By the time Jewish students reach college it’s not too late to learn about Israel, but it’s very late. For more than 40 years, the pro-Israel community has lamented the fact that young Jews are ill-prepared for what they often face on college campuses.
In the last few years, educators, advocates and philanthropists have finally recognized the need to make Israel education a part of pre-collegiate education. Much more needs to be done, however, to equip young Jews with the information and tools they require to understand Israel and to build an identity with Israel that will lead them to a lifelong love and commitment to their homeland. Here are some of the essential steps forward:
1) Provide every Jewish student with an Israel toolkit that helps students develop a connection to Israel at an emotional level, teaches students the Aleph-Bet of Israeli political, social and cultural history (toward that end I have written the first textbook aimed at high school students – Israel Matters: Understand the Past - Look to the Future) and trains students how to effectively communicate their knowledge.
2) Teach “Mature Zionism.” As I wrote in a previous blog post called, Idealist Zionism, today’s youth do not want to be given a rose-colored picture of Israel; they want to learn about Israel, warts and all. Before they can understand the blemishes, however, they must know the basic facts. Given the background, students can discuss the complexities of Israeli life. This will prepare them for answering critics and strengthen their identification with Israel so they do not feel the need to turn on Israel because it is imperfect.
3) Israel education must be integrated in an age-appropriate manner from K-12. Even the best program will not succeed in creating the personal connection to Israel, and the knowledge base we ultimately hope students will have, in a year or two. If Israel is a part of the student’s life and education from the first years in school, it will lead to better educated, more committed young Zionists. Since this is an all-encompassing approach to Israel education, it will take some time to develop; therefore, the top priority should be to educate high school students who will soon be on the front-lines of the campus battles.
4) Birthright trips should be created for high school students. While I’ve just said that we need a long-term educational program for students, Birthright trips can still be valuable. The AICE/Israel Project survey of college students showed that students who have been to Israel are more active and pro-Israel in college. Visiting Israel will build an immediate connection to Israel while the K-12 program is being developed. Once Israel is integrated into the educational system, the trip to Israel will help reinforce the lessons they’ve learned. When teens return from Israel, they can become role models in their high schools and hit the ground running when they get to college. Right now there is not enough money to send all the college students to Israel who want to go, but there may be philanthropists who understand the value of starting earlier who will support this idea.
5) Outreach to public schools. Most Jews do not go to day schools, so they will not be reached by the K-12 curriculum on Israel. Public schools need to be approached to teach units about Israel. Textbooks also need to be monitored and corrected since the history books used in most high schools are rife with errors of commission and omission regarding Jewish and Israeli history.
6) Outreach to teachers. Many day school teachers do not know enough about Israel to teach their students. Public school teachers know even less. It is vital that programs be developed and expanded to teach the instructors. Today, Middle East centers, often funded by Arab states, and heavily biased against Israel, are doing the principal outreach to teachers. The new centers of Israel Studies should offer teachers accurate information about the Middle East.
7) Integrate Israel education into Jewish summer camps. Camps have a captive audience of young Jews, most from public schools, and is an ideal place to make learning about Israel fun. Some camps have been doing this for years, but most have not. Israeli staff can make a big difference not only through formal teaching but by virtue of campers getting to know Israelis as people. Other staff should be trained as well to engage campers in Israel education. New programs along these lines have been newly created and should be expanded.
8) What students lack in knowledge they make up for in passion for making a difference in the world. Colleges are increasingly tapping into this fervor with alternative break trips that too often go everywhere but Israel, but are now starting to include service-related trips to Israel. High school students, such as my son, were inspired by going to help rebuild New Orleans after Katrina. We need to find ways to harness this positive energy for social justice and public service projects either in Israel or beside Israelis.
9) Building long-distance learning programs between American Jews and Israelis. All sorts of projects can be done jointly via the Internet or Skype, whether it is a course taught from Israel or a collaborative project in both locations, or some other interchange. It is no longer necessary for Israelis and Americans to be in the same place to have meaningful interactions.
Most of these ideas were discussed at a recent summit of educators and donors to Jewish education. Some are already in various stages of implementation. There is also a greater awareness of the urgency of investing in pre-collegiate Israel education after years of neglect. If the steps I’ve outlined are adopted, I am confident that the next generation of American Jews will be knowledgeable and passionate about Israel.
Mitchell Bard is a foreign policy analyst whose latest book is The Arab Lobby: The Invisible Alliance That Undermines America''s Interests in the Middle East (HarperCollins Publishers).