It’s a fact of life that some Jewish and pro-Israel college students will encounter anti-Semitism or anti-Israel hostility on campus. We want to prepare our children and grandchildren to face this ugliness with courage and certainty; so, wherever possible, we instill in them a strong sense of Jewish identity and connection to Israel. We arm them with the facts because those facts are essential.
But as important as it is to impart our values and beliefs to our children, we also must prepare them to deal with others who don’t share our worldview and who refuse to accept the facts we take for granted. After all, part of being prepared for conflict is knowing how our opponents think.
Our community needs to do this better. Today, countless students come from strongly affiliated Jewish households where they were raised to support Israel. When they go to college, they encounter anti-Israel protests and rhetoric for the first time. This confrontation is shocking, and sometimes dispiriting.
I know, because at Hillel International, I oversee more than 70 Jewish Agency for Israel schlichim, or envoys, who serve as informal educators on campuses across North America. These young Israelis help American students connect to Israel and understand and support the Israeli people. They are often the first people that American students turn to after they have arrived on campus with a deep connection to Jewish life and Israel and are surprised by the anti-Israel hostility they encounter.
Hillels host hundreds of professionals on campus who focus on Israel engagement and education. They help students through this transition with support, educational opportunities, travel programs to Israel, and dozens of pro-Israel clubs and groups where students can find like-minded communities.
But it’s not uncommon for these students to still feel confused. They wonder why our institutions — the Jewish summer camps, youth groups, and schools that taught them to love Israel — didn’t also prepare them to face Israel’s critics on campus. These students have a good point. If we want American Jewish students leaving their parents’ homes for the first time to have the inner strength and conviction to stand for Jewish values, Jewish communities, and the Jewish people and state, we have to do better before students reach college.
No, I don’t mean we have to do a better job of teaching Zionism. Israel education could always be stronger, but our community has excellent and committed organizations and educators teaching our children to love Israel. This spring, my Facebook page was flooded with heartwarming images of young children dressed in blue and white for their school’s Yom Ha’atzmaut celebrations. The teenagers in my community proudly engage in political advocacy, send tzedakah to Israeli charities, and visit Israel at every possible opportunity.
We have to do a better job explaining to our children that they may hear difficult accusations lobbed at Israel. Sadly, they may encounter people who believe that it’s wrong to have a Jewish state. We may celebrate Israel’s birth and growth as a miracle in our time; they see it is a disaster.
And anti-Israel campus activists will seize on any excuse — some manufactured — to condemn Israel and Israel’s supporters. Our children should not have to wait until they are 18 years old to learn that Israel, like every other country, is imperfect. And they should not be shocked to find out that their passion for Israel might be challenged by people with bad intentions or bad information.
We must prepare our students to stand proud in their beliefs even when they encounter these points of view. Doing so will make them effective partners with Hillel as we plan programs that help as many students as possible understand Israel’s historical, cultural, and religious significance. It will also ready them to make smart arguments when those views are challenged.
I will always teach my children that Israel is our beloved land and the rightful home of the Jewish people. But I will also teach them that they will encounter those in their lives who feel differently. That will make them stronger advocates, better defenders, and more confident lovers of Israel.
By Michelle Rojas Tal
Michelle Rojas-Tal is the central shlicha (emissary) to Hillel International and director of the Israel Fellows Program.