As a student at the University of Birmingham, it was hard to escape the onslaught of Instagram posts during the recent bout of conflict between Israel and Gaza.
Some of these posts featured antisemitic tropes and others had extreme anti-Israel content. Fellow Jewish students and I decided to take it upon ourselves to message those who posted those feeds in order to educate them on what they were posting. I quickly realised we were in new territory; unprepared despite 14 years of formal Jewish education. This cannot remain the case.
I attended JFS for the entirety of secondary school and sixth form, graduating there two years ago.
In my experience, there was very little Israel education in core teaching hours, mainly occurring in sixth form when speakers were invited in who boosted Israel’s image.
Most of my Israel education from school was from the Israel Society, which again only perpetuated a positive image of Israel, heavily featuring speakers from Stand With Us.
During the society’s sessions we did not debate the rights and wrongs of Israeli policy, nor did we discuss common smears made against Israel and how to counteract them. Therefore, we were not given specific knowledge useful during debates on Israel and Palestine, leading to difficulties when these occur at university.
To have a proper debate on an issue, one must fully understand the grounds for their opinion.
They must hear from a variety of opinions, attempting to understand an issue from every angle before coming to their own conclusion on the matter. A conclusion formed this way will be built from evidence and be well understood by the one who holds it. Regarding Israel education at schools, opinions formed on this are not based on a variety of opinions but only ones supporting Israel.
Therefore, the opinion held will not be truly understood as all things related to it have not been considered. This means that when a student encounters arguments against their opinion, such as at university, they will find it difficult to defend their opinion.
At Birmingham, the discourse on Israel-Palestine became so heated and extreme a member of the Guild of Students (our student union) removed all posts on ‘Fab N Fresh’, our Facebook page, and prevented any more from being uploaded on the subject due to complaints posts were receiving.
The move by the Guild was widely criticised for silencing individuals on an issue they were eager to talk about. This demonstrates the amount of attention the conflict received but also how the discourse can quickly descend into antisemitism and islamophobia.
Students must be prepared for this as this will not be a one-time event. Every time there is another round of serious fighting between Israel and Gaza, it is guaranteed the attention of students will be on it.
One such post which featured on my Instagram feed managed to accrue almost 500,000 likes, claiming that Israel, amongst other things, is an apartheid.
This claim is easily proven untrue regarding Israel and not the Palestinian territories, but in order to tackle the claim effectively, one must understand the differentiation between Israel and the West Bank and how the West Bank is operated both by Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
This was never taught in school so unless someone does their own research, how are they expected to be able to explain to someone who shared this why this is incorrect?
With the number of posts online it can become difficult to differentiate between genuine criticism of Israel, gross anti-Israel sentiment and antisemitism.
Without previous exposure to these whilst getting explained why each category of statement fits within each category, how is one supposed to know which is which? This leads to students miscategorising statements as antisemitic, something I have been guilty of, when they aren’t and thus not responding in the most appropriate way.
For example, saying Israel is wanted by Zionists for the oil is antisemitic and it is probably sufficient to just inform someone who reposts this that this plays into the idea of Jews being money-obsessed, an old antisemitic trope. After all, I do not believe these students to be hard-core antisemites but rather ignorant of what they are sharing.
However, if someone says Israel was set up illegally, this is not antisemitic and thus should be responded to by educating them on the 1947 partition plan etc. By schools teaching how to respond to different comments regarding Israel, students will be able to achieve the best outcomes from discussions on Israel-Palestine.
I believe the only logical place for this education to occur is in schools. Schools are supposed to set you up for later life and for Jewish schools, living a Jewish life. Unfortunately, this involves dealing with those who are anti-Israel and those whose anti-Israel sentiment blends into antisemitism.
This is especially the case at universities, where students are very vocal about perceived injustices. We Jews also do not want to remain silent on issues we care about, and it is only right that schools educate us on this issue so that we can have these discussions successfully.