I have a complicated relationship with Israel. My younger brother made aliyah last year and is currently serving as a paratrooper in an elite unit of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), leaving me feeling simultaneously proud, nervous and occasionally nauseous all at once. We were raised in a Zionistic home with a strong legacy of Israel support — our grandparents collected money in little blue tzedakah boxes before Israel even became a state. My own schooling taught me the importance of being informed about complex Middle East issues; as an educator, I confront the media bias and hatred of Israel and instead promote positive messages about the country and her people. Through professional work, I also lead an annual student delegation from Los Angeles to Israel, where I continually experience the Jewish homeland through my students’ eyes.
A 2007 study by sociologists Steven M. Cohen and Ari Kelman explained that American Jews’ connection to Israel drops off with each generation, leaving many youth alienated and apathetic about Israel’s future. Since that study, Hamas has come to power in Gaza, a barrage of rockets have fallen on southern Israeli cities, the world has shouted in outrage over the flotilla incident, the controversial and emotional prisoner exchange for Gilad Shalit’s release occurred, and the United Nations bid for Palestinian statehood is ever looming. Yet, the majority of American Jews have not felt compelled to get involved and advocate for Israel’s security.
I surmise the reasons for this disconnect are in one’s upbringing, lack of Jewish education (not just from day schools but without the Jewish learning provided by religious schools, supplemental programs, camps and youth groups), and absence of positive, personal experiences in Israel that bind one to the land and the people. The silence in response to threats against Israel is not just limited to the youth, however. Many parents are not imbuing their children with support for the Jewish homeland because they, too, do not believe in its importance. Too comfortable and too assimilated in American society, just as Jews were in different societies throughout history before becoming a scapegoat, these parents do not see Israel’s existence as a beautiful culmination to centuries-old longing and an integral piece of our past and future.
Since Israel’s victory in the 1967 Six-Day War, public perception of has changed from Israel’s being the sympathetic underdog that rose from the ashes of the Holocaust to a powerful and accomplished nation. Particularly in the last decade, there seems to be a misplaced sense of liberalism that breeds exclusive concern for the Palestinians, coupled with virulent anti-Zionism (often cloaked anti-Semitism), affecting Jewish support.
Despite the 7,563 miles separating Los Angeles from Tel Aviv, my connection with Israel is strong and my commitment is unbreakable. Today I can say that I have come full circle — once a student at L.A. Hebrew High School, I’m now its program director. Israel and engagement in the Jewish community has always been a common thread in my life. Even during my college days, I was vice president of Hillel and a student leader with AIPAC. My administrative work today includes teaching a politics and values elective called Jewish Civics Initiative (sponsored by the Panim Institute), which happened to be my favorite class when I was 16 years old. For the past four years, I also served as the Partnership Coordinator for the Jewish Federation’s Tel Aviv-Los Angeles Partnership School Twinning Program, which seeks to deepen the connection between American and Israeli teenagers to create a shared sense of Jewish identity and destiny. It has been amazing for me to head the programs that I had been involved in as a student and that had such an impact on my personal growth. Through my position, I focus on leadership training, to give the students the tools they need to be successful ambassadors for the causes that matter to them.
My students are the exception to the majority in that they understand the importance of using their voice to defend and strengthen Israel. When we returned from the Jewish Federation’s annual delegation trip to Israel in December, I was overwhelmed by the breadth of student testimonies that attest to the necessity of providing students with actual experiences that connect them to Israel. They talked about the importance of visiting and learning about the land for themselves:
“All my life I heard about Israel. How I need to be pro-Israel and love the country. My relationship to Israel was outlined by others, but now I can develop my own opinions on Israel based on firsthand experience. I own it.”
“What I loved about this experience was that I really got to connect to my Jewish roots and appreciate how we are all different but all the same.”
“Being pro-Israel means understanding its history, its present situation and most of all, protecting its future.”
“I never realized how such an amazing place can have so many problems and conflicts that seem to never end. I hope many things for Israel, but above all I hope one day this country will be at peace. I hope a day will come when all the fear will not exist and Israel can live freely and be secure.”
Many participants spoke in length about the shared values that both America and Israel stand for and how moved they were in actually looking at all accomplishments that these countries of immigrants have achieved. The group of Israeli and American teens discussed how it does not matter where you are from, Jews all over the world are bound together through their shared memories, and Israel is the center. The opportunity to actually travel to Israel cemented their feeling of Jewish unity and commitment to ensuring a strong Jewish future.
As demonstrated by these students’ thoughtful reflections, despite claims to the contrary, students do care. When an issue speaks to them, they are passionate. But when it comes to Israel, they need to first feel a sense of love and pride for the country and then be given the tools to defend her. We do not need to teach that Israel is always right or to support every policy, but our silence is inexcusable.
Many organizations are already producing effective programming and resources to explain why support for Israel is essential and well deserved. It is time for us as educators, congregations, community leaders and parents to utilize them in designing meaningful programs that educate the greater community about Israel. To create the next generation of leaders, we cannot simply provide talking points, a list of Israel’s technological innovations, or screen Israeli movies while eating falafel, nor can we expect support of Israel just because the Torah states it was our land for thousands of years. All of those activities may have an impact, but none can be done in a vacuum and expected to be successful in the long run.
There needs to be a multitiered approach to help students (both affiliated and unaffiliated) build their own relationship with Eretz Yisrael. We should teach the history of the Jewish homeland and facilitate honest dialogue about its ongoing challenges, while also celebrating its diverse culture and encouraging travel to the country. When this experiential learning occurs, as evidenced from the declarations from the students that participated in the Tel Aviv-Los Angeles Partnership program, the youth will be empowered to answer the tough questions, correct misinformation with facts, and articulately respond to the anti-Israel rhetoric in college and throughout their life.
“I will fight because no one else will do it for me, no other nation will do what is necessary for Israel to survive,” my brother once wrote in an e-mail explaining to family and friends his reasoning for enlisting in the IDF.
He is right. Our actions are what define us, and this is our opportunity to act as Israel’s guardians and ensure that the Jewish homeland we dreamed about for so long continues to survive, thrive and hold meaning for future generations. One need not make aliyah and join the army, but we must find our own way to be a voice for Israel, whether it is in the media or over the dinner table.
“Israel is the greatest story ever told,” said one student from the Partnership program during our reflection activity in Tel Aviv. It is our responsibility to be the authors of our own narrative and keep telling it to future generations. Am Yisrael Chai.
Erica Solomon is program director for Los Angeles Hebrew High School (lahhs.org).