Israel advocacy and Israel education — leadership must decide

The conflation of Israel advocacy and Israel education has resulted in growing numbers of North American Jews ill-prepared to understand and negotiate the complexity of contemporary Israel. New initiatives are launched to prepare young and old to respond to calls for BDS, to defend Israel’s legitimacy, to deepen their appreciation of the historic achievements of the Jewish state reborn. Leadership avoids investing in substantive Israel education and as a result, the drift continues, gulfs widen, large numbers turn away. Israel education can provide contexts for thinking critically about complex Israel-related issues and developing one’s own vision of what Israel can and should be. While intensifying debate, Israel education can also strengthen connection and engagement. It is time for Jewish leadership to invest significantly in serious sustained Israel education.

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Pre-State Visions

For many years, I have taught a class titled “Pre-State Visions: Jabotinsky, Ben Gurion, and Magnes,” in which participants read excerpts from each of these pre-state Zionist leaders. After outlining the context of the Yishuv during the Palestine Mandate (l920-1948), participants zero in on the different visions these leaders proposed for the emerging “Jewish homeland in Palestine” — the language of the Balfour Declaration. Each held different views on core issues: Should the future homeland/state be socialist or capitalist? Secular or religious? Should it be a Jewish state or a bi-national state? The responses to these dilemmas provided the ideological foundation for the pre-state movements — a harbinger for the robust and noisy multi-party politics of Israel today.

Each of these Zionist schools of thought had partner organizations in North America and Europe which amplified their visions and mobilized support — financial and human. Back then, American Zionist leaders identified and supported groups that had conflicting visions of what the future entity in Palestine should be. As but two examples, if you were an adherent of the revisionist leader Vladimir Jabotinsky, you likely supported a Jewish state on both sides of the River Jordan; and if you were a member of Hashomer Hatzair, you likely supported a bi- national socialist state.

Early Statehood

When Israel was attacked after declaring independence in May l948, world Jewry rallied to provide essential financial and political support during the state’s first decades. In North America, a wide network of national Jewish organizations emerged that focused on telling the history of 20th century Jewry — from the Holocaust to the building of the Jewish state — and marshalled historic levels of financial and political support. Post l967, Israel advocacy enabled American Jews to learn the history of the young state, embrace its achievements, and mobilize political support on its behalf. This became, as Jonathan Woocher z’’l described in his 1985 book Sacred Survival, a core pillar of the “civil religion” of North American Jewry. The American Zionist groups, which had heralded different visions of what the future State of Israel should be, withered. North American Jewry focused, both in its advocacy and education programs, on teaching and inculcating Israel’s founding core narrative — in Weizmann’s words, “the solution for a people without a land and a land without a people.” Israel’s dazzling accomplishments were celebrated, support was mobilized, and checks were written. This period will stand as one of the great accomplishments of 20th century American Jewry. However, growing sectors of North American Jewry — particularly the younger generations who had not lived through either the Holocaust or the state’s first decades — found themselves increasingly ill prepared to understand or negotiate the complexity of contemporary Israel.

Israel Advocacy/Israel Education

If Israel advocacy can be understood as mobilizing American Jewry to stand with and champion the people of Israel as they build the state, Israel education can be understood as providing settings to study the historic connection of the Jewish People with Israel, the history of Zionism, the history of Jews and Palestinian Arabs in Palestine/Israel, and to understand and work their way through some of the difficult “gray areas.” The purpose of Israel education is both to deepen connection with the State of Israel and its people and to provide contexts for students young and old to develop their own visions of what Israel can and should be.

Four examples of “gray issues” that beckon serious examination: 

In a May 2018 article titled “As Israel turns 70, many young American Jews turn away,” Northeastern University Professor Dov Waxman wrote that most young Jews are liberal and it is increasingly “hard for them to reconcile the values they have internalized with the idea of a state that gives preferential treatment to Jews at the expense of its non-Jewish citizens.” As Waxman observed, most American Jews are liberal nationalists, committed to equality. The Zionism that prevailed is a conservative nationalism, preferencing Jews. A second example: Our narrative has Israel being continually attacked by its hostile Arab neighbors (and we were). However, both the Suez War of l956 and the 1967 Six-Day War are now viewed by some historians as pre-emptive wars launched by Israel (with allies in 1956) in response to aggressive threatening behavior from its Arab neighbors. A third: While many celebrate Israel as the lone democracy in the Middle East, Israel’s treatment of its Arab citizens garners widespread scrutiny. Fourth, Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians since l967 is increasingly regarded as a hostile occupation that violates human rights. Each of these issues is markedly different but they are among those that surface and require serious study — introducing students to their complexity, the various perspectives on each, and their multiple surrounding narratives. The objective is to help students learn about the issues, recognize different perspectives, and develop their own views.

Young American Jews and Israel

These issues can be studied and worked through, but not by ignoring them. Young American Jews are increasingly introduced to these and similar issues on college campuses, which leads them to often ask “why didn’t they tell us?” A 2018 qualitative study of high school graduates from four Jewish day schools — two Modern Orthodox and two community schools — was prepared by Rosov Consulting with the support of the AVI CHAI Foundation. In the 2018 report titled “Devoted, Disengaged, and Disillusioned,” one high school alum captured a view shared by many: “I realized how one sided the information was that we were provided in high school.” Another likened his day school education to being “plugged into a propaganda machine.” The Rosov/AVI CHAI report concludes “we are left with a strong sense of a group of individuals who feel their schools have failed them.” To repeat, this was not a study of marginal Jews, it was a study of graduates of Modern Orthodox and Jewish community high schools.

Having been denied space or time to grapple with these and other issues in their day schools, synagogues, congregational schools, Jewish summer camps, or Israel trips, students are often angry — why didn’t they tell us? Growing numbers feel bewildered if not betrayed, and some intuit that Jewish leadership lacks confidence that studying such issues can lead to positive outcomes for identified Jews who care deeply about Israel.

While empirical data about the long-term impact of Israel education is scarce, anecdotal reports and preliminary studies appear to confirm that providing contexts to examine such issues strengthens long term connection to and engagement with Israel. Dr. Bethamie Horowitz authored an important 2020 study of the alumni of Kivunim — an Israel based gap year program. Of the 589 alumni who attended Kivunim from 2006 to 2019, 65 percent participated in the study. Overwhelmingly, the study details how Kivunim alumni appreciate and value the program’s educational vision, which includes studying the historic debates within the Zionist movement, requires the study of both Hebrew and Arabic, and fosters critical thinking about the complexity of Israel’s history and contemporary challenges. The report concludes: “Alumni felt that Kivunim gave them a way to address the most troubling challenges of contemporary Israel while helping them develop profound connection to it.”

The Israeli Reality

The reality of Israel is complicated. In all societies, one’s founding mythic history avoids nuanced issues and there is often distance between a country’s lofty ideals and contemporary realities. Americans are now grappling with this vis-à-vis race in America. The delta between what is and what could be, the world as we know it and our visions for the future, provides the context for deep study, for more deeply understanding Israel, and for determining how one can most effectively be an ally in shaping Israel’s future.

Israel remains a dazzling historic achievement — politically, economically, culturally and beyond. Israel also faces a range of challenges, including maintaining its security in a changing regional and global context, reducing economic inequality, clarifying the proper religion-state balance, strengthening the fabric of Israel’s democracy including the demographic challenge of Israeli rule over millions of Palestinians who do not enjoy civil and political equality. These challenges provide a rich agenda for study and learning, which can lead to enhanced engagement.

Effective Israel Education

To be sure, effective multi-year Israel education will have many objectives. It will seek to enable the student to learn about the historical, cultural, and religious connection of the Jewish People to the land and people of Israel. It will enable the learner to understand the historical context in which Zionism emerged. It can provide a window into and an experience of Israel’s amazing cultural, economic and technological vibrancy. Effective Israel education will speak to the learner’s heart and head. But beyond these important objectives, effective Israel education can enable the learner to think critically about the complicated “gray” issues of Israel’s history and its contemporary challenges and provide the context for each student to develop his or her own views and visions of what Israel can be.

While most American Zionist groups withered over time after l948, small groups emerged on both the political right and left advocating policies for different visions of Israel’s future. That said, the largest centrist organizations of American Jewry — the Reform and Conservative religious movements, the Federations, the national coordinating bodies of Jewish community centers, Hillel, and Jewish summer camps — migrated to advocacy. As their memberships reflected the wide spectrum of views held by American Jews on issues in Israel, in avoiding issues where there were growing differences of opinion — particularly in recent decades as debates about settlements and religious diversity in Israel became more important for American Jews — the largest North American Jewish organizations became potent and effective advocates for Israel. Political leadership in Israel — whether under the Labor Party or the Likud — and the leadership of the Jewish Agency welcomed this transition. In a hostile and challenging environment, Israel’s leadership welcomed an American Jewry that was supportive and actively advocated on its behalf, not one with visible debates about core values, conflicting visions, or alternative policies.

But we are at a different moment. To be sure, strong Israel advocacy will continue to be essential moving forward — mobilizing North American Jewry to stand with the people of Israel. However, if we are to engage future generations with Israel, we will need to provide time and space in our key Jewish educational institutions — day schools, Jewish summer camps, youth groups, in synagogues and on Israel trips — to learn about and grapple with the complexity of Israel’s history and the range of views on contemporary issues. We will need to provide a context for young and old to forge their own views and visions of what Israel can and should be. When I was quietly discussing these ideas with colleagues some years back, one asked: If we place the challenging issues on the table, might large numbers of Jews walk away? To which I answered: Most will emerge with a far clearer understanding of why and how Israel was created, of its legitimacy, and the multiple challenges it continues to face. And this can lead to strengthened identification with Israel, commitment to it, and active engagement. Credible Israel education can enable young and old to legitimate Israel on the basis of views developed after wrestling with Israel’s history and contemporary issues and aligning their views about Israel with their deepest values.


There are examples of serious Israel education sprinkled throughout the landscape of American Jewry, but they are few and far between. They must be massively scaled; Jewish educators need to be prepared to lead such efforts; age appropriate curricula will need to be developed. This will require significant sustained funding and will only take place if Jewish leadership in Israel and North America recognize the urgency to do so. This will require encouraging young and old to debate core assumptions and policies and settings to develop one’s own vision, conflicting visions, of what Israel can and should be. If seriously undertaken, it will be messy and noisy, reminiscent of pre-state Zionist debates, but the noise will reflect heightened engagement in shaping Israel’s future. With confidence in the legitimacy of Israel and the Jewish People, serious sustained Israel education can stem the drift and distancing currently underway.

The choice is before leadership. Will we invest in serious Israel education? Or will the attraction of a still potent support/advocacy engine, if declining in numbers, mean that the drift continues and more and more Jews turn away — not in anger, not as opponents — but because there is simply no place within our community to grapple with the complexity of contemporary Israel? The choice is before us.

Dr. John Ruskay is a senior fellow at The Jewish People Policy Institute.