Our Israel education needs diversifying – a rebuttal to Neil Lazarus

Dear Neil Lazarus

You probably don’t remember me, but we met during my gap year programme in Israel a few years ago when you educated on a Masa seminar for English-speaking youth movements.

I’m someone who, judging by your recent article on this platform in which you pose 10 questions to an anti-Israel protester, you would probably categorise as part of the “radical far left”, though I certainly wouldn’t self-define as such. But since I would say my views broadly align with the section of the diaspora Jewish community at which you’ve taken aim, I feel compelled to respond to the questions you’ve presented.

It’s nothing personal, it just seems to me that your brand of “effective communication” characterises much of the decidedly outdated, limited and inadequate Israel education with which young Jews are sent out into today’s world. The same tired hasbara clichés continue to be recycled or adapted to withstand new challenges and justify the latest PR disasters, of which there have been no shortage this week.

Your article was apparently written in reaction to a series of recent events surrounding Birthright, the programme that brings 40,000 American Jews to Israel each year along with many more thousands of Jews from the rest of the world. Two separate instances of participants publicly leaving the trip to pursue educational alternatives (for the first group a tour of Hebron with Breaking the Silence; for the second group a meeting with an eviction-threatened Palestinian family in East Jerusalem), in addition to left-wing groups meeting Birthright participants at airports in the US and the UK to talk to them about the occupation, have certainly brought the issue of Israel education to the forefront of communal conversation once more.

You claim in your article that “the people involved in this amateur dramatics are not interested in education, dialogue, [or] discussion”, but I believe you have it the wrong way around; it is in fact Birthright (a manifestation of the outdated Israel education I mentioned) that is not interested in education, dialogue, or discussion. Considering the Jewish Agency’s decision last year to prohibit Birthright groups from meeting with Israeli Arabs, who make up 20% of the country’s population, it is hardly surprising that participants are starting to feel that they’re not seeing the full picture.

But the problem is much bigger than Birthright; it extends to the entire ethos underpinning Israel education in the Jewish community. Groups like IfNotNow, whose #NotJustAFreeTrip campaign is targeting Birthright with these actions this summer, are not “fanatics” and nor are they “anti-Israel protesters”. You can disagree with their tactics, but by highlighting the single-narrative education on offer on traditional Israel trips they seek simply to broaden the content to better reflect reality.

In order to make it abundantly clear why this is necessary, I’ll be taking your questions one by one and demonstrating the inadequacy of this single-narrative outlook. I truly hope that, having posed the questions, you’ll be willing to reflect on my answers.

1. When they talk about the occupation, what occupation are they actually talking about?… Are they talking just about the West Bank or are they talking about the whole of Israel? What gives them the right to define what the occupation is?

This is indeed a valid question to ask, and you might be interested to discover that different people on this “radical far left” of mine will give you different answers. I, for one, would tell you that I’m concerned particularly by the military occupation that began in 1967 when Israel took control of large swathes of new territory during the Six-Day War.

I would imagine that at this point you would interject, telling me that Israel acquired this territory in a war of self-defence – and Israel did indeed face existential threats that June. But the present state of affairs cannot be justified with the assertion that war was necessary over 50 years ago. Today, there is much that should concern anyone looking at the region.

It concerns me, for example, that Israel continues to expand its settlements in the West Bank despite international humanitarian law prohibiting the transfer of a state’s civilian population into territories occupied in war. It concerns me also that Israel administers parallel legal systems in the West Bank, where Palestinian residents face military courts boasting a 99.74% conviction rate while Israeli settlers enjoy near-impunity. And it concerns me that in both the West Bank and East Jerusalem (as well as, it should be noted, within the Green Line), demolition of Palestinian property is commonplace due to the inability of residents to acquire the necessary permits for building.

In terms of having the right to define what the occupation is, I assume you wouldn’t reject the rulings of Israel’s own Supreme Court, which repeatedly state that the West Bank is held by Israel in “belligerent occupation”. After all, wouldn’t doing so make you an “anti-Israel protester”?

Before moving onto the next question, I should note that having said that I’m more concerned by the post-67 occupation, this does not mean that Israel education should ignore the darker side of 1948. Better Israel education would include deeper questions about what happened that year and in the decades leading up to it, otherwise it would again be ignoring reality. Only when young Jews are presented with the full picture can they begin to come to their own conclusions; failing to allow them this freedom is irresponsible.

2. If the occupation and Israel’s control of the West Bank is the major issue, why did Palestinians reject Ehud Olmert’s offer of a ninety six percent withdrawal of the West Bank with a 4% land swap. Israel has offered to end the present control/occupation of the West Bank; the Palestinians have refused it. How do they explain that?

As an “internationally acclaimed expert in the field of Middle East Politics”, it surprises me that you would reduce Israeli-Palestinian negotiations to the sole issue of territory. You and I both know that the peace talks that began in Madrid 27 years ago, peaked in Oslo and stuttered thereafter, most recently under John Kerry’s guidance, have hinged on a range of sticking points for Israelis and Palestinians – not least the issues of Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees.

You may argue that the Palestinians should have accepted Olmert’s offer (among others), but they believed it to be unacceptable. Just as, you must remember, the Israeli leadership deemed the Arab League’s peace offer to be unacceptable in 2002 and has continued to ever since, and decided it best to reject Kerry’s regional peace plan as recently as 2016, when they too might have done well to accept those. Our Israel education should consider the merits of all of these proposals, while not ignoring other issues key to Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

3a. If settlements are really the issue, why are we nearly on the verge of yet another war with Gaza and Hamas? Israel removed 9000 Jews from their homes… yet the situation got worse not better…

If Jews on the Left acquired £1 every time we heard this question, we’d have amassed enough money to obtain political favours from Israel’s prime minister.

Let’s take a look at the original land-for-peace deal: the Camp David Accords which birthed the Egypt-Israel peace treaty in the late-1970s. In 1982, Israel withdrew its settlers from the Sinai Peninsula, doing so, crucially, in the context of a negotiated political agreement. Without the agreement, the chances of Israeli-Egyptian peace would have been minimal, so why is it that a unilateral decision on Gaza can be expected to generate peace with the Palestinians? Granted, Egypt is a sovereign state while the Palestinians remain stateless, but this example is still useful in dispelling the myth that relinquishing territory necessarily precludes peace. And anyway, there’s a lot more to the occupation than just settlements.

3b. If they said Kaddish; the prayer of mourning, for those victims in Gaza, did they also say Kaddish for the 1300 victims of Hamas terrorism…?… Surely, they wouldn’t justify that violence.

Much has already been said on this issue, both from those who supported the recent Kaddish for Gaza event in London and those who opposed it, and so I don’t wish to repeat things or get bogged down in a back-and-forth over this. Suffice it to say that I’m deeply uncomfortable with the force/casualty tradeoff underpinning Israeli military strategy in addition to the lack of political will to alleviate the humanitarian situation in Gaza, both of which are adding to an endless list of avoidable casualties to this conflict.

And before you call me a Hamas sympathiser or an apologist for terror, let me clarify that opposing Israeli violence does not mean I support Palestinian violence. It is not a contradiction to believe, as I do, that every death is a tragedy. Moreover, there should be blame apportioned to any individuals or groups in Israel-Palestine responsible for preventing steps towards a just and lasting peace in the region – a peace that remains an elusive dream while the cycle of violence persists.

Until this principle is at the core of our Israel education, we are all part of the problem rather than the solution. (Though in rejecting violence, we would also do well to remember the violence used by Jewish groups in accelerating Britain’s withdrawal from Mandatory rule – another interesting topic with which Israel educators should be grappling.)

4. I’m sure they would agree that Israel’s history and the Jewish people’s history goes back thousands of years… If they do…, why are they denying the rights of an indigenous population to return? I support indigenous rights, why don’t they?

Of course the Jewish people’s history in the biblical Land of Israel goes back thousands of years; this is indeed supported by archaeological and documentary evidence and you’re unlikely to find anyone walking off Birthright or engaging with participants at the airport who disputes this.

Before we get further into politics, however, we should acknowledge that indigeneity is complex and neither of us are scholars of anthropology. It is my rudimentary understanding that two peoples can simultaneously be indigenous to the same area, but regardless, we should be able to affirm our own history without erasing that of another people. With history being such a fundamental component of both Israeli and Palestinian identities, resorting to “we were there first” arguments on both sides only negates the legitimacy of the other and further entrenches the conflict.

5. Why do they claim that all Jews, as a precondition for peace, should leave the West Bank? Isn’t that ethnic cleansing? I’m against removing populations based on ethnicity. Why do they demand that all Jews leave?

First of all, as I mentioned already, the presence of Israeli settlers in the West Bank contravenes international law. Their being there is illegal irrespective of their ethnicity – i.e. it is because they are Israeli, not because they are Jewish – and therefore claiming they should leave is not the same as calling for ethnic cleansing. Our Israel education must acknowledge the illegality of the settlements while still recognising that Israeli-Palestinian final-status negotiations have been based on the idea that some of the larger settlement blocs will remain, compensated by land swaps. Anyway, most Israeli settlers would agree to leave their homes if requested to do so by their government, likely because a majority are motivated by “quality of life” considerations.

Whether the settlers must leave as a precondition for peace, however, is another matter. At a time when confidence in the two-state solution on both sides is at an all-time low (though increasing with reasonable incentives), attention should be given to alternative solutions – not least the variety of confederation models, some of which offer creative solutions to the issue of settlements. Let us not be so dogmatic as to be blind to new possibilities.

6a. They always say that we should visit Hebron, and I think you should visit as many places as you can; go to Ramallah, go to Jenin, go to all these places…

On this, we agree. I believe that education should be exploratory, and I would encourage anyone with opinions on the region, or interested in developing them, to travel widely between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. I’m lucky to have had several opportunities to do this myself, and my opinions today are a product of my experiences with the diversity of people and places in the region.

With that said, however, we have arrived at a key failure of Israel education. Traditional Israel trips (especially those for young Jews) deny people the chance to fully experience reality, revealing only part of the story. Following our point of agreement to its logical conclusion, then, is it really that outrageous that participants would leave Birthright to see things that aren’t being included in their programme? Presenting an incomplete picture of Israel will only either create a generation of Jews with wide gaps in their knowledge, or drive them away due to their desire to see the unseen.

6b. But if they are going to Hebron, what’s their opinion on the massacre of Jews in Hebron? I assume they know that 67 of the 69 Jews were killed back in 1929. Please tell me that they’re aware of that. What’s your opinion?

I am indeed aware of that, and as I said before, I believe that all loss of life is a tragedy. I’ve also visited Kibbutz Kfar Etzion where another massacre of Jews took place in 1948, and which was also restored as a Jewish settlement soon after the war of 1967. These cases offer an opportunity for Israel educators to grapple with a number of issues right at the core of the conflict for the Israeli “side”.

Although your article doesn’t suggest that the massacres and depopulation of these Jewish areas justifies their restoration after 1967, this argument is ubiquitous in right-wing discourse on Israel (particularly within Israel itself) so I’ll address it. Of course there is a natural longing for residents to return to their former homes, but presumably advocates of this wouldn’t be so happy about Palestinians returning to the more than 400 villages depopulated in 1948 and destroyed thereafter, some of which saw similar massacres. When educating, consistency is key.

Another issue I have with your own argument, though, is the use of the past to deflect from the present. Nuanced education should revel in dissonance, not reduce it to easier to digest single-narrative explanations. As such, let’s educate about the 1929 Hebron massacre, but let’s also educate about the 1994 Goldstein massacre and the “sterilisation” system that inhibits Palestinian freedom of movement there today.

7. They say they’re very open minded, so my seventh question will be: “If I could organize for you a meeting with a settler, would you have dinner with them, stay overnight, have a Shabbat?” Surely, they would because they also want to meet with Palestinians. If not, why not?

Thanks, I’d love to! As I said before, I value exploratory education, and I’ve had the opportunity to meet and dine with settlers in Gush Etzion, Hebron and Efrat. From an educational perspective, it is fascinating to hear their individual motivations for choosing to live where they do, even if I disagree with that choice. Such a large section of Israeli society cannot just be ignored – but engaging with people across the political spectrum also requires engaging with Israel’s Palestinian citizens, which Birthright fails to do.

8. They are very critical of Israel’s actions in Gaza, but if they support a two-state solution; Israel and Palestine, surely, they recognize Israel’s right to protect its borders. What would they have done if 40,000 people had tried to storm the border in their home country in five different places? Many people were shouting, “Death to the Jews.” What would their reaction have been?

As I mentioned earlier, there exists a plurality of views within our community regarding solutions to the conflict. But since, as I said, I’m most concerned by Israel’s post-’67 occupation, I can engage with your question.

Firstly, 40,000 people did not try to storm the border, and it is unhelpful in education to distort the truth. The protests were initially envisaged as completely peaceful before being expropriated by Hamas (an organisation whose violent antisemitism is indeed a threat to Israeli civilians, let’s be clear) for its own political agenda, and while 40,000 people were indeed in attendance at the various protest camps erected along the border a far smaller number attempted to storm the border or cause harm to Israelis. We can agree that the role of an army is to protect its nation’s civilians – and that there did exist very real threats to Israeli lives at these protests, which I don’t wish to diminish – but the IDF’s apparent new rules of engagement seem to have extended beyond that principle on multiple occasions.

When discussing these protests in the context of Israel education, we must also give attention to what it is that Palestinians are protesting. The protests began on Land Day and peaked on Nakba Day – both of which deal with issues that are integral to Palestinian identity and understanding of the conflict – and they come at a time when the availability of electricity and clean water in the Strip is alarmingly low. Although, as you will surely interject, responsibility for this crisis is shared by Hamas and Egypt, Israel has much to answer for. Failure to acknowledge this when educating on Israel will only perpetuate a rapidly deteriorating and dangerously volatile situation.

Similarly, it is also important that we don’t ignore the issue of Palestinian “return”, in support of which the protests were organised and so many were willing to risk their lives. Regardless of our own opinions on the right of return of Palestinian refugees and their descendants, the fact that organisers of the protest chose this issue to rally the population 70 years later demonstrates its centrality to Palestinian identity, and the futility of trying to quash it into disappearance.

9. Why do they say that they are progressive?… If they call for the boycott of Israel they’re actually calling for two groups, Israelis and Palestinians, not to be talking to each other, but rather having less contact. I truly believe that peace will come when both sides are educated and when both sides recognize each other’s narratives… In my seminars,… I talk about the Al Naqba, I talk about 1948. Why is it they negate the right of Jews and their history in the West Bank?… They don’t have to agree that Jews have a right to be there, but to be a real liberal… is to understand both sides and to bring them together.

Like with Zionism and solutions to the conflict, many of the people at whom you’re directing your questions will have different views on the issue of boycotts. I don’t call for boycotts, but I also don’t dismiss their legitimacy – especially in place of more violent forms of resistance. It is the right of any individual to choose where they send their money and to use their free speech to protest actions they oppose.

Personally, some of the most inspiring projects I’ve seen in Israel-Palestine involve bringing together people on both sides of the conflict, including the binational schools I’ve visited in Jerusalem and the Galilee, the volunteers I’ve met from the Bereaved Families Forum and Combatants for Peace (and their exceptional joint alternative Remembrance Day ceremony), and the activists of Standing Together for whom I have the utmost admiration.

All of these organisations do the work you mention – ensuring that both peoples recognise each other’s narrative. Unfortunately, this is not the case with traditional Israel education, and certainly not with trips like Birthright. If you truly believe what you say then you should also be challenging Birthright to diversify its educational content.

It’s great that you teach about the Palestinian narrative and about the Nakba (though you certainly didn’t during the sessions you led for my group), but it is important that it is not taught simply to be dismissed – it must be taught to be engaged with and compared to (and perhaps one day integrated with) our own narrative.

10. And finally: Why do they shout their opposition at the top of their voices? Are they interesting in making the world a better place or political posturing? Surely the first move to peace is education? Will they start listening?

Sometimes you have to shout to be heard, especially when going against the prevailing opinion. A form of Israel education that narrows the discussion and abhors diversity has achieved hegemony in our community, and in such circumstances it is not so easy to voice dissent. You can disagree with their tactics, but try to understand why they believe them to be necessary.

And once again, you ask of others to listen and yet condemn the Birthright walk-outs for trying to do just that – or is it only to Israelis and not Palestinians that we must listen?

***

My aim in writing this was to demonstrate to you that I am neither “radical” nor “fanatical” nor an “anti-Israel protester”, and I hope by now to have convinced you of that.

On top of this, I want our community to realise that confronting the historical and present realities of Israel in the way we educate is not something to be afraid of; in fact, it is essential if we are to produce future leaders of our community who will not shirk their responsibilities nor shy away from contentious topics. This was the sentiment expressed in a recent open letter from over 100 leaders in Zionist youth movements, and it is the reason for the emergence of groups like IfNotNow in the US and Na’amod in the UK. And while you’re entitled to demand change from the Palestinian education system, that is no reason not to fix our own.

It’s not only Birthright, but also the education we receive in our synagogues, Jewish schools, youth movements, Israel tours, gap year programmes and beyond which must be adapted in order to better reflect reality and provide the tools for engaging in discourse on Israel both inside and outside of the community. Until this happens, you can be sure of one thing: we haven’t seen the last of the Birthright walk-outs.

About the Author
Ben Reiff studies International Relations & History at the London School of Economics (LSE), where he is the founder and president of the Voices of Israel-Palestine society.
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