In BDS era, balanced Israel education critical for young Jews

There are many terms and expressions that today’s Jewish high school and college students know and use that were not part of their parents’ and grandparents’ vocabularies. Unfortunately, BDS is one of these terms. This is the first generation to come of age hearing about widespread, mainstream international pressure to boycott, divest from, and impose sanctions on Israel.

There are BDS-related news items breaking all the time. One day it’s French telecommunications giant Orange announcing it is severing ties with its Israeli affiliate. Next, it’s yet another BDS resolution coming to a vote on an American university campus, or threats of an academic boycott of Israeli institutions of higher learning. Many things need to happen in order for the tide to change. One of these is a paradigm shift in terms of how we educate our young people about Israel.

In 2015, Israel education should be about exposing young Jewish people to the different narratives of the country’s history. It’s about introducing them to the complex, challenging aspects of contemporary Israeli society. And it’s about helping them figure out how to think and talk about all of this as they develop a close connection with the Jewish state.

Teaching Diaspora youth to be unquestioning Zionists—as was done in the past and is still done in some quarters—can at times be a recipe for alienation. Many Jewish students hear the Palestinian national narrative or criticism of Israel for the first time after arriving on college campuses. Some react angrily toward their former teachers, claiming that they had been “brainwashed” to think Israel is a perfect state. Others, having never been given the tools to engage in nuanced conversations about Israel, or to stand up to BDS agitators, become overwhelmed and completely disengage with Israel—or even side with Israel’s opponents.

In March, we at Ramah Israel tried something done too infrequently by fellow Zionist organizations. We sent the teens on our Tichon Ramah Yerushalayim (TRY) high school semester program out into the streets of Jerusalem to ask random people questions about their lives and Israeli politics. (It was Election Day.) The students were armed with a list of possible questions to ask people, but there was no planning what answers they were going to get.

The TRY students engaged in conversations with Jews, Muslims, and Christians of all walks of life, national backgrounds, and political persuasions. Many of them came away from the experience saying it was the most important of their semester here in Israel. (Examples of photos and quotes from the interviews can be seen on the Humans of Yerushalayim [HOY] blog posts at The Times of Israel [Part I, Part II, YouTube].)

This is not to say that teenagers’ exposure to matters relating to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict should go completely unmediated. The teens should receive in-depth in-class and experiential Israel education guided by highly competent educators. They must be given the opportunity to seriously engage with Israeli Jews from across the spectrum, and also with Palestinians from Israel and the West Bank.

If we provide a safe space for the students to process and discuss what they are experiencing and learning, they will be able to ultimately form their own opinions about Israel and what happens here.

Shielding savvy, intelligent young people from the realities of life in Israel will only backfire. Last summer, not a single Ramah Seminar participant returned home to North America during Operation Protective Edge. While we had to reorganize our itinerary based on the security situation and physically protect the teens from incoming rockets, we did not shelter them from what was happening. We kept them up-to-date on the news, giving them the relevant facts and discussing them in an open way.

In the Internet age, many teenagers are more aware of and knowledgeable about current events than were teenagers in the past. Therefore, the most current approach to working with young people is to meet them where they are, and then take them forward.

A former TRY participant, now a 24-year-old working in the non-profit sector in New York, recently told me, “I’ve never had teachers who valued my opinions as much as my teachers on TRY.”

If we value the intellectual curiosity and capabilities of our young people, there is a much better chance they will mature into adults who value Israel and their relationship to it.

About the Author
Meir Hoyzman is the Executive Director of Ramah Israel. He has over 24 years in the fields of Jewish camping and Israeli education. Meir has served as a Camp Director, Israel and teen educator and in Management of educational tourism in Israel.
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