Every year, thousands of young, observant American Jews – myself among them – travel to Israel for a gap year between high school and college, either to study in a Jewish yeshiva/seminary or experience the country through a more secular program. The vast majority of these students expect to encounter a fully modernized, Western country, and have been led to adopt a very understandable, yet incredibly dangerous, attitude towards their temporary home;
“Israel is normal.”
The leaders and authority figures of observant American Jewry – in particular the rabbis and teachers of the Jewish day school system – wrongly and disingenuously thrust normalcy, and its bedfellow safety, upon Israel and lead impressionable young students to regard Israel as a perfectly standard Western country – albeit one in an unique and unfortunate geopolitical situation. They portray Israeli society as a multiethnic, yet homogenous entity, and conveniently gloss over the tension and completely non-Western social standards that make it fascinating and exciting. They characterize Israel as a liberal democracy, but do not dare venture into the vibrantly sectarian reality of Israeli politics. In doing so, they ignore all that makes Israel unique and vital.
Most deleteriously of all is the notion that somehow – despite its current precarious security situation and internal upheaval – Israel is safe. Those in the pro-Israel circle will never fail to point out that there are many more deaths and injuries in Chicago due to gun violence than there are in Israel due to terrorism – despite the fact that the vast majority of Chicago’s shootings are concentrated in poor, mainly African American areas and that 70% of all shootings occur among only 6% of the city’s population. Additionally, this 6% is comprised only of individuals connected by crime and gang activity – mainly young African American males. In Israel, on the other hand, terrorism strikes in every corner of the country and often befalls random innocent civilians who have absolutely zero involvement in crime or other dangerous activity. One will also commonly hear that it is foolish to fear terrorism because one is far more likely to die in a car accident in L.A. or New York than a stabbing attack in Jerusalem – totally disregarding the fact that in 2013, there were at least 303 deaths due to road accidents in Jerusalem, while there were only 227 such fatalities in Los Angeles. More importantly, though, one phenomenon has absolutely nothing to do with the other. Perhaps due to such misleading statements, countless peers and teachers have told me that not only do they feel safe in Israel, they feel safer in Israel than they do in America.
Well I don’t.
After 45 stabbings, seven rocket strikes, five car rammings, four shootings, two attempted bombings, and one Molotov cocktail attack in the last month alone (at the time of writing), I don’t feel safe in Israel – especially so in Jerusalem, my home for the year and the focal point of world Jewry for millennia. After 10 dead and 90 wounded (on the Israeli side), I don’t feel safe taking the bus, walking in the old city – which my yeshiva has banned entry to for its students – or getting lunch with friends in town. A few weeks ago, for the first time in my life, I walked around outside with a conscious fear of being attacked and possibly killed. Whereas back in America, I often teased friends who carried around knives or pepper spray for protection, my own canister is now due to arrive in two weeks.
Among such a violent reality, Israel operates according to its own brand of normalcy: one far removed from the Westernized standards that many young American Jews are taught to expect. A bomb threat on a bus stopped along the side of Emek Refaim, one of the main thoroughfares in Jerusalem, elicits no more than a disgruntled glance from Israelis enjoying a late lunch at the cafes that line the shady boulevard. Fully armed soldiers constantly patrol Jerusalem’s most popular tourist destinations, as well as all of the highways and junctions leading to and from the city, their jet-black assault rifles unabashedly held in full view of all passersby. When in Jerusalem, one merely has to look eastward – at the separation wall between Israel proper and the West Bank – to realize that something here is categorically different than back home.
Despite all this, Orthodox and Modern Orthodox opinion shapers go even further to whitewash the Israeli reality; far from just painting Israel as “normal,” they champion its supremacy. Throughout my childhood, rabbis at Friday assemblies raffled off Israeli chocolates and treats that were, “The best in the world,” aaliya-minded community members preached the superiority of Israel’s economy to that of the United States, and Israel-advocacy professionals praised the Israel Defense Force as the most effective and moral army in the world. Don’t get me wrong, Israel is an inspiring country and one of the rare bright spots in an otherwise dark and dangerous corner of the world. Yet as a Zionist and somebody who cares about the welfare of the state of Israel, I acknowledge her faults, criticize her when necessary, and hold her to the same standard (if not a higher one) that I hold every other country.
The same can unfortunately not be said for many of the lions of the pro-Israel and Modern Orthodox establishments and their disciples. In the classroom, synagogue, and boardroom, frank and open discussion about “occupation,” Palestinian statehood, and myriad other political, social, and economic issues that Israel faces are most often avoided – even in a pro-Israel context. If a Modern-Orthodox student does not involve his or herself in pro-Israel activism or independent study, he or she may very well leave high school without basic knowledge of Israeli history and society, as well as the most rudimentary facts regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Take, for example, a friend of mine who on a Saturday evening a few weeks ago, earnestly asked me where the West Bank was located, how close it was to Jerusalem, why Israel wasn’t in control of it, what the PA was, and what intifada meant – this, after 15 years in the Jewish day school system. If we as observant American Jewry want to change this sad state of affairs, we must cease averting our eyes from the uglier aspects of Israel and embrace her for the country she truly is – warts and all.
Now, I am not suggesting that as a community we should temper our enthusiasm for Israel and Zionism. Rather, we must harness such enthusiasm in order to confront and analyze Israel’s faults, weaknesses, and abnormalities and figure out how to best address them on a communal level. Aside from issues of honesty and unbiased education, by erasing Israel’s problems and hiding them from our students and children, we leave them vulnerable to attacks from anti-Israel groups and individuals on the college campus and beyond. With the average Jewish college student knowing next to nothing about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it is no surprise that anti-Israel groups such as BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) and SJP (Students for Justice in Palestine) easily control the dialogue about Israel on campus. The results of this are clear; as of 2014, only 52% of Americans aged 18-29 (eg; mainly college and post-college age) sympathized Israel, while another poll puts that number at only 44%. The Israel-advocacy minded teachers and lecturers who shield their students from the “dark side” of Israel end up shooting themselves in the foot and produce young Jews who cannot defend Israel on campus or even engage in honest and meaningful dialogue with anti-Israel or Israel-ambivalent students.
Perhaps even more dangerously, when rabbis and teachers inculcate students with the “romantic” view of Israel, they erase those students’ tremendous creative potential to address, and potentially alleviate, some of Israel’s greatest challenges. If young, bright Jewish students know nothing about the plight of the Palestinians and are never given the “other side’s” perspective on the matter, how can they ever hope to engage in necessary dialogue with their Palestinian counterparts? How can they ever understand the Palestinians if they don’t even understand themselves? How can Israel ever solve its most pressing economic and social problems – such as astronomically high housing prices and the integration of African, Charedi, and Arab citizens into mainstream life – if the promising Jewish economists and political minds of the next generation (many of whom care about Israel and could feasibly make alliya) don’t even know that such problems exist? If Observant American Jewry truly cares about Israel and wants to help the Jewish homeland flourish and prosper, then it must start educating its children about Israel – the true Israel – and realize that Israel’s flaws and abnormalities are part of what make her worth fighting for.