Gabriel Goldstein grew up steeped in Zionism. He attended a Modern Orthodox day school for 19 years, was a high school fellow with the Israel advocacy group StandWithUs and spent numerous summers in the Jewish state. Yet, when he arrived at Brandeis, the Memphis native felt woefully unprepared for the hard discussions about Israel.
“Conversations on campus aren’t about how big the Middle East is in comparison to small, tiny Israel,” he said. “The conversations on some campuses, Brandeis in particular, are far more nuanced than that.”
Goldstein came to Brandeis as a right-leaning supporter of Israel, but after taking courses on the Mideast, his black-and-white version of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from his day school education became more textured as it dealt with harsh realities like the problems of the country’s Arab population and instances of Palestinian oppression by Israelis. Goldstein says he remains an advocate for Israel, but his political leanings now tend toward the center-left.
Speaking at a recent conference of 200 people in the field of Jewish education, he exhorted the audience to incorporate uncomfortable truths about Israel into their students’ education or risk having the students find their Zionist narrative punctured by facts of which they were unaware.
“Trust that their foundation in Zionism and their dedication to the Jewish people is strong enough,” Goldstein said, “that they won’t be deterred to the point where they resort to the extreme left or an anti-Israel position by those revelations.”
The two-day conference, held in mid-November at a hotel in Ft. Lee, N.J., was titled “From Anti-Zionism to Anti-Semitism: Preparing High School Students for the New Reality.” Intended in part to help students cope with strong anti-Zionist activities on a number of college campuses, it was a collaboration between the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies at Brandeis University and the Avi Chai Foundation. Attendees were predominately day school teachers, administrators and guidance counselors, although Hebrew school educators and board members of Jewish organizations and other educational organizations also attended.
Participants came from across North America — representing 19 states and four Canadian provinces — plus Mexico and Israel.
A key message was that teachers should try to ensure that their students have a strong sense of Jewish identity and connectedness to their history, while at the same time exposing them to ideas, some of which might be abhorrent, but which will develop critical thinking skills.
Offering students views on the Mideast conflict that are “simplified and unsophisticated” aren’t effective, said Rachel Fish, conference coordinator, in a telephone interview. “We live in a world that’s gray. And it’s in that gray, in that mud, where it’s quite interesting to be.” Fish is associate director of the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies at Brandeis University.
The goal of the conference was to provide a space for educators to think about the role Israel plays in their educational frameworks, Fish said. The gathering was part of the Schusterman Center’s Israel Education Project, which promotes knowledge and literacy about Israel for the general population. The sponsors sought to allow the educators a chance to explore content in depth, but also to challenge conventional approaches to Israel education.
The event covered topics such as the campus environment, emotionally preparing students for college, integrating Israel content into multiple disciplines and the role of Israel education in day schools. During breakout sessions educators were able to meet and converse in small group settings.
“I think it’s rare to find a conference that brings together the content-rich and theoretical knowledge along with this level of opportunity for practical application built in,” said Raizi Chechik, principal of Stella K. Abraham High School for Girls, a centrist Orthodox school in Hewlett, L.I. Chechik was one of five members of a planning committee comprised of administrators from day schools across the religious spectrum.
“We do a good job of Israel education and advocacy but I fear there’s a new reality I’m not yet prepared for,” said Rabbi Harry Pell, associate head of school at the Conservative movement-affiliated Solomon Schechter School of Westchester.
He receives feedback from alumnae; some have very positive college experiences, such as a student who participated in a Muslim-Jewish dialogue. Another told him of being spat on a few times. “That’s not OK,” Pell said. “Here and there they are experiencing actual physical intimidation.”
A striking example of the type of hostile ideas Jewish students face on campus occurred in early November when a student newspaper at McGill University in Montreal published a policy statement on its refusing to publish articles that “promote Zionism.”
“While we recognize that, for some, Zionism represents an important freedom project, we also recognize that it functions as a settler-colonial ideology that perpetuates the displacement and the oppression of the Palestinian people,” read part of the statement that was posted on the McGill Daily’s website. It came in response to charges of anti-Semitism against the daily for publishing a satirical article Jewish students claimed mocked the anti-BDS movement.
Schools have a responsibility to give their students tools to respond to the demonization of Israel and their Jewish identity, said Yossi Prager, executive director of The Avi Chai Foundation, North America. “The students in this very positive Jewish bubble are going to confront anti-Semitism or anti-Zionism, depending on where they go to college, and they have to decide how to respond to it,” he said in a phone interview.
The answer to the question of how best to prepare high school students is as complicated and multi-layered as the Arab-Israeli conflict. Some Zionist students have been banned from participation in progressive or multicultural causes on campus. There are also tensions among the Jewish students since the pro-Israel community runs the political gamut from dovish J Street to the far-right Zionist Organization of America.
During one of the most revealing presentations of the conference’s first day, four college students, including Goldstein, spoke about their experiences as Zionists on campus. One student, who asked to remain anonymous due to the sensitivity of the topic, revealed that talking about Israel during Shabbat dinner at Hillel became taboo because of the diverse and strongly held opinions among the Jewish students.
“So often we discount the diversity of thought within the pro-Israel community and the debate that’s happening within these communities,” said panel speaker Michal Leibowitz, a student at Stanford University. “That’s something I wish I had been exposed to, just to understand that speaking about Israel without nuance is not helpful.”
“Nuance” was a word frequently heard throughout day one. Educators were urged by multiple presenters to promote critical thinking and add other narratives, including Palestinian and Jewish, to their curricula. Another topic for educators to consider was how to teach about anti-Semitism, both the classical strains and the new virulence coming from the extremes of the political spectrum.
“Create an environment where real dialogue and open conversation is encouraged,” suggested Goldstein. “Not just lip service.”
In planning the conference, Fish wanted educators to come away understanding that every campus is different. “They shouldn’t be concerned that the moment their students walk on campus there’s going to be a flame or fire about Israel,” she said.