Susan L.M. Goldberg
Susan L.M. Goldberg

Want to Combat BDS? Restore the Zionist Vision Among Jewish American Youth

“Where there is no vision, the people perish: but he that keepeth the law, happy is he.” Proverbs 29:18

We are a generation sorely lacking in vision. This became quite apparent to me as I sat in a crowded room of concerned parents and grandparents confronting the ugliness of the BDS movement on college campuses.

Beth El Synagogue in East Windsor, NJ, and the Princeton, NJ chapter of Hadassah co-sponsored a screening of two Jerusalem U films: Crossing the Line 2 and Refugees. The first film documented the anti-Semitic backlash that has arisen on several prominent US campuses in the wake of the BDS movement. The bottom line: When confronted with the vitriol of BDS, Jewish American students are shocked, intimidated and, worst of all, scared.

Recognizing that Jewish American students are unprepared to handle the delegitimization, demonization and double standards hurled by BDS activists, Jerusalem U produced Refugees. The short, factual documentary shot in Israel was a stark contrast to the opening film. Instead of fear, there are facts. The shocked demeanor of American students is replaced by the confident, comfortable presence of an Israeli narrator. Like night and day, the cultural difference between Jewish Americans and Israelis was readily apparent, making an unsaid point overwhelmingly clear: The sense of authority inherent in Zionism is clearly lacking among today’s Jewish students.

When it comes to college, Israel is all fun and games. Samantha Brandspiegel, currently the President of Hillel at Rutgers University and a member of Beth El, noted that there are two types of Jewish students on campus: Those who are involved, and those who are not. She explained that it is the job of those who are involved to “hook” those who are uninvolved through positive programming. Think Birthright, not BDS. Jewish American students (like most college students in general) have been acculturated to be lovers, not fighters.

This is, perhaps, because even the most Jewishly educated among them know next to nothing about modern Israeli history and culture let alone the nuts and bolts of the Israel/Palestine conflict. When discussion leader Hillel Zaremba of the Israel Consulate asked the students in the room if they’d ever studied Middle Eastern history in high school, only one student raised her hand. Even then, her experience was vague at best.

Why? Because Jewish institutions at large operate under the same pressures as Hillel groups on campus: Focusing on the positive in order to sustain and potentially grow membership. Unfortunately, raising a cheering squad for Israel just isn’t enough. Many students who attended the event admitted that the insulated, “ra-ra Israel!” perspective they received growing up in Jewish schools and camps didn’t help them confront the accusations of anti-Zionists. As Columbia University sophomore Ben Chevlin explained, being exposed to a variety of views on Israel hasn’t only allowed him to get his “facts straight about the other side,” it’s also equipped him to be an “educated advocate for Israel”.

Exposure to other viewpoints is a great thing, but what about generating one of your own? African American Zionist Chloe Valdary succinctly explains in Crossing the Line 2 that “Zionism is the civil rights movement of the Jewish people.” Yet, so many young Jewish Americans avoid Israel like the plague unless a free trip or a free dinner is involved. And in a world of mixed messages and violent threats they’ve been given nothing more to go on by their parents than, “Israel is good.”

Israel is more than good. Israel is right. And Israeli is rightfully ours. Israel, like individuality, isn’t about being perfect or being liked. It is about being, existing in a state of liberty free from the bonds of servitude. Jewish Americans often fail to acknowledge this because their freedom has never been at stake. Today it seems that only Israeli Jews, descendants of Holocaust survivors and refugees from Arab lands, can fully comprehend and convey the goodness and rightness of Israel. And because we are so disconnected from them, we are disconnected from the Zionist vision that makes Israel great and empowers Jews around the globe.

Our students should not have to be scared. Nor should we have to use scare tactics to get them to take an interest in Israel. The Jewish community, synagogues, federations and organizations, should be working to develop programming that engages young Jews with Israeli culture, history and Zionism on a consistent basis. Annual Israel parades should be the culmination of a year’s worth of Israel-integrated programming, not the one time of the year Jewish Americans engage with the State.

Most of all, parents should be actively immersing their children in Israeli culture at home. Achievements in academics and sports look great on college applications. The vision and authority they’ll possess thanks to a Zionist upbringing will prepare them for a great life.

About the Author
Susan L.M. Goldberg is a mother, writer and passionate Zionist with a Master’s degree in media studies. With her Israeli-American husband she stands at the crossroads of Israeli and Jewish American culture, politics and religious practice.
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