Liberation should be part of the Jewish narrative

September 22, 2011

A Jewish student recently asked me a seemingly innocuous question:

"But what am I meant to say?"

The question shocked me. The student – a committed political activist – was asking me what she should say when confronted by anti-Israel activists on her campus.

She, like many Jewish students, had enjoyed thousands of pounds worth of the finest Jewish education – from Jewish schools, to summer camps and trips to Israel.

It shocked me because it revealed an embarrassing truth. A diet of narrowly focused Israel education and spoon-feeding of "hasbara" (Israel advocacy) has produced a generation of Jewish students with a deep love for Israel, but with no real understanding of the case for a Jewish state.

My response to the student was simply: think for yourself and speak your mind.

This approach isn't about watering down our Jewish values or connection with Israel

Dan Sheldon

Try the exercise for yourself. Ask a pro-Israel Jewish student why they support Israel; why Israel has a right to exist as a Jewish state. The answers – or lack thereof – may depress you.

When Israel becomes a passive subject on which dissent is discouraged, it's no wonder so many young Jews are tuning out or turning against the Jewish state.

How can we hope to "win" for Israel on campus if we do not even seek a true understanding for ourselves? Until we make the shift from training our youth to "defend" Israel to allowing the space for them to properly engage with it, we stand little chance.

Changing this won't be easy. It will mean dealing with the difficult issues in Israel, not papering over the cracks. It will mean cutting off the supply of lazy Israel education and challenging young Jews to think for themselves. And it will also mean opening up the space within our community to be a critical friend of Israel.

This approach isn't about watering down our Jewish values or connection with Israel. It's about strengthening them through real engagement.

However beneficial this shift will be for Jewish students, there's an even bigger win in our sights. We've got a real opportunity to change the current harmful dynamic on Israel on campus.

Too often, when Israel is discussed on campus, Jewish students prepare for war. And so do our enemies. Tit-for-tat, zero-sum politics. Completely pointless, souring the campus atmosphere and harming Jewish students.

It doesn't have to be like that.

Our Liberation campaign is a bold, fresh approach. The aim is to get down to the fundamentals: making the case for Zionism as the liberation movement of the Jewish people, establishing two states for two peoples as the only practical way to realise the competing rights of Israelis and Palestinians.

Our approach is not "hug an anti-Zionist". It's about challenging students to show their commitment to two states, isolating those with negative agendas.

For too long, we've shied away from talking about human rights, justice, equality and freedom. These are not only values upon which Israel was founded, but they're Jewish values too. Liberation should be as much a part of the Jewish narrative as it is now that of the Palestinians'.

It's about time we articulated all this, instead of wasting our energy on defending the indefensible, or tearing shreds out of each other. Until we change our narrative from one of fear and war to one of hope and justice, we cannot hope to engage seriously with others on Israel.

If it works, history tells us this new approach may bring dividends. Over the past few decades, UJS has made a number of policy shifts that have had a wide impact within the community and within the student movement. From supporting mutual recognition, to our long-standing commitment to two states for two peoples: UJS played a key role in leading the community and setting the agenda on campus.

Liberation isn't about a change in policy – our commitment to two states is entrenched in our values and widely supported across our community. Rather, we – along with organisations such as the Jewish Agency's Makom, and Israel's Reut Institute – are making a fundamental change in our approach to Israel: from confrontation to conversation.

In 1995, Tony Blair's Clause Four Moment symbolised the shift the Labour Party had made to reach out beyond its traditional base. It's time for us to make the same crucial leap.

Dan Sheldon is the UJS campaigns director

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Last updated: 3:00pm, September 22 2011