Rethinking Education in the Diaspora

Every Wednesday night for the last four years I have supervised a group of high school boys for the Bnai Brith Youth Organization. The meeting place is a familiar one to me – the same classroom in my childhood synagogue where I first learned my Hebrew letters.  

Over these past four years, the bulletin board on the left side of the room has not changed. It features the wikipedia pages of some of Israel’s most prominent heroes – Theodor Herzl, Chaim Weizmann, David Ben-Gurion, Golda Meir, Yitzhak Rabin, and Benjamin Netanyahu. While Bibi received a place on this list because of his current and longstanding position as Prime Minister, this selection begs the question, “where is the other end of the political spectrum?” At the very least, “where is Menachem Begin?”

The selective history taught at my childhood Hebrew School, when it comes to Israel’s political leaders draws my attention to a bigger problem in our education system – Jewish youth are given only a bare version of our people’s history, which inhibits our pride. Why is it that for much of Diaspora Jewry, the timeline of the Jewish people skips from the Torah to Herzl to Balfour to the Holocaust to the Six Day War to Bibi? Why can so many Jews in the Diaspora cheer the Hagana, yet know nothing of the beginnings of Likud or the sacrifices of the Yishuv’s underground fighters? 

The answer is fear. We decided long ago that it’s better to shelter our children from the difficult and controversial decisions in life that we are all forced to makethat children are not mature enough to handle the complete story, and it is therefore better to put it off until they’re “older”. That there are times for the book, and also times for the sword is apparently a reality too harsh for children to learn. It is for the adults to understand the “violence of love” and when it is proper to defend yourself against the “violence of hate”. Unlike our brothers and sisters in Israel, Diaspora Jews allow fear to influence the raising of our children, opting to shelter them until a later date. 

When exactly is this “later date” supposed to be? Much of American Jewry complete their education once they reach Bar Mitzvah age. Some voluntarily join Jewish youth groups that rarely scratch the surface educationally. We can’t honestly expect the gaps in education to be filled during the college years, never mind the fact that with the anti-Israel atmosphere building on campuses around the world, this is the period where our children are both most vulnerable and most exposed to external pressures. At this point, it is often too late, and the opportunity to transmit our story has been lost. 

Are we expecting this “later date” to be the start of Birthright? If so, we are misunderstanding the point of the trip and failing to realize that Birthright tour guides tip-toe a fine line, trying desperately not to offend anyone on the trip with “too much religion” or “too much politics”. The Palestinian issue is like a third rail that staff avoids at all costs which only furthers the skepticism of participants. This education must come from the parents and from the community. By failing to properly share the complete story of our people with our children today, we put off for tomorrow what becomes no longer possible. The mentality that our children do not have the capacity to understand the difficult choices that our ancestors made needs to be abandoned.

This mentality ensures that our children in the Diaspora will never understand the heart of Ze’ev Jabotinsky, whose character is best summarized in his statement that “all individuals are equal; and if in the march towards progress, some falter by the way, society must help raise them up.” This mentality ensures that our children in the Diaspora will fall prey to the rhetoric of Israel’s detractors, and even some supporters, who call Jabotinsky a fascist militant because they once read a cliff notes version of his famous essay “The Iron Wall” while neglecting to acknowledge that in his own words, he was prepared to take an oath binding ourselves and our descendants that we shall never do anything contrary to the principle of equal rights, and that we shall never try to eject anyone”. 

This mentality ensures that our children in the Diaspora will never understand the soul of Menachem Begin, the leader of the Irgun who stood upon the sinking ship the Altalena, commanding his men not to return fire on David Ben-Gurion’s Hagana, risking their lives to avoid a Jewish civil war. This mentality ensures that our children in the Diaspora will wither in their confidence when Israel’s detractors point to Prime Minister Begin as proof that Israelis elect “terrorists”, lacking the context required to understand the years of the Jewish underground or the knowledge that like his mentor Jabotinsky, he believed that “we don’t want to evict anyone from his land. In this beautiful country, there is room for the Arabs who are working their lands, and for the Jews who will come to make the homeland blossom.”

We need to acknowledge the gap in Israel’s history that emerges when we take such a tentative approach to educating our youth and how it leaves them vulnerable to outside persuasion. By avoiding the truths and failing to explain the “why” that emerges with a more complete understanding of the Jewish people’s history in Israel and an emphasis on the context of situations, we leave the door open for the individuals and organizations to plant seeds of doubt in our youth. 

As many in our community question why younger generations are turning to organizations on college campuses such as IfNotNow and Jewish Voice for Peace, they are overlooking our obvious failure to teach our story in our own words. We hear of accusations from these groups that our synagogues, summer camps, and youth groups shelter Jewish children from the “realities of the occupation”. While most of us can not deny that our children are not exposed to an in-depth explanation of the Israeli-Arab conflict, we can not claim that our education includes more than a cursory introduction into the history of Zionism, and what it meant to our people. They lack the proper context needed to judge for themselves because we have pushed it off for another day.  We need to address the “why”, otherwise others will fill the void.

As it stands now, Jewish children are only getting pieces of a whole. They hear that Israel exists because of the Holocaust rather than despite the Holocaust. 

They know Auschwitz and the Warsaw Ghetto, but rarely are they told about Babi Yar or the Dreyfus Affair. 

They learn about the success of Golda Meir and the tragedy of Anne Frank, but they never hear the names or deeds of Sarah Aarohnson, Henrietta Szold, or Esther Raziel.

They hear that Likud came to power to oppress minorities when in reality, Likud won its first democratic election because of the support of minorities who felt that they had no voice under the Labor party. 

They are told about Israel’s beginnings and the kibbutzim that were founded across the country, yet they have no knowledge of the bravery of Natan Sharansky and the refuseniks of Russia or the sacrifices of Yoni Netanyahu or Eli Cohen. 

They learn about the death of Yitzhak Rabin, but they learn very little of how he lived, believing with all his heart in peace through strength saying that “if we didn’t take strong action, the enemy would consider us weak and it would be impossible to conduct political negotiations.”

We must cultivate Jewish pride by recounting these stories in proper context just as we do with the history of our host countries. We must rethink our Jewish education system in the Diaspora and fill these gaps so that our children can make informed decisions for themselves. We must find ways to explain the complexity that is violence of love – violence that is an unfortunate necessity in the struggle to keep our families and our people safe from those who attack us with violence of hate. We must trust in our children and give them all of the tools at their disposal. We must trust ourselves in our ability to show them the way, because as Shimon Peres once said, “it’s better to be controversial for the right reasons, than to be popular for the wrong reasons.”

About the Author
Jared is the International Coordinator at Our Soldiers Speak (www.oursoldiersspeak.org). He regularly facilitates campus, congressional, and policy briefings by select Israel policy experts. As a Jewish New Yorker trying to do his part to support Israel from the Diaspora, he is an advisor/ member for the B'nai Brith Youth Organization, Legion Self-Defense Program, and Fuel For Truth Advocacy Boot Camp, as well as a Birthright Madrich.
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