Mark Twain is attributed with observing that, “I have never let my schooling interfere with my education.” Arguably, the best education is through the school of experience. One of the most effective ways of accumulating that experience is through travel, observation and participation. Leaving ones “bubble.” If anyone wants to try and grasp the Israel behind the often sensationalist headlines, one needs to experience it in all of its glory and complexity and form ones own opinion. There is simply no other way to feel an attachment to ones Jewish identity, as there is when one stands in Israel and touches the ground and meets the people. There is nothing that one can do in ones Diaspora classroom or synagogue thousands of miles away to give one a feeling for this land and for what this land means to the Jewish people, as well as all of its inhabitants. One has to experience Israel in order to gain clarity for the achievements and understand the many issues Israel is wrestling with.
I recently finished guiding the “Write on for Israel” (WOFI) Israel mission. This is an Israel trip unlike any other Israel trip. WOFI is composed of American high school juniors and seniors from the Tri-State area. It is a highly acclaimed two-year Israel advocacy course, sponsored by the Jewish Week of New York, aimed at preparing the participants for what can be the anti-Israel battleground of some North American college campuses. The applicants are carefully selected after a rigorous interview process. They come from many different backgrounds of religious affiliation, political beliefs and schooling. There is a mix of Jewish day school, public and private school students. The common factor in this pluralistic group is the students’ love of Israel and desire to receive the knowledge and tools to be effective advocates for the Jewish State.
The advocacy training and instruction on the history of Zionism includes a whole plethora of different presenters, ranging from Pulitzer-Prize winning journalists to college campus activists. The culmination of the program is a weeklong mission to Israel for the seniors, where, in addition to touring, the group gets to meet IDF soldiers, key journalists and thinkers, and Israeli teenagers, both Jewish and Arab, from across the religious and nationalistic spectrum. They are exposed to many different viewpoints. The intense itinerary focuses on Israel as a modern dynamic society full of rich diversity and invites the participants to both grapple with the issues facing Israel and celebrate Israel’s achievements. The WOFI mission complements both the Jewish identity formation and Israel education of the participants. Ambassador Dr. Michael Oren observed that,
What we do on college campuses (regarding pro-Israel advocacy) is too late. The process has to begin in Junior High school
This year we started in the Golan where we were privileged to meet with Captain Y and meet soldiers keeping Israel’s northern borders safe. Captain Y spoke about “Operation Protective Edge” and how much care is taken to avoid civilian casualties and the high moral standards of the IDF. He shared emotional stories recollections with us of “mateship” in the IDF both during the Yom Kippur War and today. He also shared with us accounts of the (largely unreported) humanitarian help that the people of Israel and the IDF offered Syrians during that country’s ongoing bloody civil war, despite the two countries having no peace treaty between them. Israel’s medical services alone treated more than 3,000 Syrians wounded during their country’s conflict. He said Israel did this, because this is simply the right thing to do. The soldiers all shared with our group how proud they were to serve in such a moral and ethical army. Hearing from the faces “beneath the helmet” deeply moved the students. Not only did it humanise these young defenders of our land, it broke stereotypes of the bloodthirsty Israeli soldier propagated on North American college campuses and throughout Europe.
Another stereotype was shattered during our visit to “Save a Child’s Heart” (SACH) children’s home in Holon. The Save a Child’s Heart organisation provides life-saving cardiac surgery and other life saving procedures for children from developing countries and the Palestinian Authority free of charge. In addition, the organisation trains doctors to become paediatric cardiologists in their countries of origin. According to the mission statement on its website (www.saveachildsheart.org) is,
An Israeli-based international humanitarian project, whose mission is to improve the quality of paediatric cardiac care for children from developing countries who suffer from heart disease and to create centres of competence in these countries. SACH is totally dedicated to the idea that every child deserves the best medical treatment available, regardless of the child’s nationality, religion, colour, gender or financial situation.
So much for “Apartheid Israel.” Our group came to volunteer at the recuperation center where the children and their parents, or caregivers, from developing countries are either preparing, or recuperating from, the surgery that will allow them to live normal lives. Many of the WOFI group were deeply moved and asked why there is so little awareness and appreciation in the outside world for all the good that Israel does for the world. Daniel Gordis succinctly summed it up when he stated that, in addition to striving for the benefit our own citizens,
This country has become a country, with all of its imperfections, that sees as part of its purpose as looking out for other people.”
A core component of this years mission was the Mifgash element. A Mifgash is a cross-cultural peer-to-peer informal meeting. We met with teenager Israeli Arabs, Palestinian Arabs, Israeli Jewish teens and an Ethiopian Israeli. The exposure to a wide spectrum of opinions from Israelis of different religious, cultural and ethnic backgrounds facilitated a broad based understanding of issues within contemporary Israel. A successful, thought-provoking Mifgash should negate the viewing of Israel through a simplistic lens. The Mifgash is a tool for inductively gaining knowledge of Israeli society and issues, and have a positive effect on all the participant’s identity. An educationally valuable Mifgash allows the setting of the Mifgash location in Israel itself to become an inseparable part of the learning experience.
It has been a fascinating year for me personally to observe these bright teenagers who all self-selected into this program. Despite their different backgrounds, religiously and politically, there was a tremendous atmosphere of mutual toleration and acceptance. In addition they learnt that Zionism is not a monolithic movement that brokers no argument. Rather it is multi-faceted and dynamic, with factions on the left and right, religious and secular, and is a living movement whose uniting link is love for Israel. The “Write On for Israel” participants will be able to take to the university campus the magic of their visit to Israel and the three rules for advocacy; knowledge, gained through both learning and first-hand experience, passion and delivery.
Dr. Tuvia Book is the Director for Write On for Israel and author of “For the Sake of Zion, A Curriculum of Israel Education” (Koren, 2017). His forthcoming book on the Second Temple Period, will be published by Koren later this year.