Israel Education 'Blitz'

From Confrontation to Engagement

Yonatan Ariel and Robbie Gringras

The researchers' messages have been consistent for several years: traditional Israel advocacy is losing its effectiveness.

The ways in which we have become used to defending Israel in the non-Jewish world - talking-points, politico-legal defenses, and black/white answers - are applicable to far fewer situations than ever before.

We are told that non-Jewish liberals in the Western world – a huge majority and the population most vulnerable to the advances of those attempting to eliminate Israel's right to exist - rarely respond to calls of traditional loyalty, place "facts" in firm inverted commas next to the word "spin", and believe that national rights will always clash with more crucial individual rights. A population with fundamental assumptions such as these must be addressed differently.

At the same time reports tell us that Israel is under increasing attack in communities and campuses around the world. Not only are "delegitimation coalitions" active and growing across the world, but the demand from the UN to declare a Palestinian state looms large on everyone‟s calendar for next month. Could it be that at precisely the time we need to defend Israel the most, researchers have undermined our most-trusted strategy?

Thankfully, the news is good, though perhaps unexpected. The reports tell us that the best way to defend Israel these days, in particular when talking to the younger generation of non-Jews, is to hold a conversation not a debate. We need to accentuate nuance rather than enforce opinions, to avoid group-talk and acknowledge doubt. In this way we may drive a wedge between the "swayable" non-Jewish majority in the Western world, and the true enemies of Israel who wish to co-opt them to their assault on Israel's right to exist.

This is good news, since the Jewish world is full of professionals dedicated to nurturing young Jews who are capable of conducting this form of "defense" of Israel. They are called educators.

Under different rallying-cries ("Hugging and Wrestling", "Critical Loyalty", "Commitment and Critique", "Complex Connection") Israel educators have separately and together recognized a need to deal in complexity, however intimidating it may often appear. Makom among others is leading a field of educational institutions proclaiming and celebrating a more dialogical, thoughtful, and complex approach to Israel education for young Jews.

Educators know that not only do Israel's defenders need to deal with a different kind of interlocutor: Our young Jews themselves often are this kind of interlocutor. The days when we could generalize about Jews in contrast to non-Jews have long passed. The Jew lives in the non-Jewish world more than ever before, and shares most of its political, social, and national assumptions. Just like the non-Jew, significant numbers of Jews see Judaism as a religion and not a people, and see Israel as another foreign country that may or may not deserve their attention. As well as teaching our youth how to engage with others about Israel, we ourselves need to engage with them in this way, too.

There are those who might fear that educating through complexity might not lead to identification, that a seemingly ambivalent message will not "turn on" the youth. Yet when we argue against a black-and-white approach, it does not follow that we are promoting alienating shades of dull grey. Tackling Israel in all its variety, challenge and energy is not a middle-of-the-road compromise, it invites a spark-flying technicolor interchange of ideas and passion.

It would seem that a vibrant, thoughtful, honest connection with Israel is now exactly the kind of "training" a defender of Israel will need.
This shift from the "confronter" model to the "engager" model, relates to more than tactics. The moment we encourage our young people to engage with a nuanced, varied, and fascinating Israel, we encourage them to engage with Israel for their own sakes, for their own development as Jews. The more opportunity a young person has to explore the values of Freedom, Jewish Peoplehood, and the Land of Israel, the stronger their Jewish Identity will become. As the penultimate line of Hatikvah ("Lihiyot Am Chofshi b’Artzenu – To Be A Free (Jewish) People in Our Land") resonates for them both in its tensions and its promise, the richer their connection to Israel will be.

With the High Holidays coming to meet the declaration of a Palestinian State, a unique opportunity falls our way. The inevitably huge media coverage of the UN decision will offer us the perfect opening to progress from the tactics of confrontation to the process of engagement. Not only will this approach be more effective against our enemies, but it will enable us all to develop a healthier more sustainable relationship with Israel.

Yonatan Ariel is the Executive Director of Makom, and Robbie Gringras is Makom's Artist-in-Residence