According to some young American Jews, it’s time to start telling kids the truth about Israel. Upset about what they consider to be a steady diet of pro-Israel propaganda that ignores the plight of the Palestinians, some counselors at Jewish camps have, with the help of IfNotNow, launched an effort to begin educating their charges about the Palestinian narrative.
As far as these counselors are concerned, camps and other Jewish institutions need to get on the right side of what they consider the great outrage of our time: indifference to the sins of “occupation.”
The place to start, they say, is by educating (or should I say, re-educating) Jewish campers.
Those promoting this effort have all the enthusiasm of youth and passion of true believers. From their point of view, all they are doing is seeking to put some balance into the education that kids are getting about the Middle East and to tap into the idealism that comes naturally to those involved.
For some of them, their desire to say Kaddish — the Jewish prayer for the dead — for Palestinians who have been killed in Gaza since the founding of IfNotNow’s in 2014 seems to embody the universalist approach that resonates with many American Jews.
But the camp directors, donors, parents and especially the impressionable kids that his group is out to influence should not be deceived. What this effort represents is not balance, but imbalance.
Rather than point out how badly the official Jewish community is misleading Jewish kids about what’s going on in the Middle East, this story is a reminder of how our institutions of learning are failing to give children any education about Israel that is worth anything.
This effort also represents the problems associated with the Jewish community’s obsession with preserving a big tent encompassing every possible view, even if it means sacrificing important principles, such as support for Zionism.
Irrespective of any debate about the desirability of a more even-handed approach to the conflict, the group organizing the effort by these counselors is not a trustworthy resource.
IfNotNow professes to be neutral about Zionism, the right to a Jewish state and the BDS movement. But not having an opinion about efforts to deny Jews the same rights that left-wingers would never think of denying to others isn’t being neutral; it’s part of a campaign to undermine support for Israel, whatever its policies or borders.
While the group and its supporters keep talking about the “occupation,” the problem is that we don’t know exactly what they’re talking about. The people they’ve been so interested in saying Kaddish for — Hamas members killed in the fighting in Gaza while assaulting Israel’s border en masse during so-called “Marches of Return” —aren’t confused about the meaning of “occupation.” When they say “occupation,” they’re not referring to Israel’s presence in the territories it occupied in a defensive war of survival in 1967.
They’re talking about all of Israel, including the territory inside the pre-Six Day War, 1967 lines.
IfNotNow can’t claim to be just a garden-variety advocate for a two-state solution. Trusting its supporters to teach kids wouldn’t so much facilitate a more open discussion as it would promote a debate about whether Jews have any rights at all to live in peace in their own homeland — or to defend themselves against people who aim to harm them.
To resist the group’s efforts to impact programming at Jewish camps is not the same thing as to insist on spoon-feeding kids only one side of the complex history of the conflict.
IfNotNow’s consciousness-raising about “occupation” isn’t about hearing both sides; it’s about a narrative of Jews colonizing the indigenous people of the country, rather than teaching about Zionism as the national liberation movement of the Jewish people, who rebuilt the Jewish homeland.
Yet, the real problem at the heart of this controversy is the notion that Jewish kids have only been given one side of the story up until now.
To the contrary, most children at Jewish schools (both day schools and Hebrew schools) and at camps are hardly being taught anything about Israel, including the facts about the century-old war that has been waged against Zionism and the Jews.
That’s why most of them are hopelessly ignorant about things that Israeli peers grow up understanding — regardless of their politics. The overwhelming majority of American Jews are unprepared when faced with the sort of anti-Israel propaganda on many college campuses.
All IfNotNow seeks to do is give Jewish campers a head start on indoctrination into the catechism of Israel’s creation as original sin and Israel’s self-defense as an atrocity under just about any circumstances.
What Jewish kids need is not propaganda, but nuanced education about the conflict that enables them to know the facts and understand the arguments before making up their own minds. So rather than just push back at the IfNotNow effort, it should serve as a wake-up call to schools and camps that they’ve got to do more in teaching young people about Israel.
As easy as it is to fall for the argument that this is just a bunch of idealistic Jewish kids who want to do the right thing, letting IfNotNow get a foothold in mainstream Jewish camps is the antithesis of Jewish values.
Kids shouldn’t be sheltered from the truth about a difficult issue. But neither should they be entrusted to people who seek to undermine support for a Jewish state.
Parents and camp administrations need to ensure that this insidious effort to undermine rather than supplement Jewish education is stopped in its tracks.