way.” This phenomenon isn’t new, although older generations should be aware of other tendencies that Gen Z displays as well.

More than merely a reminder that youth won’t do something just because they’re told to, this reality also informs good pedagogy. When an adult suggests that the issues facing the Jewish people and Israel today are simple or “black and white,” I hear an adult telling others, including youth, that any deviation from how the adult views those issues is a naive, misguided, and just plain wrong perspective. This approach fails to acknowledge that the adult has had a lifetime to reach these conclusions while inappropriately projecting their perspectives onto our youth, seemingly without room for question.

Moreover, recent weeks’ events are a reminder that although some people’s connection to Jewishness increases when they feel under attack, hatred and fear alone rarely leads to the development of thick Jewish attachment. Certainly, we all would like more youth to become Jewish advocates, philanthropists, and inspired activists. But those noble roles are rarely one’s first entry point into Jewish life. More often than not, good education is.

This generational divide around antisemitism and Israel is reflected in almost every sociological and attitudinal survey conducted about young Jews today. It also was apparent following my recent podcast interviewing my teacher and colleague Dr. Barry Chazan. In a wide-ranging conversation, Chazan articulated his view that Israel education is first and foremost about the learner, and not primarily about Israel. I agree, but not just about Israel education. All good education must first and foremost be about the learner.

Among the feedback I received was an anticipated response from a professional colleague:

“Hi David, I just listened to Jewish Education and the Gift of Thinking, a conversation with Barry Chazan. I listened to the whole thing but went back and listened a few times…where you are talking about Israel education. Dr. Chazan reiterates his perspective that Israel education is not about Israel, it’s about the learner…. I’m just curious, with a dramatic increase in anti-Semitism, and a troubling rise of anti-Zionism among younger Jews (something my lay leadership is very concerned about), how would you reconcile Chazan’s approach to Israel education in the current environment we are living in? I can’t tell you the amount of pressure we are under to “do something.” … I can hear some of my lay leaders hearing Chazan say this, including some of the Israelis I work with, and possibly being flabbergasted. I’m curious on your thoughts about this.”

To be clear, I believe that all good education should be learner-centered education. Traditional, frontal, and more didactic forms of pedagogy have their place in education. On their own, however, they rarely lead to the desired outcomes most of us aspire to from Jewish learning. It is also a mis-read of John Dewey, Barry Chazan and countless others to suggest that a learner-centered approach to education disregards knowledge, skills, and curriculum. This approach simply prioritizes helping learners grow and be transformed; acquisition of skills and knowledge comes after that.

These principles hold true for Israel and Jewish education. Telling youth what to know, think, and do about Israel or antisemitism might make adults feel good. But true learning and education is experienced only once a learner reaches conclusions for themselves and incorporates them into their worldview.

We know how to implement this approach—and we know how to do this well. So, if you’re a concerned Jewish adult, if you desperately want youth today to be more knowledge about Israel and to stand up against antisemitism, invest in that which we know works. As just one example, send your children—or help send others—on an educational trip to Israel. There they will discover Israel for themselves, in all its beauty and challenges. Most importantly, they will develop their own relationship with Israel and not merely inherit someone else’s.

For Jewish education to “work,” whatever “work” might mean to you, it must be proactive. It must focus first and foremost on the learner, not what you believe might be best for them. Do not wait for the next incident to get riled all over again. Invest today so that you will not feel this frustration again tomorrow.

About the Author
David Bryfman, PhD, is CEO of The Jewish Education Project in New York. He hosts the weekly livecast, Adapting: The Future of Jewish Education.
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