College Students Want (and Need) Critical Discourse About Israel

By Joshua Ladon

I spent winter break week with 125 college students and campus professionals from more than 20 American universities who came to the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem to study during their winter vacation, rather than spend it on a beach or at a ski resort.

The learning focused on building participants’ vocabulary for speaking about Israel through the language of values. We aim to build students’ capacity to speak about Israel as a reflection of Jewish possibility. Many of the students attend schools featured on the recent Algemeiner.com list of the 40 worst colleges for Jews, and they expressed frustration over the emphasis on anti-Semitism, upon which the list relied. The students challenged back, as others have, and said that their schools’ vibrant Jewish communities have been unfairly characterized.

In reality, this is not a new concern. The dissonance between activity and acceptance has been a theme since Jews entered the academy. In his book, The Making of Modern Zionism, Shlomo Avineri identified a paradox at the heart of Zionism’s inception. Throughout the 1800s, the freedoms of European Jews increased dramatically, including entry to universities. Avineri said that in 1814, the number of Jews in the academy was negligible. By 1914 however, Jews in Europe had not only entered the University, but had contributed greatly to the humanities, philosophy, and the sciences.

That Zionism did not emerge from the villages of pogrom victims but rather from the graduates of universities, is testament, for Avineri, that Jewish access to European society produced the realization that they could not actually “overcome” their differences, no matter how they tried.

Similarly, the tensions Jews feel on North American campuses today, for the most part appear most dramatically at schools where a robust Jewish community has taken root.

Despite their remonstrations, most of the students in our program offered descriptions of experiences that suggest being Jewish on campus is difficult for the outsider to comprehend. While the students pointed to some overt acts (BDS votes within student government, “Israel Apartheid” walls, and the disruption of public programs), much of the tension and confusion they identified stemmed from being third-party observers to these activities.

Many had not had overt, explicit experiences with anti-Semitism; rather, they felt implicated in informal, implicit ways. Students spoke about the ways they were made proxy representatives of Israel by non-Jewish friends, who asked them why Israel would do X or Y, faculty who used examples of Israel to illustrate human rights violations, and internally, by Hillel and other Jewish groups on campus who use Israel as a stand-in for determining one’s affiliation and level of “Jewishness.”

The difficulty for educators in responding to these students’ experiences is not simply that the nature of their dilemma requires a complex response. These students are at a time in their lives that will come to help them define who they will be. It is a time of full of uncertainty and turbulence.

According to psychologist J.J. Arnett, this period of emerging adulthood is the central time for identity formation. He says that it is a time, “when the scope of independent exploration of life’s possibilities is greater for most people than it will be at any other period of the life course.” It is a moment in life when young people figure out who they are and who they want to be.

Sharon Daloz Parks echoes Arnett when she writes, “…the promise and vulnerability of emerging adulthood lie in the experience of the birth of critical awareness and consequently in the dissolution and re-composition of the meaning of self, other, world, and “God.” Emerging adulthood is a tenuous time when people try on identities, play out different conceptions of self, and evaluate their inherited ideologies and beliefs, all in service of establishing a more set identity.

In my graduate research, I have spoken with students who had attended Jewish day schools and noted difficulties upon arriving in college, but did not feel like they had been ill-prepared for navigating this experience. One student said, “I wish I had had [difficult conversations about Israel] and I probably did, but I don’t think I was mature enough to have them.” Another student, reflecting on her own growth as she came to struggle with her conceptions of Israel, said, “…having that disorientation was so important to me and I’m so happy with where I landed….I think things should be different in education, but I don’t know if I would wave a magic wand and change my high school education.”

These experiences point to the way that the way Israel is addressed on campus needs to be approached in a developmentally appropriate way. University students are actively striving to formulate their own identity and do so in paradoxical ways. At times, they want to boldly assert their identities, and at other times want the space to experiment and try on things. This is only heightened by the permanency of a life lived on social media.

Rather than diagnose students’ lack of preparedness for the campus reality, our program aims to provide students with frameworks for thinking about Israel in service of building a deep and durable relationship, while also providing tools to navigate the variety of views they will encounter among their peers and in their communities. We want students to take seriously questions about what it means for Jews to have sovereignty, how Jewish power should be employed, and to imagine the possibilities of a Jewish state, as a way of enriching Jewish life.

Our course of study for the week focused on identifying a series of frameworks defined by statements of value that help shift the discourse around Israel. Ultimately, we want to help build a durable Zionism, rooted in participants’ Jewish identity. In this respect, participants investigated the parameters of values like self-preservation, compromise, justice, and autonomy, to name a few, and how they play out within the Jewish tradition, as well as their own conception of Zionism.

While it would seem from Jewish media that Jewish college students are living under the threat of constant attack, my recent encounter with some of the most elite Jewish students on American college campuses suggests a more complicated picture. More research about their experience is necessary, but it is safe to say that a programmatic response needs to work toward strengthening students’ and campus professionals’ resiliency, by providing them with rich frameworks for thinking about Israel and Judaism. When emerging adults are better able to articulate the complex nature of Israel’s role in American Judaism, they are better off.

Rabbi Joshua Ladon is Bay Area Manager for the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America and a doctoral student in Jewish Education at the Jewish Theological Seminary.