The news was shocking, not least because Barnard has the highest population percentage of Jews of any secular college in America. With a Jewish population of 33%, Jews could have voted down the motion had they all shown up and supported Israel.
Where were those Jews?
The vote seemed to confirm the hysteria surrounding the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel. Alarmed Jewish parents and Jewish institutions will no doubt see the BDS vote at Barnard as a portent of a terrible future for Israel in which ungrateful young Jews are bewitched by attractive campus radicals.
But they are wrong. As a Barnard alumna, I can tell you that it’s not a sign of the future. It’s a reflection of an existing reality in which Jewish students arrive at college unprepared to defend Israel despite wanting to, because they were handed a fairytale about Israel, not an education.
The way liberal Jewish schools, synagogues, and other institutions teach students about Israel fails to prepare us to develop adult relationships with the country. And in seeking to make young Jews into propagandists for Israel, American Jewish institutions deprive us of the very tools we need to defend it.
I love Israel. I love it when I started college and I love it now. But I didn’t participate in almost any activities designed to ensure its survival when I was a student at Barnard College. Why? Because after 18 years of Jewish education I arrived at college with a brain full of a myth instead of actual knowledge.
The myth I was taught about Israel was more or less this: when Jews returned to Israel in waves of aliyah, the country was a barren, underpopulated desert, and after Jews made it bloom and declared statehood we were attacked on all sides by a uniformly evil group of greedy Arabs, who were defeated, beginning a legacy of peace and defense against the Arabs enemies.
I was quickly disabused of this upon arriving at Barnard. There I learned an equally untrue story about Israel, that it is, according to some of my peers, a white colonialist outpost that Jews took over for nefarious purposes of cultural purity.
I was so shocked by the difference between the Zionist fairytale I had been told about Israel and the violent, colonialist narrative I was presented with in college that I spent four years immobilized by cognitive dissonance. And so, I am convinced, are thousands of other young Jews who, like me, were the beneficiaries of almost two-decades of “Israel education” before college.
Here’s the kind of sterling political exchanges I had when I arrived on Barnard’s campus in the fall of 2011:
Students for Justice in Palestine member: “Israel has created an apartheid state in the West Bank, where no food or water is available. Gaza is an open-air prison. Israel perpetrates a daily genocide against Palestinians.”
Me: “That can’t be true! Israel is nice. Independence Hall is air conditioned and near many ice cream stores.”
I was simply ill-equipped to respond to these claims about Israel, despite knowing that they were misleading. I had gone through years of Israel education without gaining the simplest tools to combat this nonsense, precisely because it was trying to inoculate me against it.
And it’s a huge mistake.
When we teach Jewish children to love Israel without question, when we don’t mention the word “Palestinian,” when we fill kids with hummus and falafel instead of the facts of history, we hurt Israel.
Let me tell you how much I helped Israel by arriving at college with not one word to say against accusations of “apartheid” and “genocide.” Let me tell you how much I helped Israel when, while every anti-Israel activist came to campus armed with statistics, maps, and stories, some real and some fabricated, I had no way of distinguishing which was which because seven readings of Leon Uris’ “Exodus” is not an education.
Waiting till 18 to learn that the country I had been taught is the most democratic and ethical in the world actually has a very complicated human rights problem was too long to wait.
It’s a problem not least because as long as Jewish college students don’t find a place within the Jewish world to voice reasonable criticism against Israel, they will see the country as not worth defending.
And yet, the attitude that so many major Jewish institutions take, including Jewish day schools, Hillels, youth groups, college pacs, AIPAC, and other pro-Israel organizations is that all Zionist energy should be diverted into fighting anti-Semitism within Israel criticism.
This is foolhardy in the extreme. I have been involved in some capacity with every institution listed above and I can promise you that devoting precious youthful love of Israel to defending Israel’s worst faults is a miserable waste of time. You can’t raise a generation of Jews on the value of justice and then expect them to equivocate when it comes to injustice in their own homeland.
Of course, there is real, disgusting anti-Semitism in many people’s criticisms of Israel. In my experience, those college students who devote themselves to demonizing and delegitimizing Israel with a single-minded rabidity they show for no other issue truly are struggling with anti-Semitic impulses. The desire to not just hold Israel accountable but to destroy the existence of a Jewish state that I heard from so many (though not all) members of Students for Justice in Palestine and Jewish Voice for Peace is terrifying. Those activists, who see themselves as great humanitarians, do not find it ironic to accuse Israel of ethnic cleansing and call for an ethnic cleansing of Jewish Israelis in the same breath.
And yet, you can devote years of your life and millions of your dollars to trying to teach people that they are anti-Semitic and you will fail. You can turn yourself white and blue in the face trying to convince another Jewish person that they are self hating but you won’t succeed; you’ll just make them you-hating.
You can’t defeat growing anti-Semitism or self-hatred by creating an army of under-educated, Holocaust education-traumatized, falafel-bloated college graduates. All you’ll get is apathy.
Why is it so frightening to admit that the Jewish homeland has flaws? Most American teenagers learn about our country’s disgusting history of racism and violence from the early colonists to the war in Iraq, and still manage to maintain an adult relationship with the country. Surely, the same can be true of American Jews with Israel, a country that has never sanctioned slavery?
We will teach American students to love Israel better when we teach them what Israel actually is — a beautiful country with a painful history in a land that is and always was home to more than one people. Teaching people that an imperfect thing is perfect will never work. The only possible outcome is that the student becomes either blind or disillusioned.
Liberal Jewish college students will never defend injustice or worship a nation state blindly, because that is the opposite of everything we have ever been taught to value as Americans, Jews, and learners.
Jewish Americans of my generation and the next need to be taught to develop a different relationship with Israel than our parents had, one based on love, not fear. Rabbis’ and teachers’ approaches must change. My generation has never lived through a war that was a true existential threat to Israel. We are the first generation for whom the Holocaust is truly an event of history, not something we have experienced personally or through close family members.
We aren’t interested in being responsible for human rights violations, no matter how good the reason. We will not pay to keep Israelis safe if it means keeping Palestinians in poor conditions or having their rights routinely violated.
We don’t think that Israeli lives matter more than Palestinian lives. We are not interested in sponsoring other people’s suffering. We are interested in equality, solutions, and peace.
But we won’t be there to help forge the path towards a democratic Jewish state we can be proud of if we’re lying on the floor of a dorm room, wondering whether or not the bamba we ate at summer camp violated our dearest held principles.
This is the lesson of the Barnard BDS vote. The breadth of this antipathy towards the Jewish state is something all Jewish students should be prepared to combat. And yet, as long as Jewish college students don’t find a place within the Jewish world to voice reasonable criticism against Israel, they will see the country as not worth defending.
Jenny Singer is a writer for the Forward. You can reach her at Singer@forward.com or on Twitter @jeanvaljenny