March 8, 2018

The High School Zionist Experience

Guest Contributor: Paul Friedman

As the Tri-State High School Coordinator for StandWithus, an international Israel education organization, I have encountered many students who have diverse and passionate connections to the state of Israel.
This is very encouraging to the pro-Israel community. However, there is a rise in anti-Semitic incidents in high schools across the United States that deserve our attention. Before analyzing why, let’s first examine the word Zionism. This is the movement for Jewish liberation, based on justice for the oppressed and the right of all peoples to self-determination in their homeland. Unfortunately, many anti-Israel groups try to corrupt Zionism into a “dirty” word and therefore a cause unworthy of our commitment. 
Today, anti-Zionism has become the new anti-Semitism. It became taboo after the Holocaust for anti-Semites to attack the individual Jew simply for being Jewish, but we live after the re-establishment of the Jewish State – a  70-year phenomenon. Therefore, an attack on Israel, where 53 percent of the world’s Jewish population lives, sometimes can be regarded as anti-Semitism. Attacking a country instead of a people provides a convenient cover to carry out blatant anti-Semitism by holding Israel to a double standard, demonizing it, or delegitimizing its right to exist.
So, how does this affect Jewish high school students in America today? It is a different experience depending on what type of community you live in. Many Jewish students that attend Jewish Day Schools don’t have major issues being a proud Zionist. Many schools have an Israel curriculum and the majority of students have a deep connection to their Judaism that also crosses over into Zionism. Many have either visited Israel or have family there.
Therefore, the most dangerous enemy is apathy – the feeling that there isn’t an important need to support Israel publicly when others can do it instead or, when Israel is ever-present in the school or community that its existence is taking for granted. However, many Jewish Day School students have never been exposed to anti-Zionism in real life and therefore, feel unprepared when encountering it.
The best way to counter these claims is by educating yourself and as many others as possible about the true goal of many anti-Zionist movements. While they disguise themselves as movements of peace or coexistence, when you dig deeper, many actually exist to demonize and delegitimize Israel’s right to exist. Once students learn how to relate Israel’s story to the world around them, all the facts, statistics and knowledge they have accumulated will allow them to educate others and answer any false anti-Zionist claims confronted by it in university and the professional world.
Jewish students who attend public or unaffiliated private schools experience a different scenario. Here are some examples:
  • At one private high school in N.J., the editor of the school newspaper questioned support for “Wonder Woman,” because Gal Gadot is a Zionist.
  • In another N.J. high school, a student tweeted that “Israel is a terrorist force.” When a pro-Israel classmate defended Israel, the student made fun of her and it became a bullying issue for the administration.
  • At a middle school in Connecticut, a seventh grade geography teacher placed a map on the wall of the Middle East that omitted Israel for Palestine.
The faculty and administration at these schools can also be anti-Israel or caught in the school’s policies on how to handle controversial issues, providing yet another obstacle for proud Jewish students who want to express support for their homeland.
It doesn’t help that the UN Human Rights Council passes more resolutions against Israel than the rest of the world combined. Students are taught that the UN is an international body that maintains peace and protects human rights, when, in fact, so many other countries committing egregious human rights violations are ignored by the UN. Adding to it, the media tends to portray Israel through the lens of the Arab-Israeli conflict, resulting in its myriad accomplishments and contributions being overlooked.
Many Jewish students in public high schools are among the only Jews at the school, which can make them feel isolated and powerless when experiencing anti-Semitism. Some public high schools do a great job of preventing bullying, while others struggle to deal with anti-Zionism because students claim they aren’t being anti-Semitic, they are just against Israel. However, a line is crossed when criticizing Israel by demonizing, delegitimizing, or holding it to a double standard. These students claim they are exercising their rights to free speech, but this does not provide the right to bully others in an academic environment because of their background or beliefs.
Most Israelis enter the IDF when they turn 18 to complete their mandatory military service. It’s our responsibility as American Jews to serve on the front lines in educating our community about Israel.
Through the power of knowledge and education we can create a more tolerant world that will understand the Jewish people’s history and why Zionism is such an integral part of who we are as a people. One of our responsibilities is to connect people to our story so they can better relate to what Zionism really stands for and how it applies to marginalized groups around the world.  

Paul Friedman serves as the Tri-State Area High School Coordinator for StandWithUs. He previously was a Graduate Assistant at the Holocaust Resource Center at Kean University. He graduated from Kean University with a Master’s degree in Holocaust & Genocide Studies.

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