Fed up with myths, these American Jews are challenging their Israel education

They grew up on the myths of a heroic Jewish state, joined Zionist organizations, and learned the talking points. But something along the way made them question everything.

By Tom Pessah

Members of Jewish-American anti-occupation group IfNotNow protest Trump’s decision to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, Washington D.C., May 14, 2018. (Gili Getz)
Members of Jewish-American anti-occupation group IfNotNow protest Trump’s decision to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, Washington D.C., May 14, 2018. (Gili Getz)

Some of the strangest encounters I had in the years I spent living and studying in the United States were with American Jews. I often felt like I had been dropped into a musical, with people expecting me to fit the mythical image of how an Israeli was supposed to behave. The only problem: I had no idea what my lines were supposed to be.

I was asked about my time in the Israeli army or about the ins and outs of Jewish religious practice. Pro-Israel students assumed I would be there to validate their advocacy.

Many of them were visibly disappointed when I didn’t play the part. Only gradually did I begin to understand how central Israel education had been in their lives, and just how big of a stumbling block it truly was.

To understand this process better, I spoke with four Jewish American activists, all of them in their late 20s and products of mainstream American Jewish education. Over the last few years they have all joined non-Zionist and anti-occupation groups such as Jewish Voice for Peace and IfNotNow. Michal, Susannah, Malkah, and Aaron told me how their Israel education shaped their worldview, and what led them to challenge what they had learned about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

An editor’s note: Susannah and Malkah asked to use only their first names; the other two interviewees asked to use aliases, citing fears that using their real names could threaten their status in their communities and future job prospects.

Whether Modern Orthodox, Reform, or Conservative, all of the four interviewees said that Israel was an integral part of their experience in the Jewish community from a young age. None of them could remember a time when it wasn’t a part of their Jewish communal experience.

Illustrative photo of American Jews taking part in New York City’s annual ‘Celebrate Israel Parade.’ (Gili Getz)
Illustrative photo of American Jews taking part in New York City’s annual ‘Celebrate Israel Parade.’ (Gili Getz)

“When I was younger I went to synagogue every week. Israel would inevitably be part of divrei tora (the Rabbi’s talk on topics relating to the weekly Torah portion – T.P.),” says Michal, a former Hasbara Fellow who would eventually be banned from entering Israel because she volunteered with Palestinian organizations in the West Bank.

“On Yom Kippur there was always a plug for Israel. During ne’ila (Yom Kippur’s concluding service – T.P.), in the midst of talking about our sins, being humble, and reflecting on what we’ve done wrong, there is this tonal shift: ‘Look at what we’ve done to create the State of Israel! and here – we’re going to pass around some pledges to give to Israel bonds.’ This is a deeply reflective and somber ritual, and you’re doing a complete 180 to advocate for Israel. This was every Yom Kippur and Shabbat — all the time. We would finish Adon Olam on Saturday morning and the senior rabbi would say from the stage: ‘we’re bringing in an AIPAC delegation and you can sign up.'”

For Susannah, who began in the Reform Movement and would eventually work for Jewish Voice for Peace, Zionism was also part and parcel of her Jewish upbringing. “You don’t really think about Israel and Zionism when you’re a practicing Jew in the Reform Movement. It’s just there.” It was at a summer camp organized by Young Judea, an American Zionist youth movement, where that conflation was most apparent. “It was straight up ‘America and Israel Forever.’ One of the most painful experiences to look back on now is that every morning we would wake up and go to the flagpole. You sing Hatikva and the Star-Spangled Banner. You stand there at attention in front of both flags along with the Israeli scouts who were there. I loved it, because it was just about singing and being with your friends. It felt like a source of pride.”

Illustrative photo of American Jews participating in the annual AIPAC conference in Washington DC. (Gili Getz)
Illustrative photo of American Jews participating in the annual AIPAC conference in Washington DC. (Gili Getz)

Into their teenage years, the aim of building an emotional connection to Israel was replaced by more straightforward advocacy.

“In high school we were encouraged to take part in programs to advocate for Israel,” Malkah explained. The David Project, one of the most well-known American pro-Israel organizations, sent her to a three-day training in Massachusetts, where she says she was exposed to a heavily anti-Muslim agenda. “One video was called Obsession, and it seemed like the main message was about Muslims wanting to violently take control of the world and how we would have to fight back against that.”

“I don’t remember any dissent or discussion,” she continued. “We were all just shocked by the horrible things we were seeing. You see a lot of really scary images in that movie. We didn’t have a lot of time to socialize, there were mainly these sessions and I took a lot of notes. They probably intentionally didn’t give us time to process – you’re being bombarded with someone else’s opinions.”

Malkah recalled coming home from the training and experiencing pushback from her family members who felt that the right-wing views she had been taught were bad for peace. “I’d come back and say everything is justified for national security reasons. My views shifted to the right of center after having had that experience.”

Hundreds fill New York City’s Washington Square Park to protest President Trump’s decision to ban Muslim refugees from entering the U.S., January 26, 2017. (Gili Getz)
Hundreds fill New York City’s Washington Square Park to protest President Trump’s decision to ban Muslim refugees from entering the U.S., January 26, 2017. (Gili Getz)

Yet taking part in more explicit Israel advocacy also began to sow doubts about their ability to defend the cause.

It was expected in my high school that all the high-achieving students would be going on extra-curricular Israel advocacy programs,” said Aaron, who would later become heavily involved with JVP and now devotes his time to the International Socialist Organization. “All the training sessions were at the local Jewish Community Center. We were told it looked good for college admissions. The manhigim (Hebrew for “leaders” – T.P.) program was focused on preparing us to be advocates for Israel on campuses, which were presented to us as hotbeds of anti-Semitism. The program was mostly a rehearsal of talking points from a liberal Zionist perspective (Israel as a liberal democracy, etc.). I didn’t reject any of that, but I distinctly remember thinking ‘Wow, if we’re the people who will be advocating for Israel, then Israel is screwed.'”

“There was one session we were doing which was a mock debate with a supposed member of Students for Justice in Palestine,” he continues, “I got cast in the role of the anti-Israel debater. I pulled out the ‘key of my grandmother’s house in Yaffa,” he said, referring to Palestinian refugees, many of whom keep the keys to the homes they lost in the Nakba. “At that point the entire room just screeched to a halt and didn’t know how to respond at all. I was still a Zionist, and I was very disappointed that they had no real response to my challenge.”

“Later, a delegation from my high school was sent to an AIPAC conference in Washington, DC. While lining up to enter the conference, I saw the counter-protest and was expecting it to be vitriolic and anti-Semitic. Instead I saw casually dressed people and some Neturei Karta folks waving signs that said “Don’t Bomb Iran!” I remember thinking: “am I on the wrong side of this protest?” I’m here in a suit with a bunch of old men while across the street are some people dressed like I normally do waving signs I don’t really disagree with.”

For Michal, a pro-Israel program in Israel was the tipping point, and the first time she considered that not everything she had been taught about Israel was true. “Aish HaTorah, [the organization] that runs Hasbara Fellowships, were teaching us talking points: here is a template for advocating for Israel on campus, here are the points your opponents will use, and here is how you turn it around on them and humiliate people in the process. Then they would have us practice — one person would play the aggressive pro-Palestine advocate and we would have to use the arguments they gave us. I remember being so embarrassed because I just couldn’t do it. I’m a really bad bullshitter. They’re using the word ‘apartheid,’ and I’m supposed to say ‘there are Israeli Arabs in the cabinet.’ I couldn’t memorize all those steps and then spit them back out like I was supposed to do.”

“What tipped me off was when they took us to Hebron. You walk there and it’s a ghost town with [Palestinian] shops boarded up. There is a barrier in the main street that separates Palestinians from Israelis. And you have menacing settlers. Something felt off: it was the first inkling I had of ‘is this really necessary in order to have this miraculous Israel?’ I didn’t have the words then — it was just a feeling. I didn’t have enough information to understand where this feeling was coming from.”

“I studied Middle East studies in part to be a better Israel advocate,” Michal continued. “But after Hebron I started to think that maybe I shouldn’t be out to get my professors. Maybe I should listen to them. That started the process of actually learning about the occupation and Palestinian experiences and taking them seriously. I studied abroad in Jordan, and after graduating I spent a couple of weeks in the West Bank helping local Palestinian organizations. As a result I was banned from Israel.”

For Susannah and Malkah, one of the factors that turned these doubts into full-blown opposition to Israeli policies was the personal relationships they formed with Palestinians.

Police arrest a young American Jew during a sit-in organized by IfNotNow at the offices of the Anti-Defamation League in New York City to protest the institution’s support for Israel’s occupation policies. (photo: Gili Getz)
Police arrest a young American Jew during a sit-in organized by IfNotNow at the offices of the Anti-Defamation League in New York City to protest the institution’s support for Israel’s occupation policies. (photo: Gili Getz)

When Susannah’s university program required her to do a field study abroad, she chose to go to Israel. Not knowing a lot about local civil society groups, she decided to join the only group that responded to her inquiries — a commune where Jews and Arabs worked and lived together. There she met Ibrahim, a Palestinian from Jaffa who had a cousin in Gaza. Ibrahim witnessed the moment his cousin was killed, as Israel shelled Gaza University during Operation Cast Lead, which Susannah said “shook him to his core.” She would eventually fall in love with him. “That’s how you learn – you fall in love with a Palestinian.”

But personal relationships don’t have to be romantic. Deep friendships also have their effect.

“By 2014 there was a pretty strong push for divestment in my school,” said Malkah. “There were a lot of people in my undergraduate program who were Arab, and some of them were Palestinians. They had family immediately affected by Israel’s policies as well as family histories of expulsion. I remember sitting with them in the school lounge watching folks speak at the divestment hearings for hours, usually until two in the morning. I just sat there and watched people talking so passionately about the subject, and felt that the students who opposed divestment didn’t have compelling arguments. Having been in my high school and in the David Project made divestment a dirty word. But just being in that environment, listening to people talk and having relationships with people affected by these policies — that made a huge difference for me.”