A group of young American Jews are challenging the the institutionalized myths they were taught about the Jewish state in classrooms, youth group trips, and summer camps.
By Emma Goldberg
U.S. anti-occupation movement IfNotNow released its “Liberation Syllabus” last week. Crowd-sourced from teachers, students, journalists, and rabbis, the syllabus offers a collection of resources — from picture books to nonfiction, cookbooks to podcasts — that Jewish institutions can integrate into their curricula to offer more balanced and just lessons about the occupation.
The syllabus is part of IfNotNow’s “You Never Told Me” campaign, in which alumni of Jewish summer camps, day schools, and youth groups are calling on their institutions to change their Israel education to include honest understandings of the occupation and Palestinian narratives. Some of the resources in IfNotNow’s syllabus, for example, include Rashid Khalidi’s Palestinian Identity and Edward Said’s The Question of Palestine.
IfNotNow’s campaign is a critical call to action. For American Jews distressed by the intransigence and violence of the Netanyahu government — enabled and encouraged by the Trump administration — distance does not permit inaction. Meaningful responses to current conditions on the ground in Israel-Palestine can start in the U.S., with critical examination of the way American Jewish institutions teach and talk about the occupation. Most importantly, this examination must begin early in the pipeline, engaging the narratives that Jewish youth consume about Israel and the history of the conflict.
For a compelling example of the lasting effects of poor Israel education, we need look no further than Jared Kushner. Just last month, Kushner and Ivanka Trump celebrated at the opening of the American embassy in Jerusalem, smiling blithely for selfies and paparazzi, while just miles away more than 60 Palestinian protesters were being killed by Israeli forces on the Gaza border. Kushner, a strong supporter of the decision to relocate the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, praised Israel’s human rights record during the embassy opening. He also briefly addressed the violence at the border by saying the protestors were “part of the problem and not part of the solution,” a comment that was absent from advance excerpts of his remarks delivered to the press.
Considering the narratives with which Kushner was raised, his tone-deaf engagement with Israel-Palestine shouldn’t be at all surprising. From a New York Times profile last year, we know that Kushner was taught in classrooms where eight year olds were asked to draw the map of Israel from memory and were taught to refer to the West Bank by its biblical names, Judea and Samaria: “In his classes, Palestinians were regarded at a distance, in part as security threats who committed acts of terrorism.”
Kushner received precisely the sort of education that IfNotNow’s campaign is targeting: an education that whitewashes, pinkwashes, and greenwashes Israel’s human rights abuses, that stubbornly insists on conflating an appreciation for Israel’s culture and history with support for its current government. Kushner’s callousness shows the long-term costs the Jewish community pays for institutions that fail to intervene and teach the inconvenient truths. For Palestinians on the receiving end of Israel’s abuses, the price is far higher.
The American Jewish community must confront the myths we’ve manufactured and institutionalized in day school classrooms, youth group trips, and summer camp celebrations of “Israel Day.” That most Jewish students can trace Israel’s borders but do not know what the Nakba or Green Line are is the sign of a serious failure. Tomorrow’s American Jewish leader deserve a better, more nuanced education.
Examining the terms and confines of American Jewish discourse on the conflict may seem far-removed from the bloodshed on the round but the way we talk about Israeli violence matters. In a recent op-ed for The Guardian, Moustafa Bayoumi highlighted how framing the killings in Gaza can dehumanize Palestinians and bolster Israeli narratives. “It is the peculiar fate of oppressed people everywhere that when they are killed, they are killed twice,” he wrote. “First by bullet or bomb, and next by the language to describe their deaths.”
Crafting a curriculum that educates Jewish youth about the realities and nuances of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is no doubt a challenging task — particularly for Jewish administrators with parents, donors, and other authorities to answer to. But a syllabus that only tells one side of this complex story does a major disservice to young American Jews. Neglecting to teach about the occupation does not skirt the issue — silence is just as much of a political statement.
Emma Goldberg is an activist and writer who has written previously for Haaretz, the New York Times, Salon, Forbes, and Feministing.