Standing up for Israel is nothing new. Before and after 1948, anyone who loved and believed in our homeland was prepared to defend her to the rest of the world. Do you remember when we were teenagers? Israel was a source of pride and joy, a country that rose from the ashes; David emerging victorious against the Goliaths of the world, a land and a nation reunited after thousands of years. We knew the facts and responded to the myths and the lies. The validity of our arguments was always what tipped the scales in our favor.
Sadly, today’s teens have a different perception of Israel. Try to win them over with the factual narrative and they will tune you out. To them, Israel isn’t some fledgling underdog whom they love to root for. She is an established country with intellectual capital and military might. Today’s teens aren’t interested in facts—who did what to whom. They see an age-old battle between the Hatfields and McCoys. Who cares how it started? Why does it matter who is at fault? Grow up and stop fighting. Naturally to them, Israel gets the lion’s share of the blame for perpetuating the feud. Being the older, wiser, stronger, more capable opponent in this battle, the onus is on Israel to make peace.
When the Israeli-Palestinian conflict started coming up in our Jewish Student Union (JSU) clubs in public schools across the country, we quickly discovered that teaching the history and the facts was a turn-off to these kids. They weren’t interested in hearing “excuses” for why there was no peace. We had to find a different approach to help them understand and love Israel. The angle that worked was inspiring them with stories about Israel’s humanity, showing them how Israel is a light unto the nations, especially in her corner of the world. In Israel, an Arab woman can become a supreme court justice. Israel is the first country to set up the most efficient field hospitals anywhere disaster strikes—Haiti, Japan, the Philippines, et cetera. Israel opens its doors to Africans escaping Muslim persecution in their own countries. Israel shares its knowledge and technology with disadvantaged nations, helping them make their deserts bloom and teaching them how to work their land and feed and sustain their populations. We were satisfied to see the students begin to respect and admire the State of Israel.
Fast forward a few years. These high school students are now in university, facing anti-Israel aggression on a whole new level—from their professors, pro-Palestinian groups and BDS organizers. All they know is how wonderful and generous the people of Israel are, but they have no idea how to respond to the virulent attacks against Israel. As these students reached out to their JSU advisors for guidance, our feelings of success quickly faded, and we had to rethink how we could teach soon-to-be college students the facts and the history in a way that they would be open to hearing it.
Sadly, today’s teens have a different perception of Israel.
Richard Bass, former professor at Purdue University, created a pilot program used by NCSY in Toronto that has been very successful. Drawing upon videos, social media and other tools that speak to teens, he presents both the Palestinian and Israeli narratives on any given issue. Whether it is the Temple Mount, the security fence or checkpoints, he relays information that reflects both sides of the story. Then he brings in third-party sources, neither Palestinian nor Israeli, unbiased, who detail the facts on the ground relating to the issue at hand. The students then draw their own conclusions about who is in the right and who is in the wrong. This works because no one is telling the students a subjective story; no one is telling them what to believe; no one is lecturing, preaching or arguing with them. They get both sides, sort through the complexities of the issues and are left to draw their own conclusions. So far, the conclusions have been predominantly pro-Israel.
JSU attracts more than 20,000 students in close to thirty states and provinces. The goal of JSU is to expose unaffiliated teens to the beauty of Jewish tradition and history. While Israel was always a part of that mission, it was not our intention to focus on Israel advocacy. However, given the reality on the ground and the pleas for help from our graduates, we feel we have a responsibility to make sure these young men and women can stand up for Israel. We have incorporated these types of sessions into our curriculum and are training our club advisors in this method so that our students will be open-minded, thoughtful and decisive about their opinions and commitment to Israel.
Rabbi Steven Weil is senior managing director at the OU.