For the last several years, I have heard and witnessed personal stories about Israel (dis)engagement. Everyone asks how to stem distancing from Israel. My anecdotes number more than a hundred; they come from the academic classroom, rabbis, parents of students, and many from audience members I had never previously met. Students and parents who raise some aspect of Israel as an issue on college campuses have mostly been Jewish, some with day school roots, others engaged in major Jewish organizations, some with and others without Israel knowledge in their background.
The repeated central topic of controversy is Israeli-Palestinian relations and leadership. Most questions pertain to the territories, the settlements, and Israel. Most who ask questions are inevitably looking for reinforcement of what they already believe or what they want their children to believe. Many, in discussing Israel, only want their own views reinforced; anything else is viewed as illegitimate, belonging to the “other” side. And often the root of dispute among generations is that parents sometimes failed to diligently tell our story to our children.
In front of the 200 plus assembled for a recent Washington forum, the despairing father of a 20-year-old asked, “Where did I go wrong with her? Why is she in the streets loudly protesting now against the very organization that I have belonged to and have supported for decades?” It is a recurring question: How can I, as the parent, fix whatever was not communicated or not learned by my offspring? It is not that we failed to tell all aspects of Jewish or Israeli history, it is that we chose to tell so little. We left the telling of the story or stories of Israel’s establishment to others to tell, and often assumed that our children would learn by osmosis, or maybe from a trip to Israel, or, like half the Jewish children in North American below the age 18, NOT learn anything from any schooling about their Jewish identity, let alone something valuable and valued about Israel. If Jewish students are not learning a Jewish or Israeli story in their formative years, can a chagrined father who did not expose his offspring to Jewish learning or only Jewish-learning-lite, ask the question, “where did I go wrong?”
The second reason why some Jewish 14-30 year olds don’t care or oppose views that we may possess about Israel has a great deal to do with their world of learning. How many of our students, our offspring, actually read journal articles, books, something that is longer than 350 words, or 140 characters, or from a blog? One does not need to be Jewish to lack historical perspective.
Jewish students, like most of their non-Jewish peers, live in a fast-paced world in which they are often not experienced in listening to political views other than their own. Few are in the habit or comfortable in deviating from their own rigid viewpoints, or for some no viewpoints at all.
Here is a true case in point: A young, brash, opinionated rabbi in the San Francisco area could not contain herself when a rabbinic peer, a bit older, said that her congregants did not have time to study or learn the nuances of Israel, Palestinians, and the territories. Said the older rabbi, “there were more important issues like health care, immigration matters, not foreign policy or Israel that matter to my congregants.” The older rabbi concluded, “my congregants are apathetic about Israel as a topic, just apathetic, they don’t care.” Clearly vexed, the younger rabbi proclaimed, “No, I beg to differ with you, your congregants are estranged and alienated from Israel, not apathetic!” To which the older rabbi, replied immediately, “How can you possibly know what my congregants are feeling? They don’t care one way or another.” Five minutes later the younger rabbi left the room, I assume because her total view that diaspora Jews need to be alienated or estranged from Israel was not accepted as gospel by a peer. The younger rabbi had a political case to make: it was rigid, one-sided — “Israel is doing bad things, wrong things, and thus American Jews must feel alienated and estranged.” Not so, said the older rabbi.
And then there are the hundreds of students required to read some faculty member’s intentionally chosen articles for a syllabus in a college course that is either a heavy or polite rip at Israel as a democracy. Many times students who may have been taught differently or believe differently don’t speak up and question the teacher or professor, remaining silent instead; not making waves in the classroom. Leaving a budding controversy undisturbed is their preference. The reasoning I have been told is simple: go along, get the better grade, and don’t challenge the professor’s premises. Question for parents: have we taught our children to accept and not question premises when they know that the premises are biased, prejudiced, or inaccurate? Is the hunt for the grade more important than truth or at least another view? Each parent and offspring needs to answer that one individually.
This is long topic for a short space. In context, we all should step back as we hit the 50th anniversary of the June 1967 war. Is the Palestinian issue really number one for Israelis, or for the rest of the Arab world? Or is the issue simply number one in our minds and therefore we assume it is likewise for others? Contemporary reality in spring 2017 is that an overwhelming number of Arabs across the Middle East, and Israelis too, care much less about the future of the territories, settlements, or whether there will be a one or two-state solution. As depicted by Arab writers, most Arabs today, if one can generalize, care more about whether the Arab state system will survive and less about Palestinians, the territories, or Israel’s relationship with either. And most Israelis are much more troubled by Iran’s proxies having territorial access to the Golan Heights in a reconfigured Syria.
What matters most is that perspectives in all things are valid. The only common Rx for each of the four children on Passover is to tell them the story, not just the one you want them to hear because it reflects a preferred view or their level of interest. Asking questions of teachers, reading books or newspapers that do not reflect our comfort zones are healthy undertakings. Learn as much of the story as possible — the good, bad, difficult, easy, gratifying, and poignant along the road to peoplehood and self-determination.
And listen to the story, read about it over and over — all of it. If we do, our Seder on Passover, and our longer story beyond Passover, will I suspect easily withstand distancing.