Advice to educators: dig deep on Mideast conflict

Advice to educators: dig deep on Mideast conflict

Gabriel Goldstein speaks during a panel on college student experiences. 
Gabriel Goldstein speaks during a panel on college student experiences. 

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 Israel. Yet the Memphis native felt woefully unprepared for hard conversations about Israel on his college campus of Brandeis University. 

“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, in Waltham, Mass., as a right-leaning supporter of Israel, but after taking courses on the Mideast, the black-and-white version of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that he received from his day school education became colored and more textured as he came to deal with harsh realities, including the problems of the country’s Arab population and instances of Palestinian oppression by Israelis. Goldstein said he remains a Zionist and advocate for Israel, but his political leanings now tend toward the center-left.

Goldstein spoke at “From Anti-Zionism to Anti-Semitism: Preparing High School Students for the New Reality,” a two-day conference for those in the field of Jewish education, held mid-November at a hotel in Fort Lee. Addressing the gathering of 200 people, he exhorted them to incorporate uncomfortable truths about Israel into their students’ education or risk having the students find their Zionist narrative punctured by facts they had not been made aware of. 

“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 or those discussions.” 

Intended in part to guide educators on helping students cope with strong anti-Zionist activities on college campuses, the conference 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 religious school educators and members of boards of Jewish organizations and other educational bodies also attended. 

Participants came from across North America — representing 19 states and four provinces of Canada — plus Mexico and Israel. 

Rabbi Meirav Kallush, director of Israel programming at Golda Och Academy, the Conservative day school in West Orange, was one of five panelists in a session on the role of Israel education in day schools. GOA high school students have two trips to Israel — one in the fall of freshman year and the second during spring semester of senior year. The school’s curriculum covers Israel’s modern history and facets of Israeli society and students have interactions with Israeli peers and with Rishonim, young emissaries from Israel sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ. 

“Our goal is to have students feel confident enough to have an open, frank, and sincere conversations about Israel,” Kallush said. 

Staff from the Modern Orthodox Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School in Livingston were also in attendance. 

A key message was that teachers should work 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 that might be perceived as abhorrent but that will help them develop critical thinking skills. 

Offering students views on the Mideast conflict that are “simplified and unsophisticated” aren’t effective, said conference coordinator Rachel Fish in a phone 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.” 

The goal of the conference was to provide a space for educators to think about the role Israel plays in their educational frameworks, said Fish, who is associate director of the Schusterman center. The gathering, part of the center’s Israel Education Project, which promotes knowledge and literacy about Israel for the general population, was designed to allow the educators a chance to explore content in depth, but also to challenge conventional approaches to Israel education.

Topics covered included emotionally preparing students for the campus environment, integrating Israel content into multiple disciplines, and the role of Israel education in day schools. Educators also met and conversed in small group breakout sessions.

“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 in a phone interview. Chechik, principal of Stella K. Abraham High School for Girls, a centrist Orthodox school in New York, was one of five members of a planning committee comprised of administrators from denominationally diverse schools. 

“We do a good job of Israel education and advocacy but I fear there’s a new reality I’m not yet prepared for,” conference attendee Rabbi Harry Pell told NJJN at the event. 

Pell, who is associate head of school at Solomon Schechter School of Westchester in New York, affiliated with the Conservative movement, said he receives feedback from graduates, and some have reported positive college experiences, like an on-campus Muslim-Jewish dialogue one former student participated in. But another former student told Pell 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 refusal 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 was issued in response to charges of anti-Semitism against the paper for publishing a satirical article Jewish students claimed mocked those fighting the anti-Israel boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement. 

Schools have a responsibility to give their students tools to respond to the demonization of Israel and their Jewish identity, according to 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. 

Conference discussions reflected the fact that the issue of how best to prepare high school students is as complicated and multi-layered as the Arab-Israeli conflict itself. Some pro-Zionist students have been banned from participation in progressive or multicultural causes on campus. There are also tensions among Jewish students since the pro-Israel community runs the political gamut from the dovish J Street to the Zionist Organization of America on the right. 

During a revealing presentation on the first day of the conference, four college students, including Goldstein, spoke about their experiences as Zionists on campus. One student, who asked to remain anonymous, revealed that talking about Israel during Shabbat dinner at Hillel became taboo because of the strongly held divergent 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 panelist 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 teaching. 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 said, she 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.”

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