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The Challenges of Anti-Israel and Anti-Jewish Activists on Campus

L’Fi Dati: As I See It

A message from Rabbi Weintraub

Increasingly, parents of college students, and at times the students themselves, come to talk with me about anti-Israel and anti-Jewish activists on campus. I am not referring here to people respectfully expressing dissent from specific Israeli, or American Jewish leadership policies. Rather, I mean groups espousing anti-Semitic canards about Jewish deviousness and power, or opposing the existence of a Jewish state per se, or judging Israel by an impossible double standard while ignoring the wrongdoings of other nations.

Often, our Jewish students today are intimidated, even overwhelmed. They feel unprepared for the political argument, and, more fundamentally, confused by the guilt and embarrassment which anti-Jewish and anti-Israel expressions arouse in them.

What lies behind their confusion? Why are they hard pressed to respond to anti-Israel canards, when they rise easily to defend other groups? Is their quietism, their Jewish bashfulness just a matter of intimidation by those who rail against us? Or does it have deeper roots?

Consider the education of many of these Jewish youth. Prior to college, what was often their last intensive Jewish learning experience? The Bar, or Bat Mitzvah. And this often became an exercise in musical reading performance. But where was the Haftarah from? What did the child learn about the prophets whose verses they chanted? Was she made to feel the religious and political heroism of the prophet? Did she learn about Jeremiah, in the late Sixth Century BCE, who was ostracized, imprisoned and forcibly silenced for opposing King Zedekiah and the royal priesthood and their foreign policy? Does she know about the career of Amos, 200 years earlier, who infuriated the false prophets and callous landowners of Northern Israel by denouncing religious ostentation and merciless systems of sharecropping? Was she taught about the role of conscience in Rabbinic tradition, the many Midrashim where G-d’s action or inaction in the Torah is openly challenged?

So these students enter College, with little grounding in the moral passion and wisdom of Jewish tradition. And they encounter not only the onslaughts of anti-Israel propagandist but other distorted ideas about Judaism. As Abraham Heschel, Arthur Herzberg and other scholars have shown, many celebrated Western philosophers—Voltarie, Kant, Hegel, for examples—taught very caricatured ideas about Judaism. In his ”Letter of Memmius to Cicero” (1771), Voltaire hat this to say about Jews: ”They are, all of them, born with raging fanaticism in their hearts, just as the Bretons and the Germans are born with blond hair. I would not be in the least bit surprised if these people would not someday become deadly to the human race.’

Jewish youngsters who go to college are not politically ill equipped. Many have serious knowledge of international affairs, and experience in communal service and political campaigns. They are, however, most unprepared, morally and philosophically as Jews. They are vulnerable to the depictions of Jews, even by “enlightened” modern thinkers, as a people of tribal insularity and moral indifference. And the hard question for Jewish educators is how we have abetted this distortion. Have we reduced Jewish education to orthopraxy, concerned only with what people do, and forgotten about theological and moral wisdom? Do our children know that G-d Himself was challenged by the Torah’s greatest leaders, Moses, Sarah, Hannah, Jeremiah?

Our children seek and need a sane, intellectual, socially responsive Jewish spiritualty. And we need to offer it to them. Let us honor and engage their search, and so build the foundations for a vital Jewish and Zionist leadership, and a just and compassionate world tomorrow.

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