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Deconstructing the Real Trouble With Israel Advocacy
Jews have observed with great consternation the transformation of America's college campuses into hotbeds of anti-Zionism.
The traditional narrative saw the birthing of Israel as an answer both to the urgent needs of a persecuted people who had no place else to go and to that people's yearning over two millennia to return to a cherished homeland, which, for the previous 500 years, had been but a sparsely populated, marsh-ridden backwater of the Ottoman Empire.
The new narrative, which appears to be widely held among the intellectual class in Europe and America, most especially in Middle East-studies departments, holds that the Jews evicted a people from their land by force and intimidation in one war, and continues to oppress that people in lands illegally occupied in a subsequent war that only fed Israel's imperialist ambitions.
Alarmed by this sea change in the way Israel is viewed on the college campus, many philanthropic Jews have seen fit to respond by supporting efforts to build Israel-advocacy programs not only on the campus, but at the high-school level as well, whether in the form of special training for students or for teachers.
As a teacher in two synagogue supplementary schools -- and as one who is alarmed by the increasing hostility to the State of Israel -- I would argue that Israel advocacy will not only fail to achieve its objectives, but may actually be counterproductive.
How do I know?
I learned it from my best teachers: my students. I'll never forget the day when one student piped up in class to say that what they learn in their secular high school class about the Middle East is objective whereas all they get at Hebrew school is a biased perspective.
I didn't take the criticism personally since my aim in teaching is never to make sure that my students hold certain approved opinions; rather, whatever the subject at hand, my aim in teaching is to try to inspire the students to want to learn and to show them the way to learn or, even better, the way to teach themselves.
When teaching about the Arab-Israeli conflict -- or at least when I'm at my best -- I try to steer them in the direction of understanding the historical context of that conflict in as much complexity as I think the students can handle.
It really doesn't matter to me what their opinions are at the moment, for whatever they are, those opinions are going to change over time. I want them to know, however, that, in formulating their own views, they need to read the historical documents, pore over maps, review the chronology of events and scrutinize opposing interpretations.
If we want our young people to have greater understanding of Israel, we teachers need to have a greater understanding not just of Israel but of the Mideast itself.
As I tell my students, when you buy a new house, you don't just look at the house, you look at the entire neighborhood. Likewise, if you want to understand Israel, you need to understand the Middle East.
Thus, if we want our Hebrew-school teachers to do a better job in the field of "Israel education," then let's teach them about Islam, about the difference between Sunni and Shi'a, or among Arab and Kurd and Persian, or between secular Arab nationalism and Islamism. Let's teach them about the succession of Muslim empires in the Middle East, and about the Greek, Roman and Persian empires before the advent of Islam.
And when we come to the subject of Israel, let's not teach our teachers or our students only about the Balfour Declaration; let's teach them about the Sykes-Picot agreement between Britain and France, and about the Hussein-McMahon correspondence between Britain and Sherif Hussein of Mecca, and review the historical debate over whether these discussions contradict one another or not -- and whether that matters.
In short, if we really want to invest in teacher training, let's not train teachers to be better advocates; let's train them to be better students. If we teachers know enough to tell those stories, we just might be able to capture the imagination of our students.
Alan Luxenberg teaches grades seven to 10 at two synagogue schools in suburban Philadelphia, and serves on the board of the Auerbach Central Agency for Jewish Education.