Please find here the Five Lessons I presented about Israel at last Friday's Lech Lecha Service for high school seniors heading off to college:
#1: Israel Teaches You What College Should Teach You, Namely, How
One of the goals of higher education is to impart to students critical thinking
skills. Not so much to learn about a particular topic, but to "learn
to learn." To recognize bias, slant, agendas, poor logic, the
influence of one's point of view or personal experiences - all these and much
more the university student should come to recognize when doing research into a
particular subject. Learning how to learn and thinking about how to think
really are great lessons for everyone.
What goes on about Israel when
you're at college, well it could be a graduate seminar in how to learn to learn
or think of thinking. While it may be fairly easy for most Jewish
students to come to the conclusion, "what I've heard must just be the
'Jewish' version of things since I'm Jewish," I don't know how clear it
will be to them that even if that is so, it doesn't mean that what you know or
believe is wrong and that someone just because they are called
"professor" or they are some articulate protester on the quad or it
was written some well-funded campaign against "Israeli apartheid"
that that makes what you're hearing "the truth". There is a
world of bias and of ignorance out there that goes beyond even legitimate
criticism of Israel - and you must be prepared to search for it and recognize
Asking yourself, "why does
this person/class/article/etc. say this?" is the first lesson in learning
to learn. It is also my first lesson about Israel.
#2 Learn the Facts to Know for
Yourself – You’re Unlikely to Convert Anyone and Shouting is only so Cathartic:
Did you know that over 1.5
million Arabs are citizens of Israel?
That in addition to Muslims there are Christians and Druze and other
minorities groups in Israel whose rights are protected, who serve in the
military and are represented in the Knesset?
And that along Iran, one of the few Muslim (though not an Arab)
countries with Jews in its parliament – the Arabs in Knesset need not pass any
kind of loyalty exam and can be openly critical if not hostile of their
Healthcare, education for women,
leadership in technology, willingness to send medical aid around the world
including to countries without friendly ties to it – there are many, many
things about Israel one should take time to know. You may find yourself whether you like it or
not acting as a representative for Israel, and I certainly hope that an
attachment to Israel will have intrinsic value you to you also.
But don’t know about these things
– that for example the IDF goes to pains to warn civilians of impending attacks
in Gaza so they can flee – don’t know about this to try to “win” any arguments
with people who attack Israel. Or at
least, don’t only know it for that reason.
Sadly today, the number of people
open to having their minds changed when it comes to such hot-button issues as
this seems to be getting smaller and smaller.
So while your uninformed friends may be one thing, the Palestinian
Student Association protesters may be another.
And just as you’re not
necessarily going to change a lot of minds with the facts, you shouldn’t use
them to shout back at those shouting at you either – be proud to be Jewish but
also be willing to be an example of how Jews can and do rise above against what
tend to be publicity stunts and designed to get “the Jews” to act up. Stage your own protests, stay safe, but don’t
be baited. – Arab homework example.
Number 3 – Criticizing Israel, Anti-Israel and Anti-Semitism, when they
are different and when they are the same:
I tend to be sort of
old-fashioned and tend to be in the school that whoever is in charge in Israel
and whatever they are doing, I’m probably going to work to take a supportive
stance of that policy, at least in public.
But that attitude within the
Jewish community is, in some ways, old-fashioned. As Jews, there have always been people who
have felt comfortable, and perhaps somewhat more among younger people today, to
be open in criticizing Israel.
Let me say, that at least to me,
you can be a good Jew and a good Zionist (supporter of Israel as a Jewish
state) and still disagree, a little or a lot, quietly or loudly with Israel.
But that kind of criticism is
different than being openly anti-Israel.
And of course in the modern world, you can of course choose to be
anti-Israel altogether, but I think if you’ve followed steps 1 and 2, that
shouldn’t be too likely.
But those who will attack Israel
are often, though again, you have to investigate, harboring not just criticisms
of Israel, but a true anti-Israel bias.
Republicans may not like Obama and Democrats may not like the House
right now – but they all pretty much want our government to continue and for
there to be a United States.
Anti-Israel bias is a bias that
the country, in some essential way, really shouldn't exist. And if you think about it, there are very few
countries that engender that level of hatred – particularly from more removed
third parties. If you were Irish 50
years ago, you may have had strong feelings about Britain, but in America, even
if you sympathized with the Irish, you probably didn't feel it necessary to
call for the destruction of the UK, or to say everything else about the UK was
But all too often, we don’t hear
protesters and others arguing – Israel needs a different government or a
different policy towards the Palestinians – and then calling it a day – too
often it goes beyond that.
And very often when it does go
beyond that, it can be motivated by Antisemitism Which a topic much bigger than I plan to
address tonight, but is, suffice it to say, a problem with Jews. In the 21st
century it may look
and feel different than it did in say the 12th
, but that is often
what is beyond the type of “nothing is right with Israel” attitude you may
encounter from protesters
If you follow steps 1 and 2, you
might have gotten to step 3 anyway, but please allow me to have articulated
such an important step.
#4 – Peoplehood, Religion, and Identity are “Mysterious” – So Go Visit
Israel and See What Happens:
You can’t explain what it feels
to be a Jew, or why being Jewish is important, or why Israel is important to
the Jews, the same way I can explain why hydrogen is important to water or DNA
is important to you being a ginger. On
some level, such things as religion, ethnicity, peoplehood, statehood – these
things are constructs of people and not “hard” facts. That is definitely the case. They are messier and sloppier, but they are,
like falling in love or having a favorite team – transformative and real. Or to put it all another way, they are
And when it comes to mysteries,
some things can’t be explained. This in
part goes back to my number 2, you can’t explain it to people sometimes.
But that doesn’t mean you
shouldn’t open yourself up to the possibilities that can come along with such a
mysterious part to your identity.
And nothing will do more for it
than to visit Israel for yourself. They
call it the Holy Land which already sounds mysterious and it is. You’ll get a lot out of being there that may
speak to you as a Jew and as a person in ways nothing else has before. You may learn things that truly shape your
outlook on life. You may become very
protective of “your” favorite falafel guy on Ben Yehuda Street. And that’s as it should be.
So embrace the mystery of the
connection as real and true and important and at the same time mysterious. And visit Israel and see what happens. We probably even have some money to give you
if you do.
#5 Be a Jew for Yourself, but know that being one connects you to all
I remember sitting in the student
union one day and overhearing a guy I had known from Hillel sitting at a table
of people forming some group that must have been some kind of multicultural
group for harmony and breaking down barriers.
And someone suggested that they begin by saying what their backgrounds
were. So this one was from Africa and
this one was African American, this one from the Chicago suburbs and basically
raised Protestant, etc. Yet when they
got to the Jewish guy – he didn’t want to say, arguing, if they all felt being
multicultural was the most important thing, what did it matter their
I thought – only the Jew would
argue like that! He was representing
himself even as he wasn’t!
And that is my final lesson. You are unlikely to ever truly avoid being Jewish
no matter what you do, what you become, who you love, etc.
And as such, your choices, for
mysterious reasons, for reasons beyond your control, will on some level always
be Jewish choices.
I challenge you to figure out how
you can both be individuals, to really be able to blossom into the adults that
we all are rooting for you to become, and at the same time to do so knowing
that you will remain always inextricably linked to us and Jews everywhere and
even to Israel.
A truly mature adult will embrace
that reality and seek to find ways to incorporate it as part of the whole of
I pray you will, and that you
will only for blessings and success.