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'You never told me': Confronting American Jewish myths about Israel

A group of young American Jews are challenging the the institutionalized myths they were taught about the Jewish state in classrooms, youth group trips, and summer camps. 

By Emma Goldberg

An activist with IfNotNow is carried away by Israeli police during a Jerusalem Day protest, Jerusalem, May 24, 2017. (JC/Activestills.org)

An activist with IfNotNow is carried away by Israeli police during a Jerusalem Day protest, Jerusalem, May 24, 2017. (JC/Activestills.org)

U.S. anti-occupation movement IfNotNow released its “Liberation Syllabus” last week. Crowd-sourced from teachers, students, journalists, and rabbis, the syllabus offers a collection of resources — from picture books to nonfiction, cookbooks to podcasts — that Jewish institutions can integrate into their curricula to offer more balanced and just lessons about the occupation.

The syllabus is part of IfNotNow’s “You Never Told Me” campaign, in which alumni of Jewish summer camps, day schools, and youth groups are calling on their institutions to change their Israel education to include honest understandings of the occupation and Palestinian narratives. Some of the resources in IfNotNow’s syllabus, for example, include Rashid Khalidi’s Palestinian Identity and Edward Said’s The Question of Palestine.

IfNotNow’s campaign is a critical call to action. For American Jews distressed by the intransigence and violence of the Netanyahu government — enabled and encouraged by the Trump administration — distance does not permit inaction. Meaningful responses to current conditions on the ground in Israel-Palestine can start in the U.S., with critical examination of the way American Jewish institutions teach and talk about the occupation. Most importantly, this examination must begin early in the pipeline, engaging the narratives that Jewish youth consume about Israel and the history of the conflict.

For a compelling example of the lasting effects of poor Israel education, we need look no further than Jared Kushner. Just last month, Kushner and Ivanka Trump celebrated at the opening of the American embassy in Jerusalem, smiling blithely for selfies and paparazzi, while just miles away more than 60 Palestinian protesters were being killed by Israeli forces on the Gaza border. Kushner, a strong supporter of the decision to relocate the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, praised Israel’s human rights record during the embassy opening. He also briefly addressed the violence at the border by saying the protestors were “part of the problem and not part of the solution,” a comment that was absent from advance excerpts of his remarks delivered to the press.

Senior advisor and son-in-law to President Donald Trump, Jared Kushner, and his wife and president's daughter, Ivanka Trump, attend the welcome ceremony for the U.S. Embassy at the Foreign Ministry, ahead of the official opening of the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem, May 13, 2018. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Senior advisor and son-in-law to President Donald Trump, Jared Kushner, and his wife and president’s daughter, Ivanka Trump, attend the welcome ceremony for the U.S. Embassy at the Foreign Ministry, ahead of the official opening of the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem, May 13, 2018. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Considering the narratives with which Kushner was raised, his tone-deaf engagement with Israel-Palestine shouldn’t be at all surprising. From a New York Times profile last year, we know that Kushner was taught in classrooms where eight year olds were asked to draw the map of Israel from memory and were taught to refer to the West Bank by its biblical names, Judea and Samaria: “In his classes, Palestinians were regarded at a distance, in part as security threats who committed acts of terrorism.”

Kushner received precisely the sort of education that IfNotNow’s campaign is targeting: an education that whitewashes, pinkwashes, and greenwashes Israel’s human rights abuses, that stubbornly insists on conflating an appreciation for Israel’s culture and history with support for its current government. Kushner’s callousness shows the long-term costs the Jewish community pays for institutions that fail to intervene and teach the inconvenient truths. For Palestinians on the receiving end of Israel’s abuses, the price is far higher.

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The American Jewish community must confront the myths we’ve manufactured and institutionalized in day school classrooms, youth group trips, and summer camp celebrations of “Israel Day.” That most Jewish students can trace Israel’s borders but do not know what the Nakba or Green Line are is the sign of a serious failure. Tomorrow’s American Jewish leader deserve a better, more nuanced education.

Examining the terms and confines of American Jewish discourse on the conflict may seem far-removed from the bloodshed on the round but the way we talk about Israeli violence matters. In a recent op-ed for The Guardian, Moustafa Bayoumi highlighted how framing the killings in Gaza can dehumanize Palestinians and bolster Israeli narratives. “It is the peculiar fate of oppressed people everywhere that when they are killed, they are killed twice,” he wrote. “First by bullet or bomb, and next by the language to describe their deaths.”

Crafting a curriculum that educates Jewish youth about the realities and nuances of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is no doubt a challenging task — particularly for Jewish administrators with parents, donors, and other authorities to answer to. But a syllabus that only tells one side of this complex story does a major disservice to young American Jews. Neglecting to teach about the occupation does not skirt the issue — silence is just as much of a political statement.

Emma Goldberg is an activist and writer who has written previously for Haaretz, the New York Times, Salon, Forbes, and Feministing.

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    COMMENTS

    1. Ben

      This protest is great ==>

      Protesters shout ‘shame’ at Kirstjen Nielsen as she dines at Mexican restaurant
      https://www.cnn.com/2018/06/20/politics/kirstjen-nielsen-mexican-restaurant-protest/index.html

      American Jews should stage similar dining disruption events when Jared and Ivanka and relevant Aipac officials dine out. Or when Haim Saban the mega-donor dines out, he who just sent a threatening letter to US Democratic Senators for daring to send humanitarian aid to Gaza’s children.

      And Israelis, how about disrupting Ayalet “little snakes” Shaked’s comfy dining experiences dining on Middle Eastern food? And Lieberman’s. And Bibi and Sarah’s? I know, they won’t let you get anywhere close and they will arrest you. But you can try. Civil disobedience at its best.

      Reply to Comment
    2. Bruce Gould

      “A group of young American Jews are challenging the the institutionalized myths they were taught about the Jewish state…” Well, older Jews are challenging too:

      http://mondoweiss.net/2018/06/outspokenness-massacre-democratic/

      “Next week, South Carolina progressive Mal Hyman faces a runoff with South Carolina State Rep. Robert Williams to decide who will be the Democratic nominee for Congress in the state’s 7th District. And amazingly, Hyman is not mincing words about Israel’s slaughter of Gaza protesters….“The Fourth Geneva Convention seems to have been broken, and if I was a member of Congress, I would be calling for the International Criminal Court to investigate not only the 2014 massacre but this current one,” Hyman told me.”

      Yes, Hyman may lose the race, he may lose the race because of stuff he’s said about Israel – but the fact the politicians are saying this stuff at all is a sea change from 15 years ago.

      Reply to Comment
    3. itshak Gordin Halevy

      Who are they to criticize a democratically elected government? They would do well to learn some Jewish history before saying nonsense. Yes, we do not say “West Bank” but Judea and Samaria when we know our rich heritage a bit .. A majority of Israelis think like me.

      Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        “Who are they to criticize a democratically elected government?”

        You cannot, you just cannot, make this stuff up. Halevy, world champion exemplar in Missing The Point, extends his famous unbroken streak.

        Halevy, dear, democratically-elected governments, as opposed to authoritarian-totalitarian-Feiglinist ones, have as a basic premise of their rationale and structure that they accept and listen to criticism. Civics 101 (elementary school curriculum).

        Now, if you say, “but they are American Jews,” then explain to me how it is that “the Nation State of the Jewish People, the Jewish State, blah blah blah” shall not hear any criticism from “the Jewish People”? Hello? You want everything to be Jewish except when you don’t want it to be. This is simply one example among many of the Israeli far right’s having it both ways strategy.

        Reply to Comment
      • Wesley Sandel

        Being proud of Israel’s “rich history” of racism, terrorism, colonialism, mass murder, ethnic cleansing and apartheid is what defines zionism as racism.

        Reply to Comment
    4. Lewis from Afula

      Ben:
      All these politicians you mention – Shaked, Lieberman & Bibi are generally very popular in Israel. They have delivered economic growth and kept Arab terrorism down. This contrasts with the Israeli Left which brought death, destruction & poverty when they were in charge.

      Israeli society is NOT divided down the middle like the American electorate. Our society supports Bibi’s coalition over the Leftist Cuckoos by 2 to 1.

      Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        That the Right has kept Israelis safe better than the Left is a lie on two levels. First, the pattern of violence does not bear out your claim:

        By Noam Sheizaf |Published March 11, 2016
        Why do we only listen to violence?https://972mag.com/why-do-we-only-listen-to-violence/117773/

        Second, it is not true that the Left in Israel was ever really a true Left and not basically a Right masquerading as “seeking peace” all the while relentlessly advancing the settlements, speaking out of both sides of its mouth. Labor and Shimon Peres initiated and drove the settlement “enterprise” with gusto. I rather prefer the Right do the settlement-driving, it is less hypocritical and two-faced and deceitful that way.

        Reply to Comment
        • Lewis from Afula

          Ben:
          The Israeli economy is alot better shape than it was before 2009, when the Labour was in power. Most people can see this and they appreciate Bibi & his coalition for the positive changes that have happened.

          In terms of security, the Gaza Jihadis are not interested in 2 states. They are only interested in destroying our state. This is now even apparent on the left-leaning Israeli media. Only a total moron would conclude otherwise.

          Thus, the “Left” in Israel is collapsing in on itself. It has lost its moral high ground while its vision – both economic and security – consists of literally nothing. So all your left wing posturing is useless. It does not match reality on the ground.

          Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            “In terms of security, the Gaza Jihadis are not interested in 2 states.”

            Oh yah, and I hear tell them Mexicans coming across the border in droves are pretty much all rapists and murderers and good job stealers and it’s the biggest threat to the US of A, its huuuuge, and who cares about them Russians? I am sure Vlad Putin means well, he’s a great leader…

            That’s the American version of the Israeli line you’re peddling. And the racist right wing laps it up. Because the real deal is that they simply cannot stand being on a basis of equality with Arabs. No way no how. And the evidence is there for all to see in your town, Lewis. When you strip away the usual excuses, it’s there for all to see:

            Hundreds of Israelis Demonstrate Against Home Sale to Arab Family
            https://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/.premium-hundreds-demonstrate-against-home-sale-to-arab-family-1.6174662

            Reply to Comment
          • Lewis from Afula

            Ben,
            Your reasoning that Hamas = Mexico is obviously absurd.
            Mexico has not declared war on the United States
            Hamas has declared war on Israel
            Thats sort of a tiny,tiny mistake in your analogy.

            Reply to Comment
          • Lewis from Afula

            Ben, your analysis that Mexico = Hamas is obviously absurd.
            Mexico does not seek the destruction of the United States.

            Reply to Comment
          • Lewis from Afula

            Hamas are in a WAR against Israel
            Mexico is NOT at war with USA.

            Duhhhhh……
            Are you so stupid you cannot grasp this major difference ??

            Reply to Comment
          • Lewis from Afula

            Ben’s Mexico = Gaza analogy seems to have imploded !

            Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            Sorry to have temporarily misled you. Israel is not at war with Gaza. It is occupying Gaza. Israel pretends it is at war. But the casualty figures tell a very different story. Israel pretends a lot of things. The entire occupation is sustained on pretending.

            Reply to Comment
          • Lewis from Afula

            Ben’s most absurd comments ever:
            Re: “Israel is not at war with Gaza.”
            Re: “It (Israel) is occupying Gaza”

            Ben seems to live in his own private World of invented & perverted facts. As someone once said:
            It’s Life, Jim.
            But NOT as we know it.

            Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            Here’s a truly perverted idea: “The settlements are not an obstacle to peace.”
            The person who said that is living in Never Never Land and thinks Never Never Land is surrounded by Freier Land. He needs a new map and a new compass. And integrity.

            Reply to Comment
    5. IfNotNow could also do worthwhile work by telling Israel’s Ministry of Education to tell the truth about the Occupation. Israeli kids don’t know what or where the Green Line is either.

      Reply to Comment
      • Lewis from Afula

        Israeli kids do know about the Green Line.’
        It used to be the de facto quasi-border with JORDAN before the Arabs tried to destroy us in 1967.
        Most Israeli kids are slowly realising that in the long term, REPATRiATION to JORDAN is the only sane solution.

        Reply to Comment
    6. Gershom

      The people of If Not Now are so very wonderful in this Jews eyes by virtue of the goodness of their work. That it is Part of, if not the very soul of, Judaism is the very proof of our worth to the present and future of this benighted planet.

      Thank the author for sharing another reason to hope and to continue this struggle.

      Reply to Comment
    7. mindy

      She says teach what the green line is. Well what is it?
      It is the ceasefire line between invading Jordanian troops
      and Israeli defenders of 1948.

      What is it NOT?
      It is not a political line or border . Why not?
      Jordan, in 1948, insisted that it not be a political border.

      Reply to Comment
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