“My parents, teachers and community lied to me. They didn’t tell me the truth about Israelis and the Palestinians.” This is a scene repeating itself all too often on college campuses across the United States. Students we’ve spent years educating and invested tens of thousands of dollars in are arriving on college campuses unprepared for the onslaught of anti-Israel, anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic vitriol thrown at them.
I teach Israel Advocacy to teenage students throughout America and when I contact them after they leave high school many are shocked by how much they weren’t taught. When walking through campus or sitting in a lecture, they’d be bombarded with stories of how horrible life was in the West Bank for Palestinians and how horrific the settlements are. At first I looked to tweak my curriculum to include more of the Palestinian narrative, but I realized that something fundamental was lacking from what was taught in the classroom.
As a teacher I’m a fan of classroom learning, but I’m also a proponent of experiential learning. There are things that can’t be taught in a class – hearing is nice but seeing is believing. For decades we’ve believed that to instill a love for Israel in our students it isn’t enough to teach Israeli history, our students must experience Israel for themselves. With an injection of up close Israeli culture, by riding a camel, floating in the Dead Sea, kayaking in the Jordan River, and dancing at the Kotel on Friday night, our teenagers would fall in love with Israel. It seems that today, that’s not enough.
Our students are graduating high school with an array of Israel advocacy classes, the finest talking points, NCSY and Bnei Akiva Israel advocacy seminars and one or more trips to Israel. Yet when they enter the lion’s den of their first Middle Eastern studies class, and a fellow student accuses them of supporting a repressive regime, all their talking points fall short. When faced with the accusations “I’ve been there and seen the suffering of the Palestinians in refugee camps, I’ve seen the cruelty of the settlers and their evil plans,” no amount of talking points can counter their eye witness claims. Unfortunately, even their Israel trips can’t help them. Their time on a Tel Aviv beach, walking in the Carmel Shuk, and time at their cousin in the Galilee makes them seem even more disconnected from the realities that their Pro-Palestinian classmate is describing. Even their time in Sderot, seeing where rockets fell doesn’t help counter the “Israel is a cruel occupier” claim.
In today’s vitriolic atmosphere on college campuses our students simply don’t have the tools to defend themselves. Having never seen a settlement and never heard from a settler who is familiar with the issues, not only do our teens feel defenseless, but they feel their schools, parents and communities lied to them. Why didn’t we see a settlement on our school trip to Israel? Why didn’t our summer program show us the truth of the West Bank? Birthright and other college trips excel at instilling a love of Israel to Israel first-timers. Yet they could be doing so much than a trip to the top of Masada to help their students compete with fellow students who slept in the West Bank.
Here’s where I admit my bias. I offer talks in the West Bank to groups from all over America. I give an honest explanation of both sides of the argument. I’m not afraid to explain the Palestinian narrative, to admit fault and give an honest and rational assessment of the situation in Judea and Samaria. I aim to have groups be able to say, “I saw it, I was there and I know the truth.” I want the groups that hear my talk to be able to counter the accusations on the college campuses with their own personal accounts.
To prepare our teens for when they enter the lion’s den of the anti-Israel and anti-Semitic college campus, our students need first hand exposure to the settlements. No longer can we rely on talking points and a “Fun Israel Experience” to instill knowledge and love of Israel. We need to dedicate time on our trips to give first-hand experiences and explanations to our students about life in the West Bank.