The Conspiracy

Dear Teachers, We Have an Israel Education Problem

Dear Jewish educators,

First, I would like to thank you for dedicating your lives to helping students like me understand faith and tradition. Thank you for allowing me to develop life-long friendships, for allowing me to grow my creativity and for patiently fielding my questions. Thank you for encouraging my feminism and my passion for social justice. Thank you for telling me that I can be Jewish and doubt the existence of God. My synagogue was my second home for most of my life, in large part because of dedicated teachers like you. I will be forever grateful for that.

“There was an enormous gap in my Jewish education when it came to Israel.” | [Public Domain], via Pixabay

But our community has an education problem. There was an enormous gap in my Jewish education when it came to Israel, and I was in for a rude awakening when I left my Jewish bubble and went to college. As the new school year ramps up, I would like to address that gap – not to guilt my former teachers (though lord knows they taught me enough about guilt) but in the hopes of sparing future generations of Jewish kids the same sharp shock I felt upon leaving the nest.

To be clear, we talked about Israel in my Hebrew School curriculum all the time. I learned about kibbutzim, watched Shalom Sesame Street, did Israeli dances, and cooked Israeli food. I sang Hatikvah every morning as I stood and faced an Israeli flag. I learned random bits of trivia like the miracle of the Israeli irrigation system that brought agriculture to the desert. Every year, I celebrated Yom Ha’atzmaut by decorating my classroom with blue and white.

But the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was only mentioned briefly, only to warn me that it was “complicated.” Only to remind me that Jews need a safe haven because of the Holocaust. Only so I could learn that, for all of Israel’s history, it has been under attack by violent and cruel enemies bent on the destruction of the Jewish State. When we celebrated Israeli independence, we never discussed the Nakba­ – the forced removal of hundreds of thousands of Palestinian families from their homes. We did not talk about the current plight of the Palestinian people. I had never heard of the occupation or the Green Line. I am embarrassed to say that, for most of my childhood, I was under the impression that Palestinians were sort of like Vikings – a long-ago people who no longer really existed.

And this problem stretches beyond Hebrew schools and Jewish day schools. I received a similar style of education at my Jewish summer camp, where I befriended wonderful Israeli counselors, many of whom had served in the IDF. I distinctly remember a presentation about life in the Israeli army. Among other things, they told me that the Israeli Defense Force is so named because it only ever defends Israel against attackers and never instigates violence. (Yes, you read that correctly.) And I believed them because I had no reason not to – and because at the time, it didn’t effect my life either way. I didn’t feel a personal connection to this fight. I just knew what I had learned.

In the past year, this façade has come crashing down. I went to college and started talking to people with new perspectives – both Jewish students and, for the first time, Palestinians. I joined J Street U because I felt like I needed to understand what I didn’t know. I have actively tried to expose myself to different sides of this story, and I have more than once realized that I was misled by a trusted adult who was supposed to teach me about my religious and moral values. And while I am sure everybody who taught me about Israel believed what they said and believed they were doing the right thing, there is no denying the indoctrination I experienced.

When Jewish educators fail to present a more balanced view of Israel-Palestine, they leave students like me in a difficult position when they go to college. And while my Hebrew school frantically tried to prepare me to handle anti-Semitism on campus, this was not the crash course I needed. I needed to know about the pre-1967 borders and settlements and the blackouts in Gaza. I needed to understand the right of return and the plausibility of a two-state solution. I needed the truth in order to use my voice to stand up for what I believe in, just like you taught me.

I am not naïve, or at least I am no more naïve than any other idealistic 20-year-old college student. I know that what we teach in Hebrew schools is not up to me. Parents are involved and so are often-conservative donors. I understand that a more open and honest curriculum about Israel will not be easy to implement. But we have to make a change so that the next generation of Jewish college students does not have to feel let down like I did – so they can take on higher education with more than a powerful fear of anti-Semitism, so they can show up ready to fight for justice.

In the twenty-first century, inheriting the Jewish faith also means inheriting the moral responsibility of 50 years of occupation, and we should not be kept in the dark. We deserve facts. We deserve information. Let us make up our own minds. You have already trusted us to be the keepers of Judaism. Please trust us with this, too.

B’shalom,

Sarah

Sarah Asch is a Middlebury College student graduating in 2019 with a major in English and creative writing and a minor in Spanish.

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