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Lose our children, lose our future

Isi Leibler- Tuesday 15th Jul 2003

Our failure to convey Israel's historical narrative and its political case to young Jews in the Diaspora is a looming disaster. Countless high school, college and university students feel uncertain and even ashamed of being identified with a country constantly demonized as oppressive and denying elementary human rights to Palestinians.

Of course there are pro-Israel student activists and Hillel organizations trying valiantly to turn the tide. But a vast majority of Jewish youth are abysmally ignorant, frequently indifferent, and highly susceptible to the prevailing climate of hostility toward the Jewish state.

Growing to maturity in a Diaspora Jewish community today certainly poses much tougher challenges than those faced by previous generations. Not only do many young Jews encounter a constant torrent of anti Semitism and hostility against Israel, they are also that much further removed from the Holocaust and the struggle for Jewish statehood.
The Oslo Accords also had a destabilizing impact.

Jews, who always shared a passionate belief in the justice of the Israeli case for Eretz Israel, were suddenly told that Palestinian Arabs had an equal claim to the land. In some cases post-Zionist educators and publicists went to the length of implying Israel had been born in sin. And all the while Arabs in every capital promoted their case with intensified fanaticism, riding the image of persecuted underdogs.

I encountered these trends in all the Jewish communities I visited this past year and am convinced that if they are not reversed we face a potentially enormous crisis. If Jewish youngsters continue to be drawn to anti-Zionist chic and distance themselves from Israel, they will lose a central pillar of their Jewish identity and many will even wallow in Jewish self-hatred.

The problem is particularly acute with the unaffiliated, who represent the vast majority of high school, college and university students. But with even Zionist educators and leaders lacking communication skills, it also encompasses youth movements and even impacts on Diaspora youth in Israel.

SOME WEEKS ago I addressed about 100 Zionist youth who were spending a year in Jerusalem to train as leaders. I was stunned at what they had to say:
One South African told me that on his return he would not remain silent about IDF oppression and abuse of Palestinian human rights. Another insisted that suicide bombers were an understandable response to Israeli atrocities and persecution. Yet another, who had no doubt imbibed post-modernist hemlock, argued that in the conflict with the Palestinians concepts of good and evil were relative.

Most of the other participants disagreed. But it was disconcerting that such venomous falsehoods aired at a Zionist seminar in Jerusalem raised no eyebrows and failed to generate passionate indignation.

Beyond the deeply committed religious Zionist youth frameworks there are no predictable patterns. Ultimately, a youth's outlook depends upon the home he or she comes from and the ability and motivation of educators to effectively convey the complex Israeli narrative to impressionable youngsters. The message must relate to a Jewish democracy, a haven for the Jewish people that struggles to survive in a relentlessly hostile Arab environment.

Our greatest priority, therefore, should be to provide funds to create new cadres of Zionist educators capable of communicating the message and highlighting the link between Eretz Israel and the Jewish people. In this, the moral case for Israel must be seen as paramount.

There are many schemes designed to bring young people to Israel. But few are geared to teach youth leaders and teachers how to tell the story of Israel to others.

One dominant program that is consistently praised is birthright israel. Yet for all its obvious benefits I remain highly ambivalent about a quick-fix scheme requiring an outlay of $2,000 per youngster for a 10-day visit to Israel. It would of course be crass to criticize a privately funded program that brings young people to Israel. But birthright is now largely funded by public bodies, including the Israeli government, and this entitles us to review and prioritize how these funds should be spent.

It is in this spirit that I assert that absolute priority should be directed toward the creation of a leadership cadre. This should be done by developing programs and bringing Diaspora youth leaders, counselors and teachers to Israel to attend seminars on how to promote the Israel narrative for a period of 6-12 months, not 10 days.

When they return to their communities the newly trained participants would be expected to render (at least) part-time communal service in the fields of Zionist education and youth work.

We must face up to the fact that if we lose our children we lose our future. Should we fail to reverse current trends, the next generation of Diaspora Jewry will increasingly succumb to assimilation in an often hostile anti-Israel environment and drift further away from the Jewish people. Other than a few haredi enclaves, the Diaspora will then simply wither away.

As the minister responsible for Diaspora affairs, Natan Sharansky must place this issue at the top of his agenda.

The writer is senior vice president of the World Jewish Congress



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