An Open Letter to Jewish Campus Professionals and Educators

An Open Letter to Jewish Campus Professionals and Educators: Time to Step Up to the Plate on Israel

by David Bernstein

Dear Jewish Campus Professional and Educator,

With Israel on the front lines and the front pages, these are challenging times to be a Jewish educator. In times like these, we need to engage young people in thoughtful conversations about Israel, guide them through the controversies, and encourage them to get involved. Unfortunately, such conversations are not happening frequently enough, or in ways that help young Jews understand and connect to Israel. Based on my conversations with various professionals, there are three reasons for this:

First, Israel is complicated and many professionals don’t feel up to the task. Before leading young people in the discussion, you must be confident in your views and able to articulate your own connection to Israel. Read lots of articles and opinion pieces. Talk to your colleagues in the field. Hold a series of lunch- and-learns. Spend time developing your own relationship with Israel.

Second, Jewish students today are complicated. For the first time, more young Jews have been to Israel than their parents. But travel to Israel is only the beginning of their journey. Many have unanswered questions. Your approach in helping them think through the issues makes all the difference. Anyone who has worked even a minute in Jewish education knows that this is not a generation that takes well to being told what to think about any issue, Israel included. Spend time understanding where your students are coming from on Israel so you can guide them along the way.

Third, the Jewish community is complicated. Many Jewish educators are intimidated by what they perceive as the rancorous and alienating conversation taking place outside the walls of school and campus among Jews of different ideological stripes. Spend time understanding and learning to navigate these rough waters.

While I’ve witnessed a number of meaningful and inspiring discussions in various Jewish settings, I’ve also noticed two troubling trends: one is to avoid the discussion altogether, fearful of making a misstep that can land them in hot water; and the other is to facilitate dialogues or conversations, absent any clear point of view or values.

While an open-ended discussion is preferable to no discussion at all, both take the easy way out and deprive young Jews of what they need to make sense of the world. Instead, we should help students show their love and support for Israel and, at the same time, struggle with the complexities of the conflict.

Feeling the need to be even-handed, some Jewish educators overlook the instilling love part. We don’t teach or discuss Jewish life as if it’s just another pastime; neither should we teach or discuss Israel as just another subject on the syllabus, another country on the globe, or another public issue. A former colleague of mine suggested that when we teach our kids to cheer for the local sports team, we first take them to a game and buy them a jersey. Only later do we slam the coach.

When leading discussions on Israel, we should frame the issues in a way that cultivates concern, commitment and care. When discussing the recent conflict in Gaza, we shouldn’t hesitate to give the context of the ongoing rocket fire targeting Israeli civilians. The vast majority of Jews from left to right on the political spectrum agree that Israelis were unjustly targeted and justly defended themselves. Such framing leaves plenty of room for difficult discussions about individual acts or specific policies.

In short, we should be clear about our guiding values. My list would include:

  • Israel not only has a right to exist as a Jewish state, it plays a critical role in the creative sustenance of the Jewish people. Zionism, the national liberation movement of the Jewish people, is central to who we are as Jews.
  • We all have a responsibility to spend time in Israel and develop our own unique connection.
  • Israel has the right to defend itself.  “We simply have to do what we have to do. What any nation not merely has the right to, but the obligation to do,” says Rabbi Donniel Hartman of the Shalom Hartman Institute.
  • No single perceived shortcoming in Israeli society is a commentary on the entire nation.
  • Criticizing policies of the Israeli government is not the same as condemning the entire nation. In the words of Yossi Klein Halevi, “most American Jews – and most Israelis, too, I sense – no longer believe that love for Israel means uncritical support.”
  • While that small minority of young Jews who deny Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state or otherwise de-legitimize the nation should receive no official sanction from the organized community, they should be welcomed, as individuals, to our Shabbat tables. They are still our children.
  • In the words of Israel’s Ambassador to the US, Michael Oren, “Israel is both a work in progress and a work of progress.”

Such a framework of values and views leaves plenty of room for students to contemplate and discuss the complexities of Israeli society and its quest for peace and security, but it doesn’t forfeit our obligation to transmit the crucial place of Israel in the identity and destiny of the Jewish people or the fundamental rightness of its cause. Spend some time figuring out your guiding values for your discussions with students.

Here are some practical guidelines for conducting such challenging discussions:

  • In opening the discussion, provide clear context, letting the participants know that the discussion can include varying opinions. Participate openly in the conversation by sharing your values and views while leaving space for participants to disagree.
  • Before getting into the discussion on what participants think about the conflict or controversy, spend time exploring why each of us cares about Israel in the first place. What’s our personal connection?
  • Provide readings from thoughtful, nuanced thinkers on Israel that wrestle with complex issues.
  • Ask tough questions, such as “In a time of war, what do you think Israel’s obligation is to Palestinian civilians?” but give them a glimpse into views of prominent thinkers such as Michael Walzer, who argues that “When Palestinian militants launch rocket attacks from civilian areas, they are themselves responsible – and no one else is – for the civilian deaths caused by Israeli counter fire. But … Israeli soldiers are required to aim as precisely as they can at the militants, to take risks in order to do that, and to call off counterattacks that would kill large numbers of civilians  … Still, minimizing does not mean avoiding entirely: Civilians will suffer.”

It’s time to step up to the plate on Israel. The next generation depends on it.

David Bernstein is Executive Director of The David Project.