I have spent more than two decades educating students about Israeli history, politics and culture. For the last 20 years I’ve edited Myths and Facts: A Guide to the Arab Israeli Conflict in hopes of arming the next generation with the information they need to understand and appreciate Israel and to rebut Israel’s detractors. It is said that information is power, and I’ve always believed we could empower our students by teaching them the truth about Israel – warts and all. Providing facts, however, no longer seems sufficient; what students also need is grit.
The reason for the modification in my thinking is that I keep reading in op-eds about the situation on campus, and hear directly from students, that they are afraid, intimidated, and live in a “hostile environment.” Some have gone so far as to say Jews on campus are in physical danger (a myth I refuted in an earlier post).
These feelings are sometimes justified, for example, in the rare instances when students are physically harmed or threatened; when eviction notices are placed on the doors of their dorm rooms; when students are confronted by hostile mobs, and when professors exploit their positions of power and use their classrooms to advance personal political agendas. Except in the rare circumstances noted above, Jewish students should not fear Israel deniers.
Today’s student activists are as strong and passionate as any who came before them; however, timid Jews lack confidence in their knowledge, their identity and their relationship to Israel. These are not nebbishes, a stereotype that should have been put to rest long ago by the Israelis, who have proven that Jews can be smart, tough and resilient. Young American Jews have the smarts but are lacking in strength and confidence. I always believed knowing the facts strengthens the backbone of a student activist; however, today’s students need something more.
How do we teach students to have mental and moral fortitude? I don’t have the silver bullet, but a few ideas occur to me:
· Stage mock debates in high school and summer camp, as well as other activities that force students to stand up for themselves.
· Send students to simulated boot camps similar to what an Israeli in the IDF might go through to help them develop more confidence in themselves as well as imparting a sense of camaraderie.
· Put students in positions where they are challenged by students and teachers.
· Teach martial arts. It does not have to be Krav Magav, but any martial art can instill greater confidence as well as skills for self-protection.
· Also teach methods of non-violent protest and tips on how to defuse confrontations.
· Teach students how to manage stress, which will help them handle their studies as well as personal and political issues.
· Make sure students know their rights and the grievance procedures available if they believe those rights have been violated.
· Introduce students to nonpolitical outlets, which are typically nonconfrontational, to find or express their identity with Israel (e.g., art, music, dance, archaeology, literature, cooking).
· Make sure students know they do not have to face challenges to their political beliefs or Jewish faith alone. Introduce them to organizations that can provide support for their mental and spiritual health, as well as their political and non-political interests.
High school graduates should get a college survival kit, which should include the contact list, a copy of Myths and Facts and a selection of other resources from Jewish institutions (day schools, synagogues, federations).
I’m sure teachers, and others smarter than me, will have more and better ideas. The result of this education should be that Jewish students walk through their campuses with heads held high, unashamed of their identity or their love of Israel. Standing up for Israel, even with its imperfections, should be a matter of pride.
Students should not feel they need to solve the Arab-Israeli conflict or that they must outdebate every anti-Israel yahoo they encounter. They do, however, need to feel physically safe. Mentally, they need to internalize their part in the unfinished story of an ancient people that has endured unspeakable persecution and must live on. They must feel that they are a part of the story of Israel and that love of Zion should not be conditioned on the perfection of Israel, but should be inspired by the determination of the Jewish people to build a democratic homeland that seeks peace and strives to fulfill the biblical injunction to be a light unto the nations.
Dr. Mitchell Bard is the author/editor of 24 books including After Anatevka: Tevye in Palestine, The Arab Lobby and Death to the Infidels: Radical Islam’s War Against the Jews.
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