When I arrived at university three years ago, I had no idea that on day two of Freshers I would meet my best friend and I certainly was not expecting her to be someone I had crossed paths with five years prior at a Jewish American summer camp halfway between the cities in which we grew up. Yet, our shared experience helped us find each other in the midst of the most hectic week of our lives. Ever since we have regularly discussed the truly unique, yet slightly problematic, experience that is being a Jewish American youth.
One day, on our way home from tutorial, we deliberated a rant posted on Facebook by a mutual friend of ours from camp, in which she expressed her disappointment at the extreme pro-Israel bias that she retroactively realized tainted all of the education she had received through a variety of Jewish youth organizations. That rant, we felt, expressed a truth that my best friend and I had until that point never felt comfortable putting into words. The institutions in which Jewish American youth congregate to socialize and learn about their place in the world through the lense of their religious background almost always frame their educational elements within a pro-Israel context. A context often subtly forgoing critical moments in history when Israel was blatantly in the wrong, or giving only the Israeli perspective, and explaining only how our “brothers and sisters” in the holy land were the ones being wronged. I used to feel that propaganda was too strong a word to describe this experience; I now know just how fitting it is.
My initial experience with Jewish youth institutions was brief and detached. I only spent two summers at the camp where I met my would-be best friend, and only a year and a half as a member of an international Jewish “teen movement”. It was my study abroad program, however, that radicalized me in a manner in which I’m now glad to have recovered from.
In my sophomore year of high school, I studied abroad in Israel for two months of the school year. Those two months were immersive and intense – the main focus of the program was our Jewish studies class, and everything we learned was supplemented with trips all around the country to relevant historical sites. A fair number, I will admit, were purely objective historical accounts. But as we progressed into the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries, the tone began to shift, as we dissected the formation of Zionism and, later, the state of Israel.
A particular field trip that remains very clear in my mind is the day we spent in Sderot, the town closest to the border with Gaza, located less than a mile from the landmark. We toured parks and schools, instructed to notice how every building in the town doubled as a bomb shelter. We were taken to a facility where old rocket shells fired from Gaza into Sderot were kept and put on display, filling a distressingly large number of sheds. I will admit, the reality of it was shocking, and no one should have to live with that level of constant fear. But the message my instructors were sending was solely “look at what is happening to us”, with no consideration of the fact that Israel was doing the same actions back to Gaza.
Shortly after our visit to Sderot, we were given lessons on the 2005 Israeli disengagement from Gaza, in which illegal Israeli settlements that had been in the occupied territory since 1967 were dismantled, and all Israeli settlers and troops relocated. Our lessons on this event came in the form of videos of the Israeli settlers weeping in the streets, devastated by their sudden uprooting. I do not blame these settlers for their tears – having one’s life uprooted from a land in which several generations of one’s family has lived is a tragedy I wish on no one. I wonder now, though, where were the videos of Palestineans being forced into horrible living conditions as a result of these settlements? Former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon promised that the disengagement would provide Israelis with a new level of security; was there any effort on his part to ensure that Gazans, too, would feel secure?
The overwhelming sense of duty imparted on me by the Jewish studies class meant that I left Israel ready to defend the country at any given opportunity. But as I reached the end of high school, and I truly tuned into a variety of Middle Eastern news sources, I repeatedly found myself in situations where I morally could not make excuses for the harm Israel has caused and continues to cause Palestineans. By the time I reached university and began having these conversations with my best friend, I understood that my true duty, what I really owed to my people, was to rise above and move away from the propaganda, and to advocate for a more comprehensive education on the state of affairs in the region.
I do not want to disparage Jewish American youth organizations as a whole. They are important, as they give Jewish youth a chance to feel safe and at home in a country where they are not the majority, which is what makes criticizing them feel like a betrayal. But their messages and structures need to be altered. I believe these institutions have an obligation to be open and honest with these kids, to present all sides of the story, not just the points of our history that paint Israel in a good light. I do not disagree with the concept of a Jewish homeland; as a group whose history is largely categorized by marginalization, a portion of land to call our own, in which we can thrive and feel safe amongst our own kind, is arguably well deserved. But beyond the conceptual stage, the state of Israel as we know it has committed and continues to commit human rights violations that cannot be overlooked for the sake of maintaining the state; in fact, ignoring them does more damage than it does good. If we as a Jewish people hold Israel accountable, we have a better chance of ensuring that not only will we have a homeland, but we will have one of which we can be proud.
The views in this article are the author’s own and may not reflect the opinions of The Liberty Club