Jonathan Falk

This Moment in Israel: An Educator’s Perspective

Israel is in a challenging and pivotal moment in its relatively young history. It would be easy—and understandable—for U.S. college students, and even many adults, to give up trying to understand the country’s ever-changing landscape and current protests, especially when the lived experience that Jewish college students face on American campuses is complicated in its own way.

But students are not walking away. They are not giving up on understanding Israel after five national elections in 42 months, or eight months of protests over a judicial reform bill thousands of miles from their campuses. Instead, Jewish college students are more curious than ever: they are seeking information about the internal workings of Israel—a country many love and want to better understand.

For decades, Jewish educators and Israel engagement experts have been key conduits to helping young American Jews discover meaningful connections to Israel. For years, they struggled to broaden conversations about Israel beyond the conflict narrative. And more recently, we recognized that Jewish students were sidestepping more complex topics and seeking narratives about Israel relevant to cultural hot topics in the U.S. by inviting guest speakers who were vegan chefs, climate activists, and LGBTQ+ advocates.  

Now, all of this has changed.

In recent months, I have had the privilege of observing first-hand a renaissance of student curiosity and a deep desire to understand and unpack the details of Israel’s domestic politics and governing structures at colleges and universities across the country.

Jewish college students are interested in the ongoing and proposed legislative changes, as well as the Israeli protest movement that has risen in response. They also want to understand what’s motivating hundreds of thousands of Israelis marching in the streets with Israeli flags for the vision of the country that they believe in. A friend participated in a protest and later shared with me that she felt proud of her Zionism while standing alongside Israeli protestors who all believed they were doing something to make Israel better and stronger. Students are recognizing that patriotic drive on all sides of Israel’s political spectrum, and they want to further explore it.

As the vice president of Hillel International’s Israel Action and Addressing Antisemitism Program (IAP), we are meeting this moment by providing the educational and experiential opportunities that are the hallmark of Hillel’s work. Events that bring together expert speakers, including Dennis Ross, David Makovsky, Gaith al-Omari and Amanda Berman are now frequently happening and well-attended on campuses across the United States. They are asking thoughtful questions and learning about the Israeli system of governance and the social divisions that have contributed to this challenging moment. Our students listen to regional experts, consume expert analysis, and then explain the complexities of this moment in Israel to their own peer networks.

Traditionally, Hillel’s high-level speakers about Israel have focused on prospects for peace between Israel and its neighbors. Now, foreign policy experts and former diplomats who have been speaking to Hillel audiences for years are pivoting from their usual topics and developing lectures about the Israeli judiciary and Israel’s democracy. More so than ever before, students want to explore the internal government structure of Israel rather than Israel’s foreign relations.

Critically, Israelis from all backgrounds and walks of life are helping our students understand this moment on our campuses. The 75 Jewish Agency for Israel Fellows at 100 North American Hillels are an essential point of connection, helping students understand real Israelis and the complexities of Israeli life. This cohort of Israel Fellows represents some of the diversity within Israel itself, as Fellows’ families come from twenty nine countries across five continents.  In recent months, these young Israeli educators have been wrestling with their own feelings about what’s happening in their home country while translating the experience for American students wishing to understand this moment  in Israel’s history that will define the future character of the Jewish state.

As an educator, I see Jewish college students engaging in Israel-discourse in a way I’ve never seen before in over a decade in this field. They want to understand it, to grapple with it, and to be part of it. The future leaders of the American Jewish community are deepening sparks of connection and growing deep roots of authentic relationships with Israel, and with Israelis. I am proud to bear witness to this welcome deepening of understanding and connection between the next generation of Jewish leaders and Israel. 

About the Author
Jon Falk is the Vice President of Hillel International’s Israel Action and Addressing Antisemitism Program. Jon oversees the teams that support campus Hillels in navigating and responding to antisemitic incidents, anti-Israel activity, and BDS, as well as celebrating, advocating, and educating about Israel.