The Jewish Agency for Israel recently announced an ambitious $300 million Prime Minister’s Initiative to revolutionize Israel Education, Israel Experiences, Israel Engagement on College Campus and Aliyah of Young Adults. This initiative will fail if it repackages old, tired programs and ignores the lessons learned from successful initiatives like Birthright and Masa. Heavy-handed propagandizing -- training for “Israel Advocacy” like a lifelong political marathon -- will not work. Thoughtful, authentic, open-minded, soul-stretching Zionist education toward Jewish identity building will.
Israel Education rests on a defining paradox: The Best Israel Advocacy Isn’t. While Israel has enemies whose lies must be refuted, many of us are too busy defending, too busy arguing on the anti-Zionists’ terms. “That’s a lie!” and “No, we’re not” spawn confrontation and frustration not enlightenment and commitment. Israel’s chalutzim -- pioneers -- were builders not defenders. Educationally, ideologically, today, we need tree-planting not firefighting.
Identity Zionism is the bedrock of Israel Education. By understanding that the Jews are a people, with a national homeland, and viewing that homeland, Israel, as an ideological, intellectual and spiritual anchor in this complicated world, wherever Jews live, Israel and Zionism can help solve our major Jewish problems today. With most Jews living in freedom, we struggle with a lack of connectedness, a search for meaning, a values void. Zionism offers an anchoring framework. While John Kennedy said “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” young Jews should ask “what can Israel do for me” while also being willing to “do” for Israel.
The ten day Birthright Israel-Taglit trips work – for young Israelis on “mifgash” encounters as well as participants from all over the world – by using Israel as a launching pad for individual “Jewish Journeys” with “No Strings Attached.” Providing as safe and fun and non-partisan a setting as possible for everyone’s own individual identity odyssey trumps the traditional mass-produced Jewish guilt trips. I do not believe this because I chair Birthright Israel’s International Education Committee; I voluntarily chair the education committee because I believe this.
Birthright is more horizontal than vertical, meaning learner-centered and experiential rather than hierarchical and directive. In our hyper-democratized, super-individuated pluralistic age, with everyone feeling empowered and independent thanks to technology and social media, rigid, top-down approaches don’t work. The sustained, interest-tailored five-to-twelve month experiences which Masa facilitates build on this foundation.
“Branders” beware. Calling an educational project the “Prime Ministers’ Initiative” may woo older philanthropists who want the official validation; but it may alienate younger students who resist any hints of politicization and indoctrination.
Learning from my sons’ baseball coaches, let’s return to fundamentals. The Shalom Hartman Institute’s Engaging Israel program, which I helped co-found, and will be taught in 400 venues throughout North America this year, starts with peoplehood – what does it mean that Jews are a people? Moving to sovereignty, the curriculum examines what happens when that national identity is expressed through statehood. Next comes understanding power’s blessings and curses, followed by the complexity of crafting a state that is both Jewish and democratic. Finally, there is an envisioning piece, viewing Israel as “values nation.”
Educators must resist today’s tendency to be enslaved to audience demands and what the “survey says.” Just because “Hebrew” and “Zionism” aren’t fashionable does not mean that educators should abandon them. Education by polling is like coloring by numbers – you miss the magic of creativity, the serendipity of openness, or the power of ownership -- which is our birthright.
Jewish education should be subversive, seeing Zionism as countercultural. With only 28 percent of Jews in the Pew Survey deeming community an “essential” aspect of being Jewish, Zionism proudly posits an opposite vision, a commitment to the “us” to enhance and empower the “I.” Neither Judaism nor Zionism should mirror American realities and values. We must be true to ourselves. We should challenge the status quo, in Israel and elsewhere. Our students should develop their own, state-of-the-art satisfying syntheses, building a Zionist vision with an American or Canadian or British or French or Israeli accent, as appropriate.
With Aliyah too, the soft sell may be the harder but more effective approach. For years, doctrinaire Israelis squelched a broader, necessary conversation about what Zionism can mean beyond Israel by starting with the Aliyah guilt-trip. But Zionism began in the Diaspora – with Jewish nationalism and statehood addressing the Jewish problem of the time, anti-Semitism.
Aliyah is a – not always the -- culmination of a Zionist educational process; it is, however, a non-starter when launching that process. My teacher and mentor in Young Judaea and at Camp Tel Yehudah, Mel Reisfield, spoke of the Ladder of Zionist Achievement. Without denying a pecking order, that approach validates students, whatever rung they are on.
Bravo to the Jewish Agency and Israel’s government for recognizing that fighting the ongoing delegitimization of Israel is a strategic priority for the Jewish State and the Jewish people. As Dr. David Breakstone of the World Zionist Organization notes, Israel will survive, but young Jews are the most vulnerable to these systematic attacks on Israel’s very right to exist. Our enemies’ culture of blame preys on our culture of guilt – and young American Jews in particular love to be loved.
The stakes are too high to be conventional, lazy, or bureaucratic. The featherbedding, cronyism, and red tape that sucked the lifeblood out of the original Jewish Agency must be kept away from Natan Sharansky’s new, exciting, reforming Jewish Agency 2.0. So far, we have heard more about the “$300 million” price tag than the vision. Our leaders must invest as much thought into imagining and implementing these programs as they do to raising the money to fund them – perhaps, even more.
Gil Troy is a Professor of History at McGill University and chairs the Birthright Israel International Education Committee. His latest book, Moynihan''s Moment: America''s Fight Against Zionism as Racism was just published by Oxford University Press.Watch the new Moynihan''s Moment video!