You would be hard pressed, 10 years ago, to find any mainstream Jewish organization including Palestinian narratives as part of its Israel education efforts.
And yet, those perspectives are an integral part of the Israel Engagement Fellowship, a seminar sponsored by the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington and the Jewish
Federation of Greater Washington.
“Today, students require more understanding,” said Ron Halber, executive
director of the JCRC. “As a community, we love to debate the issues. But when it comes to Israel, we seem to think there’s one way to be pro-Israel. We want to create a safe space where students can ask questions. We want them to know that they can criticize Israel but love Israel.”
Encouraging students to think hard about their feelings toward Israel and giving them information so they can work out where they stand on the issues facing the Jewish state are among the goals of the fellowship program.
As they sipped cans of soda and munched on chocolate chip cookies, local teens spent six Wednesday evenings recently listening to speakers, asking questions, role playing and airing their opinions of the Israel-Palestinian conflict.
The conflict colors the world’s view of Israel, and the seminar participants, almost all of whom have spent time there, know they’ll run into questions – if not hostility – about Israel when they go to college. The fellowship was launched two years ago to prepare students for that possibility – and to teach them that there is no one way to be pro-Israel.
Professionals involved in Israel advocacy and university work agree that high school students are better prepared for a college environment when they are well-informed about Israel and the Israel-Palestinian conflict.
“All knowledge is good,” said Sarah Stern, president of the Endowment for Middle East Truth, or EMET, a pro-Israel think tank. “The more we can do to prepare students the better.”
Rabbi Howard Alpert, CEO of Hillel of Greater Philadelphia, said such preparation should allow the students to “support Israel and to also have sympathy for the Palestinians, whose lives are disrupted by Israel’s need to struggle for security.”
Program participants already had a better-than-average knowledge about Israel. They were chosen based on recommendations from rabbis or youth group leaders.
Katrina Young, 17, a student at Walter Johnson High School, who recently spent six weeks in Israel on a program sponsored by the Habonim Dror youth movement, said the program made her more knowledgeable.
“I’ll be able to answer when friends ask, ‘what’s going on in Israel?’ she said. “I’m learning a lot about Israeli politics. It’s really, really complicated.”
The students also learned about the Palestinian side of the story. At a session called “Parallel Narratives Never Meet,” community educator and coexistence activist Ira Weiss presented the Israeli and Palestinian national narratives – their versions of the last century of history – side by side.
“National narrative is what we learn in school,” Weiss said. “Both are true. To get the full view you need both narratives.”
He told the familiar story: Of Jews fleeing oppression and returning to their ancient homeland after 2,000 years of wandering, and of the Arabs who tried to destroy the fledgling Jewish state.
Alongside was a less familiar narrative: Of Jewish outsiders coming in and disrupting a society that had endured for 1,200 years.
Weiss didn’t suggest that there was a way to make the narratives connect. But as he told parents who were visiting for that session, it’s better that they learn this history in the “safe environment” of the Jewish community.
“What happens is, they’re brought up to love Israel. Then they hear the other narrative from Palestinians [on campus]. When they discover they weren’t told the whole story, they flip [their loyalty]. They feel betrayed.”
That was Daniel Klein’s experience.
“Growing up I was falsely taught that Israel’s history was shaped by Arab aggression, and that all of its actions were taken in defense of its people,” the Pittsburgh designer and Washington native wrote in an email. “Learning more about the history of the region changed my perspective.
“Making aliyah allowed me to see the many ways that the Jewish state systematically oppresses non-Jews, especially Palestinians, added Klein, who helped found the Pittsburgh chapter of the leftist Jewish Voice for Peace. “The conflict is not between Jews and Arabs, but rather between those who believe in equality and human rights for everyone and those who do not.”
Avi Meyerstein, a Washington attorney and Baltimore native, had a similar awakening.
Given a “traditional pro-Israel upbringing,” he discovered the Palestinian narrative in college after he and an Arab student wrote dueling op-eds.
“We each were putting out our respective party lines,” he said.
The two began a private email debate that began as an attempt to refute the other’s position and ended with Meyerstein understanding that the conflict was more complex than he was taught to believe.
“What was new to me was to hear about historical events that I hadn’t heard before that reflected the Palestinian narrative,” said Meyerstein, who founded the nonprofit Alliance for Middle East Peace. “It deepened my love for Israel by understanding its reality better and ultimately gave me an added appreciation of the Palestinian narrative. In the end, I didn’t end up too far from where I started.”
Back at the Federation building in Rockville, where the seminar took place, 16-year-old participant Melanie Ezrin, a student at Quince Orchard High School, welcomed the information.
“I like that we learned the Palestinian side of the conflict,” she said. “You can’t argue your side if you don’t know both sides.”
“The point of this course is to understand that there are several ways of being pro-Israel and you do not support Israel blindly,” Noa Meir, director of the JCRC’s Israel Action Center, who led the seminar with Pnina Agenyahu, the Federation’s community shlicha, or Israeli emissary, told the students.
“The tachlis, the bottom line, is that there are two peoples who lay claim to the land,” she said. “The question is, where do we go from here?”
Program organizers hope that the teens will go out and be “effective advocates for Israel.” Among the tips they were given: Realize that the conflict is not a zero-sum game. Empathize with people on both sides. Talk about the future, not the past – but know your history.
Arianna Stone, 17, a student at the Melvin J. Berman Hebrew Academy, said she took the seminar because she had been “afraid of wading into the conflict. You have to know the whole history, which I hadn’t done. Now I’m looking at colleges and there’s a lot of pro-Palestinian [activity]. I want to know how to advocate for Israel, to respond to false accusations.”
Stern said such programs should “teach the Palestinian narrative and teach how the facts have been distorted.”
But Alpert said mere command of the facts will not help Jewish students float in an environment that’s hostile to Israel.
“Sympathy and justice for the underdog is the dominant value on campus,” he said. “If that’s all people focus on, they build the myth that Israel is just another post-colonialist oppressor. Jewish students need to reflect this progressive social value and at the same time reflect the value of Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people.”