Courtesy of www.thejewishweek.com
When an Israeli official recently urged a group of Hillel student leaders he was addressing to become "our soldiers ... our commandos, in the public campaign" Jerusalem is waging in the U.S., the young people were appalled, according to those in attendance. That kind of gung-ho rhetoric may resonate with their parents or grandparents, but not with today's young people, who not only are more emotionally distanced from Israel than their elders but a lot more squeamish about identifying with any kind of military imagery.
One reason why Jewish students on college campuses have been outmatched by Arab students in debates on the Mideast conflict — or too intimidated to participate — is a lack of knowledge, confidence and passion when it comes to defending Israel's right as a Jewish state. But there's another factor at play here, the fact that this generation of Americans has been raised as relativists, quick to see the gray in black-and-white situations, and wary of belief in absolute values. So when it comes to Israel and its conflict with the Palestinians, our young people are uncomfortable identifying fully with Jerusalem's position. Not only have they been conditioned to empathize with the apparent underdogs or victims, in this case the Palestinians, but they have been raised to seek solutions rather than confrontations.
Not that there's anything wrong with that, as any character on "Seinfeld" might hastily point out. There is much to be said for rearing young people to look for two sides to every story and to seek peaceful resolutions to conflicts. But those of us who lived through times of totalitarian regimes, be they the Nazis or the Communists, understand that there are some absolute truths in the real world, and they are worth fighting for.
For Jews who recall Israel's struggle for statehood, there is an absolute truth in the Jewish state's right to exist.
For Jews who recall Israel's struggle for statehood, out of the ashes of the Holocaust, or its wars of survival over the last five decades against hostile Arab nations, there is an absolute truth in the Jewish state's right to exist and flourish within secure and recognized boundaries. And for all the other complicating factors surrounding the current Mideast violence, what is clear is that many Arabs, including the Palestinian leadership, remain unwilling to accept that reality and continue to seek Israel's destruction. At least that's how the equation appears to me, and many in my generation of baby boomers.
But for those in their 20s, or younger, who only know Israel as a military power in the Mideast, and who are troubled by images of Israeli soldiers squaring off against rock-throwing Palestinian youngsters, or who hear Palestinian spokesmen constantly insisting that Israel is an evil occupier refusing to grant statehood to a helpless people, the situation may seem quite different.
Mitchell Bard, author of the valuable "Myths and Facts: A Guide to the Arab-Israeli Conflict," says he is amazed at how little history Jewish students who come to his Web site (www.JewishVirtualLibrary.org). "For many of them, their first memory of the Mideast is the Oslo agreements," he said.
What is needed most in our community today is knowledge of the facts.
What is needed most in our community today is knowledge of the facts. We need to educate our young people about Zionist history to make believers of them. Indeed, the more the story of the Mideast is known, the more compelling the case for Israel, which repeatedly has sought negotiated solutions to the territorial conflict and been rebuffed by the Arabs.
Certainly those in the Arab world are not afraid of asserting their absolutes, which often blend politics and religion with disturbing results.
In our politically correct times, we are fearful of suggesting that Islam preaches a negative message about Jews. Islam may be a religion of peace, but it is clear that many of its adherents are practicing a fundamentalist form of the faith that is intolerant of, if not openly hostile to, Jews and other non-believers. With Muslim clerics in the Mideast regularly urging death to the Jews — their calls for death to Americans have been restrained since Sept. 11 — it is not unfair to suggest that until these sheiks decry all forms of violence through strong public statements, the impression will remain that Islam, at least as it is practiced, is not as peace-loving as it claims.
Similarly, while the Taliban today are widely criticized for widespread violations of human rights, including the degradation of women, it should be known that such practices are common in the Arab world, where there is no democracy, petty criminals are beheaded without a trial, and women remain second-class citizens.
What is called for in the American Jewish community is a new vocabulary to speak to the younger generation, and a fresh approach in doing so. Richard Joel, the president and international director of Hillel, has been thinking a great deal about these issues, talking to hundreds of students on scores of campuses. He sees that the kinds of appeals made by Israeli and other Jewish speakers that would be met with applause by middle-age or older Jewish audiences are not well received by students today. Joel believes it is important "to introduce the idea that you can respect someone's right to be wrong, you can take a position — even an absolute position — and that doesn't make you confrontational, it makes you principled."
Israel is a country of principles whose claim to the land is based on the Bible, historical ties, internationally approved political sovereignty and victories in defensive wars. It's time we acknowledge we are losing the propaganda war on campuses and launch an aggressive campaign to at least win over our own children and grandchildren by providing them with the most effective tool of all, the truth.
Gary Rosenblatt is the editor of www.thejewishweek.com