How to talk about Israel

How to talk about Israel

iCan makes college-bound students more comfortable with what they might find on campus

Israel is a real place, with sidewalks and traffic lights and lakes and streams and wild hills; with sunlight and weather and storm sewers and beaches; with restaurants and museums and factories and apartment buildings and nursing homes.

It is also a place of huge symbolic meaning, ancient, haunting, sweet, threatening. Ever-changing.

For millennia, for Jews, it was a place fervently longed for. Then it became real, and almost all Jews looked toward it with reverence.

But things change. Now, Israel has become a divisive issue for many people. Some, including much of the Jewish community, love the Jewish state, with a love based in reality. Others, both inside and outside the Jewish community, do not. Some argue politics or specific policies, but others react negatively, dismissively, or even hatefully. Some use their dislike of Israel, whatever that dislike may spring from, as either a pathway to anti-Semitism or a mask for it.

Why that’s happened is a long, sad story, outside the scope of this one. But that it’s happened is a fact, a truth that must be navigated.

Where does that leave high school students? We already know that college students are facing a reality unlike the one their parents knew. What about their slightly younger peers? How can the local Jewish community support them, and send them out in the world open to new experiences and new ideas but able to decide for themselves what to believe, which beliefs to retain, and how to argue for them?

On Sunday, March 5, the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey sponsored what it hopes will be the first rather than the only iCan conference; 218 high school students, mostly from the federation’s catchment area but also from Essex and Rockland counties, showed up to learn about Israel, to learn what to expect as Jews on college campuses, and to have fun being together.

Students look at materials at registration.
Students look at materials at registration.

The conference’s topic was broad, and that was on purpose. Created from a grant from the Russell Berrie Foundation, with the mission to “create something to educate kids about what they’ll find on campus, I saw it as the opportunity to take on issues of concern to a broad range of people in our community and bring them together,” Lori Fein, the director of the federation’s Jewish Community Relations Council, said.

“So we brought in various youth groups, day schools, religious schools, synagogues, and nonprofits that were operating either with teens or in the Israel space,” she said. “The federation’s the organization in which all local Jewish groups can feel comfortable, because its mission, at its core, is to strengthen the community by becoming home to all of them. iCan, as a federation project, set as part of its mission its ability to provide a welcome to all local Jewish high school students as they look toward college.”

From left, teen council members Briana Gotian, Elizabeth Maline, and Zachary Zimmer.
From left, teen council members Briana Gotian, Elizabeth Maline, and Zachary Zimmer.

And how to talk about Israel? “There was a sense that just addressing the negatives” — the Boycott Divestment and Sanction movement that flourishes on some campuses, the mock apartheid walls and faux border checks and eviction notices and other “drastic tactics that kids may encounter” — “is misrepresenting what Jewish life on campus is,” Ms. Fein said. “We wanted to give students a fuller sense of what they will face, and the support networks that are available to them.

“It came out that there was a lot of ignorance about Israel,” even among Jewish teenagers, Ms. Fein said. “So we wanted to give them a sense of what’s out there, of the knowledge base they might want to access, even if we couldn’t deliver all that information in the four or five hours that we had.”

The conference was many months in the making, and it was put together in large part by the teens themselves. A teen advisory task force met once a month; not only did its 18 members provide a great deal of insight on what they’d want to discuss and learn, they also were invaluable in convincing their friends to show up for the conference. Not only did they use their already well-honed social-media skills to that end, they also had the chance to learn from a marketing professional who worked with them.

In green, JFNNJ’s Elise Hirsch and Lori Fein stand on either side of the teen advisory task force; comedian Jon Rudnitzky, who performed, is in the middle.
In green, JFNNJ’s Elise Hirsch and Lori Fein stand on either side of the teen advisory task force; comedian Jon Rudnitzky, who performed, is in the middle.

The conference included speakers, a panel of college students, breakout sessions, and a resource fair. At the end, Elisa Hirsch, the federation’s manager of community outreach and engagement, who worked on the conference with Ms. Fein, reported, “the fire alarm went off, because the cotton candy machine set it off. But the kids just didn’t want to leave. We told them they had to — and eventually they did — but they just didn’t want to.”

That was nothing new, Ms. Fein added. After the teen council meeting, which ran from 7 to 9 in the evening, “we’d clean up and go out — and we’d see them in the parking lot, still talking.”

iCan’s speakers included Senator Robert Menendez, the Democrat who is New Jersey’s senior U.S. senator; he has been a firm friend of Israel, and was able to talk about his passion for the Jewish state with the students.

Senator Robert Menendez talks to Donna Weintraub, a federation board member who was instrumental in creating iCan.
Senator Robert Menendez talks to Donna Weintraub, a federation board member who was instrumental in creating iCan.

Chloe Valdary also spoke. Ms. Valdary, an intense, even fierce young woman in her early 20s, is the director of partnerships and outreach for Jerusalem U, where she makes digital shorts on social media when she is not out speaking; before that, she was a fellow at the Wall Street Journal. A proud Zionist, she is not Jewish.

Chloe Valdary
Chloe Valdary

Ms. Valdary grew up in New Orleans, into “a unique Christian home steeped in Jewish culture,” she said. “I grew up keeping kosher and keeping Shabbat.” She was not a Seventh-Day Adventist, she clarified, but her family belonged to a similar but less well known denomination. “As a result, I grew up at the intersection of two cultures, Christian and Jewish, and it gave me a lot of perspective.

“And then, when I was in high school, my father introduced me to the writer Leon Uris and to ‘Exodus’” — Uris’s 1958 novel about the founding of the state of Israel, later made into a movie starring blue-eyed, glamorous Paul Newman — “and that was how I fell in love with Israel.”

And Ms. Valdary is a proud millennial who knows how to reach millennials.

“The research seems to indicate that we have been asking the wrong questions,” she said. “We have been asking how we can defeat BDS and fight anti-Israel groups on campus. What we should be asking is how we can build bridges of affinity and solidarity between young Jews, and between Jews and non-Jews who can take Jewish values and lessons for their own lives.

“For decades, we have been asking how we can restore something on campus, when we should be asking how we can create something spectacular.

“How do we talk about Israel in ways that add value to their lives? By doing so, my hunch is that not only will things like BDS and anti-Israel sentiment become irrelevant, we actually will be able to mainstream pro-Israel affinity into the popular culture.

“One of my sources of frustration was that when I was in college” — the University of Louisiana —  “doing Israel advocacy in the usual way, then I got the opportunity to experiment, to do it the way I wanted to. And when I did that, I discovered that millennials are more encouraged by unity and positivity than by disunity and negativity.”

She encourages discussion of Israel not to center on the conflict — although it neither could nor should be ignored — but “to understand that the conflict is not the primary defining factor of Israeli society. The more we feed into it, the more we treat the narrative that it is, the more we reinforce BDS.

“This is my analogy — imagine that we are in America, and the only musical genre that exists is country music. I am trying to come into this landscape and create hip hop.

“The type of language you use, the type of clothing you wear, the attitude you convey — I’m trying to change all that.”

Shahar Azani, the executive director of Stand With Us’s northeast office — and before that the spokesman for Israel’s consulate general in New York — also spoke at iCan.

Shahar Azani
Shahar Azani

Spending that day in Hasbrouck Heights was a surprisingly easy decision for him, although really it shouldn’t have been. “Stand With Us was holding its annual anti-BDS conference that same weekend,” he said. “The conference is very focused; professionals in the field of Israel education come to brainstorm how to promote Israel.”

So which is more important — to study or to do? “The Stand With Us conference was so important — but to stand before hundreds of students, in an actual educational setting — that was even more important to me. That’s how excited I was about it.

“That’s what we are trying to achieve. To bring these students together to galvanize their thinking about Israel, and not only them but the people surrounding them. Then we all can play a role in bridging the gap — and the gap is ignorance about Israel.

“We’re not even talking about disagreements about policy, because the ignorance about Israel is so deep, about what Israel is, about what it stands for. And we know that ignorance is the most dangerous thing of all, because it allows lies to bloom and to flourish.”

But individual people have the power to affect their communities, to bring in speakers, to talk about what they’ve learned — and of course first to learn. “A message for students is that if you, as a student, as an interested party, go to your school or to your community to try to bring in someone important, something important, a speaker, a program, you have a better chance of getting it than if a professional tries to do it,” Mr. Azani said.

“I think that students have a real thirst to know, to answer questions for themselves. It is crucial. We want them to ask questions; we need to be able to answer the questions within the family before they go out to the campus, to the workplace, into general society. We want them to answer those questions honestly.

“One of the students wanted to know why we should care about Israel,” Mr. Azani said, so he told the story of President Harry S Truman and his old friend, Edward Jacobson. The two men had met when Jacobson was 14 and Truman was 20, found themselves in the same unit when they both fought in World War I, and eventually went in business together as co-owners of a haberdashery store in Kansas City. (The store did well at first, and then it failed.)

Truman did not want to recognize the state of Israel as World War II drew close to its bloody close. He was annoyed at the effrontery of the Jews who tried to push it on him; as was not surprising (but still is dismaying) in a man of his time and place, he was not free from anti-Semitism, although it did not get in the way of his friendship with Jacobson. When delegates of Jewish leaders came to see him, he said no. He was not interested. The answer was no.

He turned down a visit from Chaim Weizmann, the scientist who became Israel’s first president. But then Eddie Jacobson, Harry Truman’s old friend, came to visit, and to plead, and according to some accounts to confront his friend’s anti-Semitism for the first time.

And then Truman said yes, and that was a turning point, and soon Israel was born. Obviously the story is a very complicated one, but this is part of it.

“When I shared that story, suddenly they realized that Israel wasn’t a given,” Mr. Azani said. It could have gone the other way. “When you understand where we are coming from, you understand what we have,” he added.

“I loved the meeting,” Mr. Azani concluded. “It echoed our core mission, which is nurturing our leaders of tomorrow, fostering the younger generation, making sure that Israel and the Jewish community continue to have continuity, not only for the next few years but for the next few decades.”

Donna Weintraub of Haworth, who sits on the federation’s board, was instrumental in putting together the iCan conference. “I saw a roomful of kids, public school kids, private school kids, day school kids, Orthodox kids, Reform kids — the community usually is all divided up between so many compartments — and they were all in the same room, because of the same thing.”

Donna Weintraub introduces a speaker at the conference.
Donna Weintraub introduces a speaker at the conference.

Yes, anti-Semitism and anti-Israel feeling were among the reasons the conference came together, but “it wasn’t at all negative,” Ms. Weintraub said. “It was incredibly positive. We spoke to them about all of the great things going on on campus today, and how much Jewish life there is, and how much there is to look forward to.

“We had a chance that day to write the next narrative, about where we are going to be. Chloe Valdary was talking to them about the beauty of Judaism, and you just watched these kids watching and listening. She has a beautiful way of speaking, and it set a beautiful tone for the rest of the day. One of my friends, who also was volunteering that day, showed me her arm, and said, ‘Look. She’s giving me goose bumps.’”

The conference didn’t happen by accident, she added. “The federation is positioned to be the one thing that can bring the entire community together. We live in a great place to be Jewish, and I have never been prouder of my federation than I was last Sunday.”

Elizabeth Maline of Tenafly is a senior at the Dwight-Englewood School, a private high school in Englewood. She heard about iCan from her mother, but she was impelled to join the teen task force because of two incidents — “not major,” she said, but still — of anti-Semitism she’d experienced at school.

Elizabeth Maline
Elizabeth Maline

The first was when someone — no one knows who — drew a swastika on the school’s soccer field. “It was backward, and it just said “Jews!’ and no one in my school confessed to doing it,” Elizabeth said. The security cameras didn’t show anything, the school reported, and the administration assured students that the culprit didn’t go to Dwight-Englewood. But then, right after the presidential election, “a student in the Young Republican Club sent out an email with a photo of a flag and a swastika from the alternate reality show ‘The Man in the High Castle.’ He didn’t send it to the whole school, just to members the club, but it also said something with the word ‘Reich’ in it.

“Obviously the email spread from there, and then people started finding out about it. He is no longer at our school. Parents — particularly Jewish parents — got very involved, because the other situation was never resolved. Parents really insisted this time that something be done.”

As difficult as that situation was, Elizabeth said, she realized that if there weren’t so many Jewish students at school with her, it would have been much worse. As it was, “I definitely wasn’t alone.” Some other teen council members come from schools were there are not many Jews. “If something like this happened at their school, they’d feel more alone,” she said. “At my school, a lot of people were speaking up, and that was a good feeling.”

“I want to be part of the solution, so I am on the council,” she added.

Brianna Gotian of Wayne also is on the council. A junior at Wayne Hills High School, she is just beginning the active part of the college search process. “A lot of the universities that I have been looking at are very large,” she said. “Often you may encounter students there from the BDS movement, and I just felt like I’d be more comfortable and more ready to attend college having this information that could help me with BDSers.”

Brianna Gotian
Brianna Gotian

She knows that it could be a problem because “I recently have heard a lot about it on the news, and I have friends who have gone to schools where they have encountered problems like that.”

She feels better armed to confront anti-Israel accusations now because iCan “gave us more understanding of what’s going on than we’re hearing in the news. It helped me a lot in creating my own opinions rather than just being influenced by what I was hearing.

“I learned what these anti-Israel movements really stand for, and it helped me to know what I can do to not be afraid. It put it into context for me, so I can understand it better.”

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