In 25 years of teaching about Zionism, Israel, and Israel advocacy I’ve learned a few things I never considered before starting in this profession. The Jewish people are worried about attrition of the next generation’s connection to Israel. This has spurred the birth of multiple organizations and programs aimed at capturing our teens and bringing them back into the Israel fold.
I’ve come to realize there isn’t one solution to Jewish teenagers moving away from Judaism and Israel. Each teen is different and will react differently to the messages they hear. Some messages will resonate, others will not.
One proposal frequently suggested to bringing the Jewish teen community back into the fold is to change the narrative that Israel’s opponents frequently spread. If the Jewish community marks success as changing the narrative, they’re setting themselves up for failure and will never succeed. They’ll never change the global narrative because there are no metrics for the narrative. They don’t know which narrative is being spread at any one time and which new narrative spread will be effective. They’re just repeatedly shooting in the dark.
I’ve seen activists and advocates criticizing establishment organizations for their efforts, claiming they aren’t effective. Criticizing other Israel advocacy and educational organizations isn’t helpful to the cause. There isn’t a teenager in the world who will become a stronger Zionist and draw closer to Judaism by hearing a chorus of infighting within the Jewish community. Zionists are in the “battle” together, each takes a different direction, and each covers a different segment of the population. Different messages resonate with different teens.
A lazy accusation is that “wokism” has infected Jewish teenagers with a distorted set of values. It’s too easy to claim all teens share the same woke and progressive values, and it’s those values leading them away from a connection to Israel – but it’s not true. Teens don’t all see the world the same way and aren’t all woke progressives. While many progressives take anti-Zionist positions, there is nothing mutually exclusive about progressive and Zionist values. There are many Zionist progressives. Indicting all progressives as anti-Zionist is not only unhelpful, it’s dishonest.
Addressing all teenagers the same way instead of offering differentiated learning, assures turning off a large percentage of teenagers to Israel and Judaism. It risks whatever lesson that was going to be taught to them becoming irrelevant to the teenagers. When an Israel educator makes this mistake, they risk turning the teenager off from Israel – the opposite result they’re trying to achieve. Lessons must be individualized and differentiated to be successful.
There’s a tendency to simplify world conflicts, but the Syrian civil war, the Ukrainian-Russia war and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can’t be simplified. To teach these conflicts and for students to understand them, nuance must be employed. All too often in an attempt to make things easy to understand for students, teachers paint complicated issues as black and white, when they’re anything but clear cut. Teachers need to have confidence in their teenage students and trust they can understand the complexities of Zionism.
In an effort to simplify the complex, win the narrative and engage Jewish teens, some advocate for abandoning core values in the hopes that a new approach will win the day. New approaches that lack a foundation of values fall empty. Zionism is the core value when it comes to teaching Israel and its conflicts. To succeed in connecting more Jewish teens to Israel we must reinvigorate our Zionist education and advocacy with Zionism’s values. Zionism doesn’t stand for changing narratives, creating division among Zionists, demonizing political movements, or simplifying the complex by omitting nuance. Zionism is a movement that stands for the Jewish people’s rights. It is a proud movement that doesn’t cower from others, need shifting philosophies or attacks to distract from opponents. The best way to bring Jewish teenagers back to Zionism is by reinvigorating their Israel advocacy with Zionism.