School is back in session, and amidst all the excitement of new beginnings there is a mounting, murmuring anxiety for what awaits Jewish students on college campus this year in the wake of the summer’s war.
On one side, the situation on campus combines an academic culture that leans far left on issues relating to Israel-Palestine, the high visibility over the summer of what was perceived by some as a disproportionate war, and Israel’s growing isolation in parts of the West. At the same time, the Jewish student body that cares about these issues seeks to maintain a combination of a deep relationship with Israel, to be Jewishly visible, and to be fully integrated as Jews in the life of the campus. Mapping this new reality against this aspiration creates dissonance and discomfort, and many of my own conversations with leaders in Jewish campus life have borne out these concerns about what may unfold this fall.
Nevertheless, there is a strategic error already starting to emerge in the Jewish community’s predictable response to these concerns, which places the entirety of emphasis on the facts and fictions of the war, and proffers only a militaristic and defensive response in what is ultimately a conflict of ideas. We can already see it coming, in talking points and flashy brochures (“Five Facts College Students Need to Know About the War in Gaza,” and the like) that seek to educate retrospectively about a conflict whose optics (we are Goliath, they are David) are not on Israel’s side. This instinct is born of defensive thinking: it suggests that when it comes to Israel education, our goals are to explain and defend practices that have already happened, or to reframe the historical realities that have befallen us that are outside our control.
This instinct is problematic in three ways. First, it ironically undermines the core goals of Zionism, which meant to engage the Jewish people in the exercise of being agents of change with respect to our own political, social, cultural, and economic realities. Zionism intended to bridge concrete activism toward Jewish national aspirations with the ongoing act of imagination about the ideal forms that those national aspirations should take. Substituting passive (and worse, retroactive) support in exchange for these activities of imagination replaces participation with a thin patriotism, and substitutes deep belonging for hollow particularism. Zionism and taking Israel seriously should demand of us a willingness to confront what Israel does well and what it does not do well, and should empower us to be change-agents in making possible the Israel we imagine.
Second, this defensive approach tends to reduce our morality to Manichaeism. In this worldview, which is sadly emerging as a louder voice in the Jewish community, the discourse is reduced to ‘we are right’ and ‘they are wrong,’ and ‘here are the facts to show to ourselves and others.’ Loyalty to Israel does not demand, nor does it depend on, the total moral clarity and coherence of all of its actions; if anything, true moral clarity requires a meaningful blending of loyalty to self, empathy to others, and the recognition that short of the battles waged on the Kingdom of Heaven, it is borderline idolatrous to consider any human conflict to be one between the forces of pure light and pure darkness. Conditioning ourselves to be discerning moral thinkers and actors in an atmosphere of moral complexity while remaining loyal to our people and the State of Israel is not a betrayal of Israel; but insisting on a framework of loyalty that requires us to suppress our ethical instincts to both self and other might just be a betrayal of humanity.
And third, these advocacy efforts based on a curated set of facts also undermine the best professionals and educators that we as a Jewish community have in place to do the critical work of student engagement on campus. Our colleagues working at Hillels around the country are talented, and they are driven to do their work by a passion for the big questions of identity, belonging and meaning. They did not go into Jewish education to win a Kafkaesque “color war” mapped onto complex geopolitical realities; they went into this line of work to shape lives and help inform life decisions. To describe them as deployed as ‘the front line in a battle’, to think of our responsibility as to supply them the weaponry of talking points to be used in a fundamentally unwinnable battle of ideas – this approach and these resources implicitly call into question their ability as professionals to manage nuance, shepherd conversation, steward sophistication, and model a form of leadership that will enable Jewish life to arise above the gutter to which it is being dragged.
Yehuda Kurtzer, “For Israel engagement on campus: Coaches, not cheerleaders”, The Times of Israel (11 September 2011) [http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/coaches-not-cheerleaders/]