Jewish education’s sin of omission

Despite years of Jewish education, much of which focused on Israel, this young American Zionist was still ignorant of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank.

By David Sarna Galdi

Illustrative photo by
Illustrative photo by

The Israeli occupation of the West Bank will mark its 50-year anniversary next year. For five decades, since 1967, that occupation has been a central theme in any discussion of Israel’s politics, history, current events and obviously, conflict with the Palestinians — except, apparently, if you’re young and Jewish in America.

While recently reading a critique of the absence of any discussion of the occupation (or any criticism of Israel, for that matter) in the 2016 American presidential elections, I made a disturbing realization: I myself had only become aware of the occupation and all of its ramifications relatively recently, only after moving to Israel and actively trying to codify, for myself, the country’s political genome.

Despite being the product of an active Jewish diaspora community and intense Jewish education (I was the target audience for a thorough understanding of Israel’s political physiognomy) I had been utterly in the dark when it came to Israel’s greatest blemish.

I attended Jewish schools near New York City. I went to Jewish camps. I spent countless Saturday mornings in synagogue with my grandparents. I traveled to Israel with my family a dozen times. As a 17 year old I spent the summer hiking the length and width of Israel. Later, I spent a hot, sweaty summer volunteering in an economically depressed city in the Negev desert. One could argue that I had the quintessential Zionist Jewish-American upbringing.

Yet somehow, in all of those years of exposure to Jewish and Israeli reality, history and culture, I never heard one word about the occupation, or even the actual word, “occupation.”

I came of age during the giddy, hope-filled days of the Oslo Accords. In fact, I distinctly remember the 13th of September, 1993, when my modern-Orthodox Jewish high school cancelled classes and gathered all of the students in the auditorium to watch the live broadcast of the signing ceremony on the White House lawn.

Yet, for all of my school’s engagement with Israeli current events, they left out one huge detail of modern Israeli history: the fact that in 1967, after the Six Day War, Israel seized the West Bank and Gaza but didn’t absorb them, setting the stage for today’s reality in which the territories’ non-Jewish residents live in a state of limbo without citizenship, equal rights and countless freedoms. How did that elephant in the room get lost in between the lines of the syllabus?

An Israeli soldier checks a Palestinian man’s documents at a checkpoint outside the West Bank city of Hebron on June 17, 2014, as the hunt for three Israeli teenagers believed kidnapped by militants entered its fifth day. (Photo: Tess Scheflan/
An Israeli soldier checks a Palestinian man’s documents at a checkpoint outside the West Bank city of Hebron on June 17, 2014. (Photo: Tess Scheflan/

To be fair, Jewish schools are expected to place an emphasis on subjects, ideas and opinions that fit their agendas and please parents who pay hefty tuitions. Therefore, it’s not surprising that by graduation, I could read the obscure script of Rash”i but didn’t know much at all about the recently felled Berlin Wall. Even so, opposition to the occupation is not outside the realm of Jewish learning; there are explicitly Jewish intellectuals who voice real and important protest to the occupation. Yeshayahu Leibowitz, one of Israel’s greatest contemporary philosophers, an Orthodox Jew and professor of biochemistry and neurophysiology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, was one of the first, in 1967, to decry Israel’s unethical choke-hold on the West Bank and Gaza.

Actually, if I think back, my high school class spent what seemed like countless boring hours studying the Conquest of Lombardy, Beneventan War and all the rest of Charlemagne’s conquests in Europe. Was there no time to devote just one lesson to Israel’s most controversial political fact?

I finished my education and moved to Israel years ago, but the problem persists. Jewish heritage programs like Birthright Israel, a multi-million dollar initiative that brings Jewish youth to Israel from around the world, have been criticized for portraying a version of reality that ignores the occupation along with other constructive, reality based criticisms of Israel. This is a mistake, and a shame. A well-rounded education encompassing Israeli history and politics should include the contentious issue of the occupation as well as other blemishes on Israel’s short but turbulent past: the massacres in Sabra and Shatila or Deir Yassin, for example. Ignoring these less-than-convenient facts, not theories, in the framework of a Jewish or Zionist education is about as irresponsible as teaching American history without mentioning slavery.

These days, for better or worse, the cat is out of the bag. Unlike when I was growing up, American Jewish teenagers and college students today can’t ignore the occupation; it’s in their faces, discussed on campuses across the country by groups like Jewish Voice for Peace, BDS groups, and many more.

Yet while college campuses have been forced to deal with subject of the occupation, and politicians like Bernie Sanders communicate the concerns of progressive, globally aware millennials, has anything changed in the bubble-like institutions of American Jewish education?

Participants in the Open Hillel Conference, Harvard University. (photo: Gili Getz)
Participants in an Open Hillel Conference, Harvard University. (photo: Gili Getz)

Ira Miller, dean of the Upper School of Ramaz, a prestigious Manhattan Orthodox high school, told me: “We treat Jewish history and Israel from multiple perspectives. We require all seniors to take a course to prepare them for their arrival at different college campuses. Our approach in this course, as it is in other classes, is to confront points of view that are critical of Israel, and to encourage open discussion. Our love for Israel is unconditional; and from that foundation, we feel a responsibility to educate our students to understand the complexities of the political realities of sovereignty.”

Another veteran educator at a New York metropolitan area school, who asked to remain anonymous, told me something surprising: “Over the last five years my approach to teaching the conflict has evolved. The school has a Zionist mission statement, and course content must reflect this; however the vast majority of our graduates go to secular colleges. It is therefore necessary, as an intellectually honest program and to prepare them for the views which they hear in the schools they will attend, to expose them to the fact that there is another side to the conflict. I use the works of Benny Morris, refer to [Edward] Said and [Ilan] Pappe and explain the accusations of expulsions. I refute those accusations that are false and explain the context of those that occurred and how they are used for propaganda. We discuss the need to understand the Palestinian claims if there is going to be at least the possibility of peace and for our students to be informed advocates for Israel.”

The dilemma of Jewish educators is real: how does one reconcile Jewish ethics and Zionism to critical, ideological young minds when the Jewish state within its 1967 borders and the West Bank are as ethically congruent as a monastery and a wild west saloon? The hat trick of trying to engender love and support for the Jewish state while simultaneously telling the truth about its presence and policies in the West Bank is so difficult that, instead of mastering it, many pro-Israeli politicians increasingly prefer to equate any criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism.

In order to take back the debate about Israel’s ethics and legitimacy from groups with anti-Zionist agendas, and also because it is simply the right thing to do, Jewish institutions and programs should include, not hide, the appalling reality of occupation in their curriculums. Young diaspora Jews have the right to develop their opinions on Israel, and hopefully, deep connections with Israel, with a full deck of cards. The greatest achievement of modern, 21st century Zionism would be to rectify the situation that threatens its true historical nature and legitimacy. Teaching about, and indeed, ending Israel’s bear hug of the West Bank will, to paraphrase one presumptive American politician, “make Israel great again.”

David Sarna Galdi, a former editor at Haaretz newspaper, works for an nonprofit organization in Tel Aviv.