The incomplete education of American Jews
For decades, American Jewish institutions have made it a priority to teach kids about Israel. Learning about the Jewish state is a key part of the curricula and programming at schools, camps, and community organizations around the country, with Israel often depicted as a miraculous entity locked in righteous battle with irrational Arab foes.
Given that the vast majority of American Jews never end up living, or even spending much time, in Israel, early and incomplete lessons can have a lasting effect on the political positions of the students who soak in them.
Rabbi Jill Jacobs was one such kid, although many of the lessons her instructors tried to instill in her didn’t quite take. She is the executive director of T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, a group of social justice-minded Jewish clergy who, among other goals, seek better treatment for Palestinians.
As a member of Generation X, she grew up at a time when many Jewish educational establishments treated Palestinians either as nonexistent or — especially during the Palestinian uprising of the late ’80s, known as the First Intifada — as vicious anti-Semites. During her college years, Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization entered the so-called Oslo process, a series of agreements that seemed to bring peace and Palestinian self-determination tantalizingly close. The process was not to last, but Jacobs holds on to the dream of a Jewish state coexisting alongside a Palestinian neighbor-state.
This month’s bloodshed between Israelis and Palestinians has prompted many, Jew and gentile alike, to reconsider the situation and give more credence to the Palestinian cause. Social media has been filled with American Jews denouncing some of the institutions that claim to represent them, often for the imbalanced Israel education they received as children. Vox spoke with Rabbi Jacobs to discuss the past and present of such education, as well as how she’d like to see it change in the future.
What kind of Israel education did you get when you were growing up?
I’m 45, so I graduated from high school in 1993 and from college in ’97, just to situate what was happening when I was a kid. I remember certainly that Israel was a place that could do no wrong. My first trip to Israel was when I was 6, with my family, and I remember coming back with my photo album, and I brought it into Hebrew school to show off.
I remember being a kid during the First Intifada and really not knowing what was going on, but watching it on the news with my parents and being told, “They’re throwing rocks at us because they hate us because we’re Jewish.” I remember in Sunday school during my middle school years asking about Palestinians in our Israel history class, and being told, “There’s no such thing as Palestinians; they’re Jordanians.”
I remember also, I was maybe 12 or 13, and I was just thinking to myself, There’s something wrong with that answer, but I don’t know what it is. I had enough information to know that there was something odd going on, but not enough to actually know what it was.
Some of my real Israel education happened at rabbinical school. I did my rabbinical school year in Israel in 2000, 2001 which was the first year of the Second Intifada [another Palestinian uprising, which lasted until 2005]. During that year, I was balancing both being terrified for my life and the life of my friends — which was a real terror because buses and cafes and restaurants around us were blowing up, people were being killed — and also starting to learn a little bit about what the situation was for Palestinians, hearing about West Bank closures and learning about what occupation actually meant. I don’t remember one a-ha moment when I figured out about occupation, but I knew about it at that point; I was learning.
I came back the next year with the Jewish Theological Seminary, where I studied, and the intifada was continuing. A friend who was a year behind me and I decided that we wanted to offer a day where people who are coming on this mission could see what the situation was for Palestinians.
So we did a day with [Israeli human-rights watchdog] B’Tselem in East Jerusalem. Certainly, it was not the first time I had been in East Jerusalem, but it was the first time that I had spent time in a Palestinian neighborhood. Then, in the next year or so, there was this big rally on the [National] Mall in DC to support Israel and some rabbinical students — it ended up being over 100 — decided to go as Rabbinical Students for a Just Peace, to be able to stand there and say, “Yes, of course we support Israel, and we also support an end to occupation, human rights for Palestinians.” We wrote a letter to major American Jewish institutions and had negative reactions.
One program that we started at T’ruah a few years ago is for rabbinical students and cantorial students spending their year in Israel. We have a year-long program where, once a month, we’ll take them to see something and to talk to people either inside of Israel or in the West Bank or East Jerusalem.
They will go to Hebron with Breaking the Silence [an Israeli veterans group that seeks to educate the public on the occupation], they’ll go and plant trees in a Palestinian village in the South Hebron Hills and talk to leaders there, they’ll meet with Bedouin Israeli citizens and asylum seekers and Palestinian human rights leaders and Israeli human rights leaders and get a really on-the-ground sense of what’s happening there. Then we do a lot of work with them on, “How are you going to use your voice as a rabbinic or cantorial leader to tell these stories?”
It’s definitely been a big shift from when I was in rabbinical school, when, certainly, we never spoke to a Palestinian as part of our Israel education. They certainly never would have taken us to the West Bank or really given us anything besides the rah-rah-Israel voice.
What do you think the state of the union of Israel education is like in America now?
My experience mostly comes from my kids’ Jewish summer camps, that’s the most personal experience. And also, more broadly, talking to rabbis in our network and educators and seeing what people are putting out publicly in terms of the education they’re doing. There’s still a real fear about talking about occupation.
Some things have changed since I was a kid. Of course, there are some that are better than others, but I think, from what I’ve seen, there is acknowledgment of Palestinians. There’s talk about peace. There’s also a desire to bring in voices that show some kind of coexistence or partnership. Very often there’s an attempt to bring in things that are to show off: “Here’s Jewish and Palestinian doctors working together, or the children’s choir.” Those are real, but they don’t necessarily get into the deep issues. There’s particularly sometimes a fear of even just saying the word “occupation.”
Or, God forbid, mentioning the Nakba [Arabic for “catastrophe,” which refers to the 1948 war that uprooted 700,000 Palestinians from their homes].
There’s also a lot of, I would say, substance-less Israel education. One of my favorite examples is my kid coming back from camp, and they had made [the group of Israeli-controlled mountains called] Har Hermon out of marshmallow fluff. She was very excited because she likes marshmallow fluff. What kid wouldn’t be excited, really? But what’s the educational content in that? They were learning about different places in Israel, or learning Israeli music or slang words — some of which come out of Arabic, which could also be an opportunity to talk about that. Just anything but occupation.
I love my kids learning Israeli music, and I love that people are showcasing different people doing these different kinds of great work in Israel, but there is that fear to talk about the real experiences of Palestinians and to really dive into occupation. There’s a sense that I’ve heard from educators and rabbis of, “Well, we have to make sure that kids love Israel and then we can introduce the hard stuff.”
But the actual experience, I think, of kids, is that nobody tells them anything and then they’re not actually prepared when they get to college and hear the hard stuff. Or they’re prepared with, “Here’s the hasbara [Hebrew for “explanation,” but also used colloquially to describe pro-Israel talking points], here are your copies of [Mitchell Bard’s pro-Israel book] Myths and Facts, here’s your answers to questions people will ask.” But that’s not really deep education.
No, definitely not. I remember Myths and Facts being perpetually on display in the main foyer at my childhood synagogue. I flipped through it once when I was maybe 11 or 12 to see what it was about, and even at that young age, I felt like it seemed janky and propagandistic. I don’t remember a ton about the details of my Israel education, to be honest. But we were definitely only told Israel was beautiful and our ancestral homeland. It was pretty cartoonish.
I contrast that with the way that we do US education. When I was growing up, my US history education was terrible because it was, “America is always perfect, and here’s some great men.” Right? That was the story. Then I remember getting to junior year of high school and having this phenomenal AP US history teacher who was the first person to inform us that the US is not always right and every history book has a bias and we should read for it.
I see how my kids are learning US history and — from second grade, even — they know about the genocide of Native Americans and they know about racism. They talk about police violence in school. Thank God. And it doesn’t make them hate America.
I just think that we need to be more sophisticated and understand that kids can feel connected to a place and connected to people from that place and also understand that not everything about that place is perfect, that it is not always easy. My kids are 7 and 11, and, for sure, my 11-year-old could explain occupation to you and also cares a lot about Israel because she has relationships with Israelis and has been there and probably feels about Israel very much how she feels about America. There’s a lot of very bad stuff in both countries.
The other piece that’s really important to understand is that people look at the educators and the rabbis, but there’s serious pushback by the parents and by donors. That’s probably even more serious. A lot of our experiences are that rabbis and educators are maybe more progressive than their communities. This was a number of years ago, but I went to speak at a Jewish day school. I wasn’t actually speaking about Israel, I was speaking about something else, but when Israel came up, I talked really honestly.
One of the kids had just come back from their 11th- or 12th-grade trip to Israel. They gave me their talking points, and I was able to just explain what the situation was. Two things happened. One was, afterward, a girl came up to me and she said, “I’ve been at this school since kindergarten, and you’re the very first person who has ever talked to us who has said anything about Palestinians other than that they’re terrorists.”
I grew up in an ostensibly liberal Chicago suburb, so they just sort of avoided discussing the Palestinians in any way, but I know lots of other Jews who had the lessons she’s talking about.
I think she was really thinking about that. She wasn’t mad. She was definitely working it out in her conversation with me. The other thing that happened is that a couple more right-wing students organized some kind of petition — I didn’t see it until much after the fact — and some parents got mad about the fact that I had been invited in. So there’s definitely a ton, just really a ton of pushback there.
I’ve heard this from camp staff, from other kinds of educators: that they’re willing to push further, but their real fear is that they know the kids can manage, the kids can handle difficult information, but the parents and the donors cannot.
The generational divide in the community is wild.
How do you think this sort of circle-the-wagons mentality in Jewish education has shaped Jewish and non-Jewish American attitudes about Israel? Do you see those seeds flowering in later life?
Well, I think that the approach has been disastrous, to be honest. Essentially, what happened is, you teach kids hasbara talking points. Maybe they like falafel and the latest Eurovision song and have some Israeli counselors, but they also have the talking points. And then it’s like a house of cards.
As soon as somebody says almost anything, as soon as there’s a crack, one of two things happens: Either they also circle the wagons and they are not able to question it at all and they just kind of put up a wall, or it all comes crashing down and then they feel like they can’t have any relationship with Israel at all. There are also some people who are placing themselves in the T’ruah, J Street [a center-left American lobbying group that focuses on Israel] kind of camp of human rights for all people, for both Israelis, for both Jews and Palestinians both in Israel and in, God willing, a future state of Palestine.
If the goal is to actually create lasting and strong relationships such that people feel like they actually want to be committed to working for a better future for Israelis and also Palestinians, you end up with a situation where people feel like they have to choose one end of a dichotomy. There’s not a lot of space that’s opened up in between.
There are those who would argue that the time for in-between is over, that you have to pick a side.
There’s a lot of scorn for liberal Zionism out there, and there’s a sense that you have to choose between being an anti-Zionist or a Zionist and that being a Zionist has to mean that you 100 percent agree with Israeli government policy. First, that’s just not true, that you have to pick one or the other. But second, I actually am on the side of saying that we should not be talking about Zionism anymore, at all. Zionism was a movement that created the state of Israel, with all of the footnotes that you need. Yes, the creation of the state of Israel was also the Nakba, and Jews and Palestinians experienced that extremely differently.
But now we’re in a situation where the movement ended; now we have a country. There’s some language on the far left that says Israel isn’t a real place. But Israel is an actual country, it’s a member of the United Nations, whether you like it or not, whether you think it should have been created or not. It’s not an idea, it’s not a movement.
The US is a country that was also birthed in bloodshed, that has 400 years of the sin of slavery in its past, as well as the genocide of Native Americans. I don’t think anybody is seriously suggesting that everybody in the United States who is not Native American or descended from people who were enslaved get up and leave.
I think the question is: What kind of reparations are possible and what kind of reparations are necessary in order to achieve that path? I think that’s the same question we should be asking about Israel: How do we move forward in a way that will guarantee the human rights of everybody in the region, including Jews, including Palestinians? And human rights include citizenship in a country. How does that include reparations? How does Israel come to terms with the Nakba without telling 7 million people to get up and go back to Poland or Iraq or Afghanistan or wherever they came from?
How do we effect change here? What are the best ways to get to a world where, at least within the United States, we have better Israel education?
The major funders of Jewish education are on the center right to far right. That means that major educational institutions and organizations that are producing materials for Israel education are either producing material that is center right to far right or that is trying to avoid politics altogether just by doing culture and things like that. That’s a huge problem. Then you have groups which run these educational programs for high school and college students that inculcate a kind of laissez-faire, right-wing, conservative approach to the world — not only about Israel.
For people who actually care about more progressive politics in general, on Israel, and inside the Jewish community, we need the funders. We need to not have a situation where some major funder is going to threaten to withdraw their money from an educational institution because, God forbid, they bring in an Israeli human rights leader or a Palestinian human rights leader or somebody from T’ruah or J Street.
It’s not about blaming the educators. This is where there’s funding. It’s not like the whole Jewish community got together and voted on how the funding is going to be allocated. There are certain people who have both a laser focus on Israel and also the money to put into it. It’s not that the money isn’t on the left, but the people on the left are not as laser-focused as the people on the right.