Yehuda Kurtzer

For Israel engagement on campus: Coaches, not cheerleaders

Students engage best with Israel through big questions of identity and belonging, not defensive talking points

School is back in session, and amidst all the excitement of new beginnings there is a mounting, murmuring anxiety for what awaits Jewish students on college campus this year in the wake of the summer’s war.

Some of this concern is well founded. Two isolated incidents – one in Athens at Ohio Universitythe second at Temple University – demonstrated the perversity and repugnancy of anti-Israel vitriol, whether in the form of a publicity stunt gone awry or resorting to violence to silence a provocative debate. A perfect storm seems to be assembling against the forces of pro-Israel.

On one side, the situation on campus combines an academic culture that leans far left on issues relating to Israel-Palestine, the high visibility over the summer of what was perceived by some as a disproportionate war, and Israel’s growing isolation in parts of the West. At the same time, the Jewish student body that cares about these issues seeks to maintain a combination of a deep relationship with Israel, to be Jewishly visible, and to be fully integrated as Jews in the life of the campus. Mapping this new reality against this aspiration creates dissonance and discomfort, and many of my own conversations with leaders in Jewish campus life have borne out these concerns about what may unfold this fall.

Nevertheless, there is a strategic error already starting to emerge in the Jewish community’s predictable response to these concerns, which places the entirety of emphasis on the facts and fictions of the war, and proffers only a militaristic and defensive response in what is ultimately a conflict of ideas. We can already see it coming, in talking points and flashy brochures (“Five Facts College Students Need to Know About the War in Gaza,” and the like) that seek to educate retrospectively about a conflict whose optics (we are Goliath, they are David) are not on Israel’s side. This instinct is born of defensive thinking: it suggests that when it comes to Israel education, our goals are to explain and defend practices that have already happened, or to reframe the historical realities that have befallen us that are outside our control.

This instinct is problematic in three ways. First, it ironically undermines the core goals of Zionism, which meant to engage the Jewish people in the exercise of being agents of change with respect to our own political, social, cultural, and economic realities. Zionism intended to bridge concrete activism toward Jewish national aspirations with the ongoing act of imagination about the ideal forms that those national aspirations should take. Substituting passive (and worse, retroactive) support in exchange for these activities of imagination replaces participation with a thin patriotism, and substitutes deep belonging for hollow particularism. Zionism and taking Israel seriously should demand of us a willingness to confront what Israel does well and what it does not do well, and should empower us to be change-agents in making possible the Israel we imagine.

Second, this defensive approach tends to reduce our morality to Manichaeism. In this worldview, which is sadly emerging as a louder voice in the Jewish community, the discourse is reduced to ‘we are right’ and ‘they are wrong,’ and ‘here are the facts to show to ourselves and others.’ Loyalty to Israel does not demand, nor does it depend on, the total moral clarity and coherence of all of its actions; if anything, true moral clarity requires a meaningful blending of loyalty to self, empathy to others, and the recognition that short of the battles waged on the Kingdom of Heaven, it is borderline idolatrous to consider any human conflict to be one between the forces of pure light and pure darkness. Conditioning ourselves to be discerning moral thinkers and actors in an atmosphere of moral complexity while remaining loyal to our people and the State of Israel is not a betrayal of Israel; but insisting on a framework of loyalty that requires us to suppress our ethical instincts to both self and other might just be a betrayal of humanity.

And third, these advocacy efforts based on a curated set of facts also undermine the best professionals and educators that we as a Jewish community have in place to do the critical work of student engagement on campus. Our colleagues working at Hillels around the country are talented, and they are driven to do their work by a passion for the big questions of identity, belonging and meaning. They did not go into Jewish education to win a Kafkaesque “color war” mapped onto complex geopolitical realities; they went into this line of work to shape lives and help inform life decisions. To describe them as deployed as ‘the front line in a battle’, to think of our responsibility as to supply them the weaponry of talking points to be used in a fundamentally unwinnable battle of ideas – this approach and these resources implicitly call into question their ability as professionals to manage nuance, shepherd conversation, steward sophistication, and model a form of leadership that will enable Jewish life to arise above the gutter to which it is being dragged.

I am saddened that we are making cheerleaders out of people who we need to be coaches. Out of a fear of the threats of delegitimization, demonization and double-standards, we are building a system through which we demoralize, destabilize, and diminish the very leaders we need our campus colleagues to be. While I understand the value of Israel advocacy in frameworks that demand advocacy (with elected officials, foreign governments and the like), and while I see the appeal of the advocacy approach to concerned parents in reassuring them that we have facts as ammunition to combat those who oppose us, the notion that college students crave concise clarity when it comes to complex issues – especially those students without strong enough roots to believe that ‘their side’ has a credibility advantage – misreads how young adult development works, and barters the credibility that comes with taking people seriously in exchange for the desire for lockstep loyalty. It makes Hillel a place of retreat for safety rather than a place to grow, and turns educators into gatekeepers.

Israel engagement, in responding to this micro-crisis and in the work more broadly, must instead do something radically different. It must enlarge our educators, our Hillel directors, and our student leaders: it has to give them the confidence to lead difficult conversations and to model thought-leadership on hard issues, such that engaging with Israel – with whatever partisan lens one chooses – is an intellectually, morally, and affectively compelling activity. Instead of name-calling – such as responding to calls for boycotts of Israel by demanding our own boycotts of news outlets or speakers we do not like – we must provide the space for the Jewish leaders to whom we entrust our children to actually lead, and the trust for them to do so in ways that will be developmentally appropriate and intellectually compelling for the campus environment in which they operate and live.

The sad truth is that there is little reason to believe that this is the last war Israel will face, and little hope that – whatever the majority of the Israeli populace felt about this war – Israel’s policy vis-à-vis the Palestinians will become instantly morally unambiguous. In these conditions, let’s invest in our educators and leaders to make them capable of leading with integrity and authenticity, rather than undermining them with the kinds of pseudo-education that merely represents the façade in front of our own anxieties.

About the Author
Yehuda Kurtzer is the President of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America and host of the Identity/Crisis podcast.
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