What we’re taught as children sticks with us for a long time. And coming to terms with the failings of our earliest teachers can be a painful process. Now in my third year at this university, my days consumed by the study of new languages and new ideas, I still cannot stop thinking about the things I was taught many years ago, at the small Jewish elementary school I attended until fifth grade.
It is not surprising to anyone that Jewish primary education in the United States focuses heavily on Israel. But it is important that we be clear about what this “Israel education” actually entails. Israel education, as it is presented in the overwhelming majority of American Jewish day and Hebrew schools, mine included, is not concerned with the political or social history of Israel, a fascinating and complicated subject that deserves serious study. Rarely discussed, as well, are the histories of Jewish nationalism and nationhood, topics of urgent import that all Jews should take interest in.
Instead, what is presented in classrooms across the Galut (the Jewish diaspora) can best be described as attitude training, a kind of ideological conditioning. From an early age, students are taught to identify with the state of Israel and to defend it from criticism; in many cases, students are taught to consider themselves as a part of the Israeli public. I certainly was. Nowhere in this process are the nuances of Jewish history introduced. It is painfully clear that this education is not about critical inquiry. It is the cultivation of a highly complacent ignorance.
Creating an uncritical Jewish public is, at least to some extent, the explicit goal of right-wing American organizations that claim to act in Israel’s interest. Take, for example, The David Project, a group designed to teach college students to “defend Israel” against pro-Palestinian campus activists. The Project has extensive “pro-Israel” programming, a curriculum comprised of talking points. One is struck by how unsettling a mission that is: to have American Jews be taught a set of political positions, to memorize a pro-Israel fact sheet. It’s almost as if these organizations themselves acknowledge that there is something rotten in Denmark, something that needs training to excuse.
It would be no exaggeration to say that there is, and has been, a deliberate attempt to pull the wool over the eyes of young Jewish-Americans on the subject of Israel. It’s no wonder, then, that the vacation program Birthright is free, but language grants to Israel — the kind that give you the language training to understand conditions on the ground — are few and far between. This also explains why the majority of maps displayed in Jewish educational institutions, including the one I attended, are drawn without the Green Line. This ignorance is the precondition for unquestioned nationalism.
Some within the American Jewish community are more than willing to defend this deliberate attempt to cultivate ignorance among American Jews. They argue that Israel’s safety and security are paramount, warranting an aggressive PR campaign to defend Israel. I intensely disagree with this position. Any discussion of Israel must include the bad as well as the good. There should be nothing to hide. No one should graduate from a day school without knowing about settlements and the Occupation in full.
But I believe that there is another dimension to this conversation, one that is too often ignored: The effects of this pervasive nationalism on us Jews ourselves. We Jewish people of all political and religious commitments should lament the effects of this ignorant and complacent nationalism on the cultural, spiritual and intellectual life of our community. In our day schools and Hebrew schools, ideological programming meant to defend Israel is taught at the expense of Jewish religious teachings, Jewish history and the diversity of the Jewish political tradition. Our contemporary climate of willful ignorance degrades the discourse of our communities. It threatens to turn a people whose history has been characterized by the critique of nation-states into a people willing to limit our own intellectual and moral horizons for the defense of such a state. This is unacceptable even if that state claims to be a homeland for all Jews.
The removal of this ignorance is not simply a vague communal obligation. It is one that, I believe, every Jewish-American has, namely to build a Jewish identity for yourself far, far removed from the promise of a free Birthright adventure. At Yale, this might mean taking courses on Jewish history, or becoming a regular at prayer services, or learning a Jewish language. Grasp onto whatever tools you can, and run with them. It is only through this refashioning of ourselves that we might first repair our community and eventually repair the world.
Gabriel Groz is a junior in Jonathan Edwards College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .