Last summer, high-profile walkoffs from Birthright tours of Israel made headlines in Jewish media and beyond. Look how evil Israel is, the world smugly rushed to pronounce. Even young Jews can’t stand their lies anymore.
Media reports painted the walkoff participants as social justice heroes, but in fact they were probably being manipulated by well-funded NGOs, anti-Israel organizations with a powerful agenda that goes way beyond college campuses. And they’ve found a willing, receptive audience, composed of Jewish 20-somethings who simply don’t know what to think about Israel.
Therein lies the problem.
When it comes to what to think about Israel, this is a challenge that, although largely unacknowledged, actually has its roots long before the existence of the State of Israel.
Even many adult Diaspora Jews aren’t all that comfortable with Israel–a discomfort that probably goes back over a hundred years, to the dawn of Zionism. Meaning that Jewish parents and educators in the Diaspora have traditionally shied away from giving too positive an impression of Israel. It turns out they were justifiably nervous.
Before the establishment of the State of Israel, Diaspora Jews, particularly American Jews, feared seeming too gung-ho about Israel for two reasons, according to Elliot Abrams: “Zionism… long lay under a cloud of suspicion among American Jews, not only because it might raise dangerous charges of ‘dual loyalty’ but also because, in focusing exclusively on the plight and future safety of Jews alone, it contradicted the ethos of liberal universalism.”
Fair enough. Zionism turned out to be a very dangerous ideology for Jews, as was seen in communist Russia, as well as in Arab countries like Iraq and Morocco.
And if anything, things got even worse after Israel declared independence in 1948. Not only did Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben Gurion, repeatedly, unequivocally, and undiplomatically, maintain that Israel offered the only meaningful type of Jewish life, but he also literally threatened the parents of the United States that he was ready to take their children by force if need be for his cause:
“We appeal to the parents to help us bring their children here. Even if they decline to help, we will bring the youth to Israel, but I hope that this will not be necessary” (cited by Zev Ganin in his comprehensive book An uneasy relationship: American Jewish leadership and Israel, 1948-1957).
Traditionally, what evolved for many parents and educators was the “symbiosis” model – in which Israel relies on America for funds and provides America, in turn, with a source of vague Jewish pride along with a vacation destination. This is a comfortable arms-length model that let Americans be Americans, while not being overly concerned about Israel in their day-to-day lives.
Having raised Jewish kids in North America, I’ve seen this uneasy relationship up close and personal. Parents, schools, teachers: they’re often trying to impart the love of Israel in an abstract way, but they’re also nervous that their kids are going to leave if they fall in love with Israel too deeply.
Schools have to be careful just how Zionist the message is that they share with their students. The problem gets worse when you think about that vague definition of “Jewish pride.” What is it exactly that Israel gives to American Jews? Nobody today seems quite sure.
As education scholar Alex Pomson has discovered, particularly among non-Orthodox schools, the approach to Israel education is scattershot at best, marked by a lack of ideological clarity, and increasingly depending on a single brief trip to Israel as a focus of their Israel studies.
These educators have probably been inspired by what’s seen as the success of Birthright programs and the experiential aspects of Jewish identity that can be capitalized upon through “mifgash” – the living encounter with Israel that’s only possible on the literal ground.
But given the short duration of these trips and the fact that they’re more often than not poorly integrated with the curriculum (for instance, most schools’ Israel trips use guides who are unaware of the school’s curriculum, coupled with the fact that classroom educators often do not accompany the trips), Pomson has called these trips overall “a catalogue of missed opportunities.”
I can’t help but agree, adding that they’re a catalogue of missed opportunities that leave teachers, principals, and parents believing they’ve done their jobs: they have inculcated a love of Israel in their children. When in reality what they’ve absorbed is, at best, a hodge-podge of values and scattered impressions of Israel and their Jewish identity.
And then these same parents and educators are mystified if kids later turn around, whether on a Birthright trip or on a college campus, and reject Israel.
Scholar Evyatar Friesel has termed this rejection “Jewish Judeophobia” (“On the complexities of modern Jewish identity: Contemporary Jews against Israel.” Israel Affairs, 17(4), 1022, 504-519) and commented that the demographic in which it’s most likely to appear is those who, on Pew surveys, indicate that they have “few or no Jewish practices or beliefs.”
As Friesel puts it, “Strangely enough, in many cases their only affirmation of Jewishness is a negative one, their anti-Israelism.” In other words, their sole attachment to Judaism exists in this single negative aspect: protesting Israel.
Particularly outside of Orthodoxy, but even within it (especially if we consider haredi (ultra-Orthodox) schools outside of Israel which teach students little or nothing about modern Israel) – Israel education isn’t working.
Our kids don’t believe what we’re teaching them about Israel because we’re teaching it badly, we’re teaching it in a way that’s halfhearted and disorganized, and we’re teaching it in a way that says, “You should like Israel – but not too much.”
The Diaspora Jewish community has essentially come to put all its Israel education eggs in one basket. Folks tell themselves, “We don’t have to get too specific. Just get kids to Israel and they’ll see what it’s really like.”
Will they really?
Too many kids come back from those encounters not knowing what to think. Or convinced they’ve been lied to. I could go on for another fifty or hundred pages about the content of those Israel trips, and why they aren’t speaking effectively to this generation, but that’s the subject for another article altogether – or for my recent book, Building a Better Birthright (which I invite you to check out and share with any educators you know).
What I will say here is that I believe these trips are not doing a good job of countering media messages with truth and openness—at least, not as participants are perceiving things. The message needs to be updated and perhaps tempered, to offer a little less of a “rah-rah” monolithic approach and a little more of a nuanced take on Israel’s history and contemporary existence.
Whatever goes on in Israel, the fact is that the magic “trip to Israel” ticket is less and less compelling to young Jews with every passing year. I won’t deny that Birthright often works and, as organizers are quick to point out, there have been thousands of happy Birthright participants since 1999, many of whom have maintained or increased their commitment to Jewish living since their trip.
But the fact is that many are not happy. Some of these unhappy participants remain silent, unsatisfied with the answers they’re receiving. And some are very, very vocal, those “social justice” warriors who could maybe be convinced not to walk off if they had just a little more clarity on what Israel means to them in their modern Jewish lives.
Why are young Jews turning away from Israel? The roots of the rift between Israel and America lie not in politics but in history – the history of systematic ambivalence—and in education – or rather, the lack of comprehensive Israel education which is eating away at the identity of young Jews.
Jewish educators from many different streams seem to agree that, done right, Israel education could provide a centering element that brings together disparate voices within the global Jewish community. To see how true that is, you only have to look at Reform Jews, Orthodox Jews, Conservative Jews, unaffiliated Jews, all walking together waving flags at any Israel Day parade, pushing carriages, singing Hinei Mah Tov.
This is the unity and pride in shared identity that young Jews deserve—and it’s one no anti-Israel NGO is ever going to provide. If we as parents, teachers, scholars, educators, and concerned Jews all over the world embrace Israel unambiguously and share relevant messages about what this country means to us all, we can build a generation of stronger Jews.
Jennifer Tzivia MacLeod is the author of dozens of books for Jewish children and families including the recent Building a Better Birthright: Israel Education for American Jewish Identity.