Educating beyond the 'delegitimisation' debate

By Darren Cohen, December 7, 2011

Any student of the arts will recognise that the quest for truth is a very difficult endeavour indeed. There are a plethora of theories on any one topic, but our aim as scholars is to ascertain reality in pursuit of knowledge and truth. This, I believe, is also the ultimate value of Jewish education.

Responsible Israel education should be no different. The Jewish people, who have a history of scholarship and debate stretching back millennia, should never avoid engaging in Israel debate. Yes, Israel is demonised, but this is not the sum total of criticism of Israel, both inside and outside our community.

We cannot defend Israel by simply labelling everyone a "delegitimiser". Israel is under attack and there are many among her detractors who do genuinely seek delegitimisation. Some, perhaps, are even antisemites. However we cannot apply this as a blanket term for all criticism of Israel. Instead, we ought to distinguish between pernicious delegitimisation (for example, the insidious BDS movement) and principled disagreement.

We ought to embrace debate without fearing that we are doing Israel a disservice. As MP Ivan Lewis has pointed out: "Israel advocacy must be more head than heart." For this, responsible education is the key. We have a duty to learn both peoples' narratives. We cannot simply parrot the "they all hate us" line every time. The world is not so black-and-white.

Without real education, we cannot be effective Israel advocates

Let's take the most divisive issues surrounding the peace process, Jerusalem for instance. We have a collective memory and strong emotional, historical and spiritual tie to the city. However, from right to left, religious to secular, we are obliged to ask the fundamental question: Would a division of Jerusalem really lead to us forfeiting the sovereignty of the capital of the Jewish people?

On the issue of refugees, we must ask: What really happened in 1948? Is Israel to blame for the Palestinian refugee problem? Furthermore, why is the plight of Jewish refugees from Arab countries one of the best kept secrets in world history?

The settlements beyond the Green Line are hugely polarising for our community. How much do we genuinely know about the day-to-day state of affairs in the West Bank? What is life like for a Palestinian? Should we be lauding settlers for being the new chalutzim?

These are hugely controversial matters but, without real education, we cannot be effective Israel advocates. As a community we need to challenge our notions of how we do Israel education. Instead of just being zealous flag wavers we must utilise this love and zeal, and establish our vision for the Jewish State. This is the legacy of the great Zionist thinkers, the Herzls, the Ben-Gurions, the Rav Kooks.

That means learning about the issues of Israeli society. It means asking what it means to be both a Jewish and a democratic state. It means investing ourselves in a process of learning about Israel's religious-secular rifts, ethnic divides, socio-economic inequalities and, most importantly, her flourishing democracy. Israel advocates cannot present Israel as being the only democracy in the Middle East without first knowing both the problems with and the evidence for this statement.

In 2011, with our unprecedented means of communicating and accessing information, there is no excuse for ignorance. With the vast array of reading material, online articles and university debates, no student Israel activist should rely solely on the delegitimisation line. To grapple with Israel is to live true to the basis of the name – the paradigm of struggling with G-d, with truth and with oneself. I am not proposing that we remove our emotional connection to Israel. I am merely suggesting a return to our Jewish values; to rebuild a love for Israel that is steeped in principles, knowledge and education.

Darren Cohen is an Philosophy and Spanish student at King's College London. He is a member of Habonim Dror, co-president and founder of the Israeli Palestinian Forum, and the treasurer of KCL JSoc. Follow him on Twitter here.

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Last updated: 7:26pm, December 7 2011