Benny Morris opened my eyes to the complexities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I read the conclusion of “The Origins of the Palestinian Refugee Problem,” and, for the first time, was confronted by Israeli involvement in terrible acts.
Curiously, I didn’t first stumble across this text at my University library, nor was it shoved down my throat by a solidarity activist: it was part of the curriculum in my Arab-Israeli conflict class at the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School.
Yarden Katz, another CESJDS alum, penned a piece for Mondoweiss decrying our alma mater's homogeneity and propensity for right-wing indoctrination. Like Katz, I am often distraught with Israeli government policies, and distressed by the American Jewish community’s history of silent complicity in awful transgressions. However, my experience at the same school, years later, underscored both the strengths and shortcomings of American Jewish education.
When I took Modern Israel and Conflict classes, I learned about the displacement of the Palestinian population. Breaking the Silence came to talk to my class about the horrors of occupation, and I myself helped start a club dedicated to teaching underclassmen the Palestinian narrative. While my CESJDS experience was far from perfect, it certainly exposed me to a myriad of diverse ideas.
Hence my real departure from Katz’s article is not our divergent scholastic experiences (even though I have no doubt that his experience was politically oppressive). It is in his argument that Jewish education in the United States sacrifices excellence for political orthodoxy. I think this view is deeply misguided. Indeed, smart, values-based Jewish education persists despite a communal tendency to foster a one-sided affinity with Israel.
Given the Jewish nature of Jewish day school, a degree of conformity is inevitable, but not all encompassing. I frequently learned about the revelation on Sinai in Tanakh class, theories of biblical scholarship in Jewish history, and the big bang in science. That is what pluralistic Jewish education is all about: presenting challenging and often contradictory ideas that leave students to draw their own conclusions on how best to engage in Jewish life, if at all. Of course imperfection persists: day schools are bubbles, and they strive to foster a sense of collective identity. Despite varied Judaic offerings, our community education naturally exists within a Jewish, and yes, Zionist lens. This creates both problems and opportunities.
Judaism and diversity may come into conflict. Even the most liberal Jewish day schools stress an enduring connection to Israel. However, closed-mindedness and educational excellence both exist, paradoxically, in Jewish day schools.
The phenomenon of Jewish education’s many successes shines through my collegiate networks. Many of my closest friends care deeply about and organize around Israel/Palestine. I personally am the proud chapter president of University of Maryland’s J Street U. Whether or not I agree with specific J Street policies, I always appreciate its embrace of critical, thoughtful and nuanced positions. Jewish formal and informal education has produced countless J Street U leaders on over 50 campuses, many of whom are high school peers. My own social network includes leaders in Jewish Voice for Peace, Students for Justice in Palestine and AIPAC alike, many of whom are veterans of Jewish institutions - schools, camps and synagogues. We have our fair share of disagreements, but my contemporaries regularly astonish me with their perceptiveness, sensitivity and intellectual rigor.
Despite an overzealous embrace of Israeli government policies, the American Jewish community has a knack for producing exceptional leaders. Are some of them conservative? Absolutely. But our ideological and intellectual diversity prevents so many of my peers from turning a blind eye to the occupation. Most of my friends, proud graduates of Jewish systems, are smart, self-reflective individuals; not blind consumers of jingoistic nonsense.
None of this should indicate that Israel education works perfectly. It doesn’t. At CESJDS and across the country, it very often lacks nuance, and fails to strive for any degree of objectivity. At CESJDS, we stood in solidarity with Israel during its every conflict, and in times of crisis, a safe space for dissent was nonexistent. But there’s enormous evidence of change, even in the short window between my time at CESJDS and Katz’s. Jewish opposition to the occupation grows every day; even mainstream groups like the American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League are starting to take note.
My generation of American Jews was raised and educated by the Jewish community we now rally against, whether over intermarriage or islamaphobia. But that doesn’t mean the system we came from is irrevocably corrupt and broken. Elements of the Jewish educational pantheon are essential; like the tremendous emphasis on social justice, critical thinking and speaking out for the oppressed. With peace talks beginning again between Israel and the Palestinians, these values are more essential than ever. Thus, Jewish educators needn’t reinvent the pedagogic wheel, but should strive to better apply their core educational values to Jews and Palestinians alike.
I’m a proud product of the Jewish-American establishment. I want to fix what’s broken, but part of that means acknowledging what isn’t. There is still room for the tent to expand, but that doesn’t mean we lack ideological diversity, empathetic leaders, or critical thinkers. Jewish education has already empowered my generation with the tools to make our community better, more open and more just.
Benjy Cannon is a junior at the University of Maryland, studying politics and philosophy. He is involved with Hillel, J Street U, and pluralistic Jewish life at Maryland.Follow him on Twitter @benjycannon.