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Echo Chambers of Our Own Making

Author celebrating his 4th birthday at Lubavitch Preschool in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
Author celebrating his 4th birthday at Lubavitch Preschool in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

This piece was adapted from a talk the author gave at the Saskatoon Unitarian Church on May 7, 2024. 

Over the last 50 years, foundations of diasporic Jewish identity have steadily vanished from Jewish educational spaces both in the United States. In his book, The Necessity of Exile: Essays from a Distance, author and Dartmouth professor, Shaul Magid, identified this as being due in large part to the influx of Zionist education during the early 1970s. In addition to this, the rich history of Jewish anti-Zionism dating back from the late 19th to early 20th centuries have all been but absent from most Jewish educational spaces. This has left many Jewish people unaware a Jewish anti-Zionist movement even existed before the 21st century, let alone until this present moment when Jewish anti-Zionist voices have become increasingly vocal and visible in the pro-Palestinian movement.

The evacuation of our diasporic culture and anti-Zionist history have led to a severe lacking in Jewish education and identity that is not in some way bound up with the State of Israel. Enrolling in things like a Jewish studies course at university or attending a cultural night of klezmer music, become some of the only alternatives Jews have to connect to their Jewishness that is not centered on Israel. Even a topic such as the Holocaust becomes not something to learn from, but instead is defined in its utility to the founding of and perpetuation for a Jewish state. This has caused a feedback loop within our educational spaces between the Holocaust and the State of Israel, whereby these topics become the fundamental components of not only historic and cultural memory, but Jewish identity.

Jewish scholar, Jack Kugelmass, even argues that for Jews to “…visit concentration camps on package tours whose programs stress Jewish suffering, annihilation and redemption…is to confirm the [Jewish] ethnic identity…” and that these trips “mak[e] the past time present.” In this way, the Holocaust does not remain as a historical lesson, but instead comes into today as if it had never ended. This reinforces trauma as central to Jewish identity, which perpetuates the desire Jewish people have for a Jewish state, regardless of the proximity to said trauma or even the condition of one’s Jewish life outside of Israel.

Even religious practice is not seen as essential so long as one hopes to obtain a deeper connection to the State of Israel. My Birthright trip in 2011 made this readily apparent when after a mere 10 days we were asked to split up into groups depending on where we felt more Jewish. Did we feel more Jewish in diaspora within the United States, in Israel, or somewhere in between? It was a question that seemed to disregard not only my own religious practices in my home and community over the course of my life, but the religious practices and religious life of my parents and grandparents. It was a question that communicated to me where contemporary Jewish society had placed its values.

Today, placing these values outside of Israel is not easy. Within the first weeks of the October 7 attacks, I looked on as the Jewish community I grew up in rushed to put on events committing ourselves to the Jewish State of Israel and its war. Questionable educational programming became the norm. Antisemitism trainings informed participants that it was considered blood libel to publish photos of Palestinian children killed by the State of Israel. Lectures on the Holocaust appeared merely to reinvigorate fears and historical trauma. Pro-Netanyahu organizations such as StandWithUs, were recruited to provide youth education in the months following October 7. This programming has only continued on in Jewish communities to whip up and scare us back into ourselves. Of course, this is to say nothing of what Jewish education teaches (or rather does not teach) about the Palestinian people on the other end of Israeli violence.

For Jewish educational spaces to continue holding up Zionist education means to further seal ourselves away into familiar echo chambers established decades before the Internet and social media. More, it means to reject a core value of Jewish learning. That is, asking questions and interrogating knowledge are not only good but are essential to how we learn and grow as Jews and as human beings. And if we are unable to as Jewish communities take back our Jewish education and identities away from the limitations and harm of Zionist ideology, we will as a Jewish people be unable to save us from ourselves.

About the Author
Ethan Klein (he/they) is a Jewish writer who grew up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He has published opinion pieces in the Times of Israel and the Eugene Weekly. His prose has been published in the Writing Disorder and is forthcoming in MAYDAY Magazine. He currently lives in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.
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