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School’s out on Israel

March 2, 2011 – 9:48 pm54 Comments

Photo: Vincenzo Aiosa

By Mandi Katz

When it comes to Israel, young Australian Jews often feel themselves caught between extreme positions.

Only days ago, Bialik College graduate and former Australasian Union of Jewish Students president Liam Getreu wrote on this site that our community is dominated by an “Israel right-or-wrong line and a much smaller, but very loud chorus of Jews who sing the Israel always-wrong song, with very little in between”.

There is, of course, a huge spectrum of views on Israel within the Jewish community, and in Australian public life but Getreu’s analysis was not challenged, probably because he is right that this is as much about who is loudest as it is about where the majority sit. So a relevant question is why it is that so many of us sit quietly and watch, while public discourse on Israel is dominated by people holding views closer to extreme ends of the spectrum.

There are many reasons why, and each could be a discussion in itself. There is certainly a high degree of defensiveness about Israel. With no shortage of people out there willing to put the boot in, many don’t see the need to add Jewish voices to that chorus. There is also unwillingness to engage in public “sideline commentating and cheerleading”, as an Israeli friend of mine this week described the happenings at JStreet, in the absence of a commitment to live in Israel.

But a big part may simply be a lack of understanding of the issues and facts, and an attendant willingness to concede the discussion to those who know best or are quick to tell us that they do. In this instance, I’m referring to the professional ‘hasbaraniks‘, such as the Australia Israel Jewish Affairs Committee (AIJAC), and people in leadership positions on Zionist bodies, groups by their nature that are primarily concerned with advocating for Israel.

So another obvious question is why there are so few young graduates of Jewish day schools and youth movements like Liam, who feel equipped, passionate and willing to contribute to a more generative discussion.

Of course Jewish identity and education don’t start and end with the Jewish day schools.  But they are significant community assets, and represent a huge investment from our community collectively and for individual families. Jewish schools need to feature front and centre in any discussion about the way that young Jews identify with Israel.

The role of Jewish schools in all of this has been turning in my head for a few weeks, since I attended an energetic and inspiring presentation by Joseph Gerassi, the principal of Melbourne’s Bialik College, where he shared the school’s vision and mission with parents.

The vision is the result of work recently undertaken by the school’s leadership team in Israel and comprises the school’s overall mission. It includes a comprehensive Jewish vision for the school, which does not see itself as either religious or as secular but defines itself as a cross-communal Jewish Zionist school, embracing an inclusive approach to Judaism and encouraging students to engage with traditional Jewish texts in a meaningful way.

Some of the most interesting comments he made were about Israel and Zionism. Mr Gerassi expanded on what Zionism means at Bialik College, the importance of Hebrew, and a range of Israel studies options, which use critical enquiry and material from diverse sources and perspectives. He emphasised support for the “well-being” of Israel but also said that while Zionism is a non-negotiable at Bialik, this did not mean having to support every policy of every government of Israel.

Now that’s not a particularly radical thing to say – not many educated individuals will admit to blind support for anything, but it is a fairly bold position for the principal of a Melbourne Jewish day school to take in a formal forum.

His view, if I understood it correctly, is that the school will see itself as successful when students understand the importance of Israel as a home for Jews and its importance for Jewish life everywhere. The school will also measure success by whether students care enough to ask hard questions – to engage in informed, critical and sometimes difficult discussion about Israel’s policies and actions.

This discussion is not really about Bialik College – not least because it remains to be seen exactly what the school has in mind, and how it will be executed. But the issues raised go to the heart of who speaks loudest and why. Perhaps what’s needed is to provide students with a less rose-coloured understanding of issues so that that they can hold firm their connection with Israel, and participate more confidently in discussions on Israel across the spectrum. The desire to instil positive identification with Israel and why it matters is obviously critical but perhaps we – parents and teachers – need to add to that the goal of promoting an understanding of Israel and the issues it is confronting, that go beyond Zionism 101.

None of this is easy. But maybe these are some of the discussions we need to have.

Frank discussions about the complexity and the moral implications of 43 years of occupation; the apparent indifference of some to the suffering of the occupied is an obvious and admittedly difficult starting point.

Are we prepared  – emotionally and with adequate information – to talk honestly about what life is like for Palestinians living under military occupation, and what it means for Israeli society that young soldiers are charged with enforcing this rule?

What do we say about the cost of the legislative agenda being pursued in the name of “Jewish demographics” – a lever used to make excuses for illiberal policies that conflict with other Jewish values?

How do we talk to school-aged students honestly about the scepticism in Israel about the prospect for peace as a result of years of terror, but also with compassion for people completely fatigued by “the situation”?

What should Orthodox schools say about the increasing number of people in Israel who value land above peace as a principle and who earnestly believe that the Torah is the “title deed” to all of Israel? Would Leibler-Yavneh College, which describes itself as a Modern Orthodox Zionist school, require its teachers to be more sympathetic to that view than the Progressive movement’s King David School would?

And how is that view and more broadly, the role and face of religious nationalism in Israel, discussed at Mt Scopus College, which has a largely non-practising student community but describes itself as operating within a Modern Orthodox and Zionist framework.

How should we prepare our daughters for how they may feel when they visit the Kotel, controlled, as it is, by Ultra Orthodox elements that marginalise the role and access of women in ‘their’ holy places.

And do we feel able to speak openly about the competing claims on Jerusalem – not only in a religious sense but also about the efforts to acquire properties and ‘Judaise’ neighbourhoods of East Jerusalem? Would students at Jewish schools recognise the name of Sheikh Jarrah, the neighbourhood that has become a symbol of this conflict, but which has also been a catalyst for opposition and protest?

An alternative view is that what I am suggesting is too complex and pessimistic an agenda for school students. That young people need to first absorb a positive story, or as one Jewish educator told me, need a little “indoctrination” before they confront such intense complexity. But I believe that is less than honest and also carries too many risks.

Young people can cope with some ambiguity; an approach that insists otherwise will not prepare them for the alternative perspectives that they will inevitably encounter. That’s when they are likely to disengage or retreat into defensiveness.

Clearly a big part of this is for students to spend time in Israel and even better, for families to do that. Mount Scopus has run a family trip to Israel for several years, while for the first time last year, almost the whole Year 10 Bialik group travelled to Israel for a highly subsidised six-week program.

But for many families, spending time in Israel is still made difficult or impossible by the financial burden of Jewish school fees. For many other families, such opportunities are as out of reach as Jewish schooling itself. But that is a topic for a separate discussion

In getting back to the conversations we need to be having with our children and teenagers about Israel at school and at home, I hope that others will have interesting things to say. Some of the Zionist youth movements grapple honestly with these challenges and there are many teachers in the Jewish schools who do this very well. It would be great to hear what they have to say.

Meanwhile, I commend Joseph Gerassi for putting this challenge on the mainstream agenda. He deserves support and encouragement.

Mandi Katz lives in Melbourne where she works in the financial services sector. She and her husband, Ashley Browne, have three teenage children who attend Melbourne Jewish day schools.

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