makloket l’sham shamayim

To help teens navigate antisemitism, we must teach compassionate disagreement

How can we as Jewish educators and adults—who may be overwhelmed ourselves—help teens in this moment?

As a third generation Holocaust survivor and Jewish educator with years of experience learning about and designing resources for teens around antisemitism, I’ve found it possible to talk about antisemitism in America without addressing Israel. 

But that has recently shifted. 

Now, alongside antisemitism fueled by white supremacy and ethno-nationalism, one increasingly prominent form of Jew-hatred is expressed through anger and violence directed at American Jews in response to events occurring in Israel, Gaza, and the West Bank. 

I have been thinking a lot about what American Jewish teens need right now from a mental-health and wellness perspective. What does a supportive and compassionate conversation about Israel and antisemitism look like? As I ask this question, I am struck by how overwhelming this is for American Jews of all ages: the task of sorting out our thoughts and feelings about what is happening in Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza while also holding the emotional weight of antisemitism. We, the entire Jewish people, have been called murderers, racists, even Nazis. 

What makes it even harder is the way the national dialogue in the United States, especially on social media, pushes people of all ages to make bold, declarative statements about political issues. These statements not only aim to communicate a person’s opinion, but also to convey the type of person they are (for instance: Democrat or Republican; Justice Democrat or Centrist Democrat; Traditional Republican or Trump Republican). The stronger the statement, the more attention it gets. 

American Jews face pressure to choose between false binaries: am I pro-Israel or against-Israel; do I support Palestinians’ lives or do I support Israel’s right to do whatever it deems necessary to defend itself? Nuanced opinions are often volleyed to one side. Some Jewish young people feel pressure to disconnect from Israel to prove Jews are not Israelis, or to show that they disapprove of Israel’s actions. Others move to embrace Israel more fervently, and to blame Palestinians, Arabs, Iran, or Islam for what is happening. 

Meanwhile, all of this is happening against a backdrop of anti-Jewish hatred that can take a moment to recognize because it is not as familiar as historical antisemitic tropes and symbols. Even folks who stay silent are at risk of being targeted. For instance, there is a new form of cyber-harassment wherein Palestinian flags are being posted in the comments section of Jewish people’s social media posts, regardless of the content of the posts. This has all left many young American Jews asking, why aren’t my non-Jewish friends showing up for me?

It is a lot to handle. Therefore, it is no surprise that many American Jews are staying quiet. I can relate. Wary of conflict for most of my life, my caution has extended to the capital-C conflict between Israel and Palestine. I have worried: how do I take a firm stance on something I do not fully understand? And yet, to paraphrase Rachel Simmons—an expert on girls and leadership whom I love to quote in my curriculum work—I wonder if I am “disconnecting from the truest parts” of myself or “sacrificing essential self-knowledge” about my Jewish identity when I am silent about Israel in person or online.  

So, how can we as Jewish educators and adults—who may be overwhelmed ourselves—help teens in this moment? One important element in a supportive and compassionate conversation about Israel and antisemitism is the cultivation of a safe and brave space. Moving Traditions teen groups, Rosh Hodesh, Shevet, and Tzelem all prioritize this: an atmosphere in which teens are valued, respected, and encouraged to share a diversity of thoughts and feelings. When young people develop trust with one another, it allows them to feel comfortable sharing what they think and feel, even if—especially if—those thoughts and feelings are messy, complicated, and nuanced. 

In addition, Jewish tradition teaches us how to engage in constructive disagreement, or makloket l’sham shamayim, where the goal is to learn and to strengthen relationships, rather than to win an argument. This wisdom is especially important at a time when binary narratives about Israel and antisemitism abound. The Mishnah offers tips on how to engage in “arguments for the sake of heaven,” as interpreted by Rabbi Daniel Roth

  1. Debate issues without attacking people and damaging relationships.  
  2. Check your motivations for engaging in the conflict. Debate to solve problems rather than to win.  
  3. Listen to the other side and be open to admitting that you may be wrong.  
  4. Consider that you might both be right, even if you hold opposite opinions.

As Judaism also teaches, we learn, grow, and connect with one another by asking questions, wrestling with ideas, and sharing how we feel. Right now, when antisemitism is on the rise, it is of tremendous importance that we offer respect, support, and kindness to each other, especially when we disagree. Here are some questions that I invite you to talk about with the teens and adults in your life.

  1. How are you feeling? (Simply, what emotions are you feeling? But also, how are you feeling in response to the rising antisemitism in the US? And how are you feeling about antisemitism in the context of recent events in Israel, Gaza, and the West Bank?)
  2. What is it like to read posts about Israel and Palestine on social media? What types of posts have you seen? Have you posted? If so, what was that like? And what kind of response did you get? 
  3. What is it you feel you cannot say right now? Why?
  4. How have you heard antisemitism defined? Where is the line, for you, between criticism of Israel and antisemitism? 
  5. What do you find surprising or upsetting about how antisemitism is showing up right now?
  6. What has your personal relationship with Israel and Zionism been like throughout your life and how does it connect, if at all, to your Jewish identity? What contributed to that relationship? If you have a personal relationship with Palestinians or with Gaza or the West Bank, is that connected to your Jewish identity? 
  7. Whose voices or opinions have you not heard enough of, and how might you hear more of those voices?

None of these questions are easy to answer. Jewish educators and parents of Jewish teens have a big task: not only to process our own thoughts and emotions, but also to be a supportive and loving sounding board for young people. 

It may feel tempting to disengage. However, if we do choose to engage, we have an incredible opportunity. We can strengthen our relationships with the young people in our lives. By inviting them into real, authentic conversation, where the goal is to learn together, we show them respect. And through these conversations, we can help deepen their Jewish identities and their connections with the greater Jewish community. 

Jennifer Anolik is the curriculum manager of Moving Traditions, and also directs their Kol Koleinu Teen Feminist Fellowship.