Wednesday, August 20, 2014

All Five Lessons About Israel

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 to Think:

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 it. 
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 government.  
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 flawed.  
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 mysterious. 
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 other Jews:

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 backgrounds?
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 their identity.
I pray you will, and that you will only for blessings and success.

Shabbat Shalom

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