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The Answer To Keeping Kids On Birthright? Honesty

This past spring I accompanied my school’s graduating seniors on their trip to Israel. We arrived a few days before the U.S. opened its embassy in Jerusalem and the violent protests in Gaza. “I guess we didn’t pick a great time to come,” one of the students told me. I answered that it’s always and never a great time to come. Some element of the conflict presents itself virtually every time I visit Israel, so don’t book a trip if you’re conflict avoidant. But it’s also amazing and important to be there during those times.

After a particularly bloody day in Gaza, one of the students asked our guide what he thought of the whole thing. At first he ducked the question, reminding the kids that they’d have an opportunity for a full and honest discussion of the Palestinian issue in a few days, with experts. But then something seemed to flash through his mind. He cast a side-long, slightly worried glance at me, and said, “Look, if you ask me, we shouldn’t be blockading them at all. But if you ask my brother-in-law, we should hit them harder. My sister wants to annex every inch, but our neighbors think she’s crazy.” He went on for a good twenty minutes, covering most of his family, his neighborhood and closest friends, offering a full range of opinions and in the meantime inviting us into some private family feuds. He was funny and impassioned and thoughtful and honest, and at the end I wanted to applaud. Later, I asked him why he’d shot me a look before his speech. He told me he wasn’t sure I’d approve of his approach. He shrugged. “But what the hell, we’re educators, right? What do we have other than honesty and thoughtfulness?” I mentioned the Talmud text about Hillel, who always articulated the views of his opponents before his own. He nodded. “Yeah, that’s what I do,” he said. “But for me, it’s not my opponents. It’s my wife. And her father.”

This wasn’t a Birthright trip, but I couldn’t help but think about my experience while watching this summer’s viral clips of birthright walk-offs. For me, the most striking and painful moments in the videos were the reactions from the guides. One lost his temper completely. One seemed polite and passive. One appeared utterly flummoxed, unable even to explain a map of Israel. I was surprised, because in my dozens of trips to Israel leading groups, I’ve always found the guides to be thoughtful and honest, and completely willing to discuss the most controversial topics. I have no idea what instructions Birthright guides are given about handling the conflict or the occupation, but my guess is as professionals they’d agree with my high school trip guide that they are primarily educators. So they should be allowed to use those classic educator tools: honesty coupled with deep, reflective thought.

Birthright, after all, indoctrinates, but it does it through Jewish education; it teaches the participants about Israel. Guides wouldn’t be teaching honestly if they gave only one view of the Palestinians. Most Israeli families contain multiple views on the conflict, not to mention the country as a whole. Israeli guides are a peculiar species of educator. Very often, they are the only Israeli the participants come to know well. Hearing what these individuals truly believe can be a profoundly educational experience, providing they also talk about their brother-in-law or cousin or sister, who disagrees with everything they say. Our part of the bargain — “our” meaning the participants, but also the donors and the professionals — would be to do something that’s become increasingly difficult in our hyper-partisan era: agree to listen to an opinion we dislike, because that’s how we learn. Without walking out, or attacking, or defunding.

Ultimately, this isn’t just about Birthright; it’s about how we teach Israel to young people. Israel Education isn’t just a growth industry in the Jewish world, particularly the Jewish day school world. It’s a symptom of a problem that continues to vex us. How do we, as teachers, passionately committed to the Israel and the Jewish people, navigate the glaring moral complexities that make up the Israel-Palestine conflict?

There are big questions at play here. What are the roles and responsibilities of a Diaspora Jew? Are we loyal to people, or ideals and ethics? How do we simultaneously communicate love and disapproval? How do we hold a classroom containing radically diverse opinions with compassion and empathy? None of these questions are new, and most have been obvious for some time. But this spring and summer, for a moment, I wondered (not for the first time) maybe we’re overthinking this. Every Judaica teacher in America has strong opinions about Israel (just as every Israeli guide has firm political views). Let’s be disciples of Hillel. Teach our opinions honestly and humbly, and also the opinions of others; after all, we may be wrong. And do what teachers do: encourage deep and independent thinking.

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