The Generation Which Knew Not Herzl

Students Supporting Israel teaching a class on the history of modern Zionism. Photo taken by Ilan Sinelnikov.

The following is a guest post by Valeria Chazin, SSI’s Board of Directors Chairwoman. 

The Hebrew phrase “The generation which knew not Joseph” is used to describe a younger generation who does not know the previous generation and its actions. The term borrows from the original verse in Exodus 1:8, “Now there arose a new king over Egypt, who knew not Joseph”, and another example of a similar idea is Judges 2:10 describing a generation that did not know God or the work that he had done for Israel. Both instances discuss the lack of awareness of the past, later leading to negative consequences.

This piece is written to caution us from becoming a generation that does not remember our past when it comes to the history of modern Zionism and the many struggles that were overcome in bringing the State of Israel from a distant dream and into reality. In the seven years since the establishment of Students Supporting Israel (SSI), we have talked to and lectured in front of thousands of students, and the deep lack of knowledge on Zionism, the one topic that is the most central to our identity, is a major challenge we encountered.  

We present on multiple subjects including the bias against Israel in the United Nations and the history of UNRWA, the amazing stories of the waves of immigration to Israel, discrimination against Israel in global sports, and many more. For all of these, we never expect the audience to know a lot beforehand. However, where we hope to see at least a basic familiarity with the terms is in our class on History of Israel and Zionism about the creation of the modern Zionist movement. The core of the class is about defining Zionism, the term, its goals upon creation, and its importance and relevancy today. This class covers names such as Herzl and Jabotinski, discusses Hatikvah, the Dryfus Afair, and the various forms of Anti-Semitism.

From our experience, only a small minority of students, usually the leaders of pro-Israel and Zionist clubs are familiar with the various terms and names related to Zionism. Students, age 16-22, far too often do not know the name of Israel’s anthem, cannot recognize a picture of David Ben Gurion or Golda Meir, and even more recent leaders such as Shimon Peres, and define Zionism as simply “something to do with loving Israel” at best.

How is it possible, that teens who attend Jewish summer campus, Sunday schools, and community programs, who live in the digital age with Wikipedia and newspapers available at their fingertips are not exposed to an in-depth teaching of Zionism and Israel’s centrality for Jewish people during their most formative years? With such a lack of knowledge, how are we surprised that Jewish teens attending college join organizations such as IfNotNow, and their first exposure to Zionism is through anti-Israel groups who spend all their efforts on preaching that Zionism is a racist Ideology? Why won’t we lay the ground work early, instead of trying to make corrections later?

The answer lies within education. We’ve seen Hanukkah teachings that mostly talk about dreidels and eating latkes, but barely mention the significance of the Maccabees. We know of individuals who visit Israel and spend time on the beach eating falafels, but do not take an hour to visit the Museum of the Jewish people in Beit Hatfutsot or the Palmach Museum. We witness thousands of dollars being spent on projects that contain no substantive educational content. We hear community leaders say that Zionism is supporting Israel, but do not explain the deeper existential point that Zionism is the national movement to establish a Jewish state in the Land of Israel and that the pursuit of self-determination is vital to the Jewish people.

If things continue this way, there will be a future generation which “will not know Herzl.” A generation that will take the existence of Israel for granted, and will not be equipped with the tools, nor see the urgency in standing up for the Jewish state which is threatened still even today. A disconnect from Zionist and Jewish history also leads to people not seeing the link between anti-Zionism and Anti-Semitism and not knowing when legitimate criticism of Israel crosses the line of de-legitimization, demonization and double standards. Most tragically, not knowing the fundamentals of our past and allowing people other than ourselves to define our history, what is already happening on college campuses, will result in us losing our identity.

SSI was founded with the mission to be a clear pro-Israel voice on college campuses and support pro-Israel grassroots activism. The most important asset of our movement is our people. Confident and courageous activists are needed to proudly deliver our message and stand to our ground. However, as we soon realized, it is not enough to have these qualities alone. What is also necessary is knowledge. One must be equipped with enough understanding of the topics of Zionism and Israel, to actually be able to engage in conversations and debate, and to ultimately support and defend them.

SSI’s role in the field of education is essential. On our website , we state that “Our goals and activities include familiarizing students and the university community with current events in the Middle East, sharing the Israeli narrative and culture on campus, and responding to biased anti-Israel propaganda being spread by other members of the academic community. We believe in sharing knowledge with students about Israel’s history, its diverse people, and its day to day reality. Israel should not be looked at solely through the lens of conflict but as a nation with a legitimate and unique story, values and aspirations.”

In SSI, we do not consider ourselves a Jewish organization and are aiming to reach the entire academic community outside of traditionally Jewish spaces. This is also exactly the reason it is necessary that our programs include explanations of Jewish history and identity, as these are essential for understanding the WHY of Zionism. Why Zionism is legitimate and right? Why the existence of State of Israel as a Jewish majority state is important and should not be up for academic debate? The Jewish students who will understand the “WHY” and who will have enough knowledge about it will be proud in their identity and activism, and the non-Jewish student who will see that will also be confident supporters of the cause.

Our programs, starting from lectures, to giving away of books, to our annual conferences with themes such as “Owning Our Narrative” in 2018 or “Zionism- Sovereignty by Self-Determination” this year, accomplish just that: speak to the core. The name of our program where we give one book to one student is “Knowledge is Power” as we truly believe in it. In addition, we implement a proactive approach, as we want to be the first ones who students will hear from regarding these issues. We hope that other organizations, leaders, and parents in the pro-Israel community will follow our footsteps and join SSI in the journey of educating today’s young people about these important topics. This knowledge is vital in ensuring that future generations are not labeled as “those which knew not Herzl”, but those who justify and endorse the right to self-determination of the Jewish people, in Zionism, and in Israel. 

About the Author
Ilan Sinelnikov is the Founder and President of the national Students Supporting Israel movement.
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