I have spent my first two years at TanenbaumCHAT on a mission to enhance the centrality of Israel in the life of the school and our students.  I have always said that I want our students’ relationship to be based on wholesome experiences—friendships with Israelis, an appreciation for Israeli culture, competence in speaking Hebrew.  I don’t want their relationship to be based on crisis Zionism–that Israel is a place to run to only when we’re in trouble or that we stand up for Israel when she is in trouble.

Yet, I cannot ignore the fact that one of the most pernicious, highly organized, well-funded anti-Israel campaigns on campus today is the BDS movement, And although I resent allowing haters of Israel to determine our high school curriculum, we have an obligation to equip our students to respond to the fallacies and half-truths that underlie the BDS argument.

Every TanenbaumCHAT graduate should understand at least these three things about the effort to boycott, divest from, and sanction Israel (BDS).

First, BDS doesn’t challenge a policy; it is meant to call into question Israel’s existence.  Reasonable minds can disagree on Israel’s policies.  As we know, Israelis themselves are divided, and many internally conflicted, on immigration laws, the economy, the treatment of minorities, democracy and Judaism, the two-state the solution.

However, those aren’t the issues BDS activists want to discuss or debate.  They challenge the State of Israel’s fundamental right to national sovereignty.   They support other people’s inalienable right to cultural self-definition and political self-determination. They support the Palestinians’ aspirations for statehood. They deny ours.  They couch their argument in the language of human rights, anti-racism, and freedom of speech while denying the very same rights to Jews.  Their true objective needs to be unmasked:  They seek Israel’s destruction.

Second, BDS activists make our right to exist contingent on meeting impossibly high ethical standards that they apply to no other nation regardless of the atrocities they commit.  This double standard denies our right to exist and is a nothing other than anti-Semitism.  We don’t like to use that word, anti-Semitism, but we must call out Jew hatred when we see it.  BDS is part of a larger anti-Semitic movement that attacks the Jewish people as a national entity because it is not in vogue to attack individual Jews.

Lastly (for now), we need to distinguish between legitimate criticism and illegitimate criticism.  Not every critic is an anti-Semite. Criticism that is meant to better Israel is healthy.  Criticism that is meant to batter Israel is not.  Criticism must come from a place of love and loyalty and commitment to Israel and an awareness of the right context to voice that criticism lest it be used in the service of those who deny our existence.

Israel is a place that provides Jews the best opportunity to be Jews not just in our homes but in the public sphere as well.  To deny Israel that right and compel the Jewish people to hide who we are–to deny our inalienable right to self-determination– is to rob the Jewish people of a fundamental human freedom.  Whether our students choose to debate an activist, which has dubious merit, or they productively engage the vast middle ground of students who do not understand the issues and remain uncommitted or misinformed, or they simply want to have answers for themselves, every TanenbaumCHAT student will be prepared to deal with the BDS movement before they leave our school.

 

Herzel with the Israeli flag

“You lied to me!”

How do we engender a love of Israel without our graduates saying, after they are exposed to other views about Israel on a university campus, “you lied to me in high school!”

In my experience, it is no benefit to our students to shield them from the complexities of Israel’s history or contemporary reality.  We won’t succeed in helping them develop a deep connection with Israel if we stifle debate, suppress doubt, or deny Israel’s failures. Israel is a country filled with the best a nation has to offer (high tech, individual freedoms, lots of opportunities) and with problems that all other countries possess (illegal immigration, religious conflicts, racial tension.)

No country is perfect, and no country should be expected to be perfect.  We need to teach our students to “hug” Israel and “wrestle” with her.  Only then will they learn to love Israel for what she is even with her imperfections.

This summer a group of educators participated in a seminar organized by the World Zionist Organization where we explored some of Israel’s challenges first hand.  We met Arabs who claim their land was confiscated in 1948 and Jews who held title to the very same land.  We met illegal immigrants from Africa who are seeking a better life in Israel and residents of Tel Aviv who have seen the crime rate increase as a result of these new neighbors.  We met an Ethiopian Jewish man who described the discrimination he has experienced in the workplace and young Ethiopian teens who seem to be oblivious to any racism.

TanenbaumCHAT is a safe place to learn about these and other problems.  Better our students should be exposed to them from us than from someone else.  Better they should learn about them in a context that also teaches the miracle that is Israel–that deserts have been made to bloom in Israel, exiles have been ingathered, a high tech society has been built out of the ashes of the Holocaust.  Israel has done all that and more while facing existential threats and fighting enemies who are not dressed as soldiers who draw battle lines in urban areas populated by civilians.  We gain nothing by avoiding Israel’s imperfections.

We are not going to hide Israel’s foibles.  Not because we are afraid we will be accused of lying but because every imperfection is an invitation to our students to get involved in building this phenomenal Jewish enterprise called Israel.  And because we will have missed an opportunity to teach a lifelong lesson: how to “hug” and “wrestle” Israel.

The American Jewish author Cynthia Ozick put it well: “Israel is imperfect…Because she is imperfect, she is always building.  Because she is always building, she is eternal.”