Who’s Teaching (Defending) Zionism Anymore?


Israel is under attack. Not across the ocean but right here in New York. The mayor of New York has been roundly criticized by some major figures in our community for his embrace of AIPAC, the Israel lobbying group whose politics have always been in sync with Israel’s democratically elected government, left or right. This was a challenge not to any Israeli policy but to AIPAC itself. As Reform leader Rabbi Eric Yoffie countered, “A Washington without AIPAC would not mean an Israel at peace; it would mean an Israel isolated and vulnerable”

This week, Lucette Lagnado writes in The Wall Street Journal, “I was contacted by a fellow Vassar alumna [who] wanted to know if I was aware that our genteel alma mater had become a hotbed of anti-Israel, pro-boycotts sentiment.” Not a week goes by without reports, somewhere in the community, of boycotts and similar delegitimization.

And at one of our city’s great religious Zionist day schools, more than 150 students signed a petition to invite Rashid Khalidi, a Columbia University academic and sharp critic of Israel, to share his ideas with the school’s politics club. The headmaster explained that he was all for discussion and debate but that this was not the appropriate occasion. While the school’s overruling of the club’s invitation has caused an uproar in some quarters, perhaps the root issue is our insecurity in defending and asserting Israel’s case.

What should frighten the traditional Zionist community is how ill-equipped we, and our schools, seem to be in teaching students to recognize threats and respond, let alone training our students to take the pro-Israel initiative. Most parents know all too well that modern Israeli history is barely taught in even our best Jewish schools. Marching in the Salute to Israel parade is nice, but it is not a curriculum. Too many of our students, some even after 12 years of day school, can’t identify, let alone debate, pivotal moments and ideas that they will be confronted with in colleges where even the Hillel may no longer be a refuge. Will we see more “Open Hillels,” open to advocates of boycotts and what once would have been seen as defamation, beyond the bounds of reasonable differences?

The Jewish Week is proud of its Write On For Israel program, which for more than a decade has been seeking to educate a select group of high school juniors and seniors about the realities of the Mideast today, instilling in them the knowledge and confidence to deal with the issues when they get to campus. But more must be done in our community.

We have been arguing among ourselves about Israel for decades; no harm in that, it’s healthy, but this is more menacing. There is a ferocity to criticism of Israel these days, a tenaciousness that goes beyond an immediate critique of this policy or that, an energy that the traditional Zionists can’t seem to match these days.

It’s one thing to be unable to educate our enemies. It’s far more troubling when we can’t or won’t even educate ourselves — our children — to confront these attacks with the information and self-assurance that should rightfully be ours.