Forty-five years ago in New York, a 20-something Malcolm Hoenlein had a remarkable meeting with Israeli deputy prime minister Yigal Alon, who chose Hoenlein, already a proven leader, to deliver a message to American Jewry.
Back then, Alon’s message was clear: “Tell American Jews, keep your money here [in the US], if you’ll invest it in Jewish education. You’ll do more for Israel’s future if you raise your generations and invest the money there. Don’t give it to Israel.”
At the time of the meeting, Hoenlein was the founding executive director of the Greater New York Conference on Soviet Jewry, and fresh from his role as the chairman of the North American Jewish Student Network, which he’d also helped establish.
Alon’s words were not heeded, and today more than $2 billion in Jewish philanthropic money reaches Israel annually — and the US day school network is crumbling while ignorance of Israeli and Jewish history is widespread.
“The problem is, if we didn’t send the money here [to Israel], they would not invest it in Jewish education,” said Hoenlein, who since 1986 has served as the executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, an umbrella organization of some 50-plus Jewish groups.
He told this anecdote and many others in a recent mostly off-record two-hour meeting in The Times of Israel’s Jerusalem offices ahead of the Conference’s annual meet-up, which starts February 14.
Hoenlein, a one-time educator himself, bemoaned the ignorance so prevalent among the very populace that is being targeted by anti-Israel activists — college students.
The roots of these students’ Israel illiteracy are there before they hit campus, Hoenlein said, even though many, if not most, Jewish young adults aged 18-27 have participated in some kind of Israel experience program.
Birthright, he said, cannot be the only solution for “young people, who don’t know much, whom we ignore as Jews for the first 18 years of their lives, and send them to Israel for two weeks, and say we can make them Jews and educate them to do everything.”
The world’s first GPS — the Bible
Hoenlein said that if young Jews are to sustain their association with the Jewish community, it is important that they appreciate Judaism’s beauty and tradition. Educators must utilize other aspects of Israel, including archaeology, to contextualize Jewish history and make it tangible.
“They find a stone with a carving of the menorah that somebody who was in the Temple drew, and then just threw away, saying, ‘I’m not schlepping this home.’ You find all the things that for a hundred years they’d looked for, all of a sudden, now, everything tangible proof. Irrefutable because it’s there — you can go and touch it and see it,” he said.
“Who talks to our young kids and says, ‘You have doubts? You want to know our history? Here, take a Bible — it’s a GPS.’ Just go into the City of David, into Jerusalem, into the tunnels, the digs. How can you ignore this? God is sending you a message that for 2,000 years he hid all these things. And now, our generation gets it, and we just sit there and say, ‘Oh well, another thing and so what?'”
Hoenlein cited studies that, he said, “show that young Jews know very little.”
“They don’t know the history and don’t do much better than non-Jews on a lot of these questions. You ask them what happened in 1948, they have no clue. You ask them who Ben-Gurion is, 80 percent of them don’t know. Ask them who Natan Sharansky is, they don’t know,” he said.
“The biggest danger we face is a historic danger that Moshe Rabbeinu already pointed out — that the greatest danger to the Jewish people is apathy, indifference and ignorance,” said Hoenlein.
‘The greatest danger to the Jewish people is apathy, indifference and ignorance’
According to a November 2015 report from the Israel Literacy Measurement Project, over half of Birthright Israel applicants polled do not have “the requisite knowledge to participate in productive conversations about Israel.”
The team of Brandeis University researchers who worked on the study reported feeling “surprised that Jewish graduate students, including some who were training to become Jewish professional leaders, lacked some of the foundational knowledge that would equip them to engage in Israel-related activity and education.”
Perhaps even more surprising is the minimal impact of a serious grade-school Jewish education on students’ performance: Students who had Jewish education (part-time, day school, or both) got 47% of answers correct on average, compared to 42% among those who had no Jewish education.
‘When you don’t believe in something, you’ll fall for anything’
Such ignorance on key points in Jewish and Israeli history, Hoenlein said, is particularly dangerous today, when the battle for public opinion on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is fought in so many liberal forums on campus, including the gay rights movement and Black Lives Matter.
“We really have a generation who are ignorant — there’s a country song that when you don’t believe in something, you’ll fall for anything. And they fall for anything because they don’t know anything. They don’t have any kind of core foundation,” he said.
That may be the result of a Jewish education that is limping along on what seems like its last legs in all but the ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities. Day schools, which were once the core of formative Jewish education, are in widespread financial trouble or deemed unaffordable for an increasing cross-section of American Jews.
A merger of five North American Jewish day school organizations and networks was announced in January. Representing more than 375 schools from across the denominational spectrum, the new organization proclaimed that the merger “recognizes that a combined day school organization will more effectively meet the diverse needs of local schools by pooling the talent, expertise and resources originally dispersed among its founding agencies.”
Hoenlein said some will see the merger as signaling a decline, but perhaps it can strengthen their efforts. Still, there are few programs currently available to “arm” students before reaching the anti-Israel frontline on campus, although the Conference of Presidents has pushed for the creation of an upcoming high school curriculum of Israel study from Bar-Ilan University.
“When kids come to campus, for the most part they are not prepared to respond,” said Hoenlein. “Anti-Semitism and anti-Israel movements on campus are a very serious issue. That 75% of American Jewish kids said they’ve experienced or witnessed anti-Semitic events on campus — it should be an alarm bell for all of us, but it’s not.”
According to a July 2015 report using Birthright applicants’ data, three-quarters of students polled reported hearing anti-Semitic comments on campus. The most commonly heard statements were that Jews have too much power (52%), that Israelis behave “like Nazis” toward Palestinians (44%) and that the Holocaust was a myth or exaggerated (37%).
Time to ‘shake things up from the bottom’
Hoenlein warned that even off campus, American Jews are not “immune from physical dangers.” He reported seeing an anecdotal increase in hostility against American Jews.
“In France 80% of the attacks go unreported. I’m saying to you the same thing is true in America. Is it a plague? No. Is it France? No,” said Hoenlein, but it’s a different America from a decade ago.
‘In France 80% of the attacks go unreported. I’m saying to you the same thing is true in America’
Now is the time to “shake things up from the bottom,” said Hoenlein, to offer Jewish students more options for engagement — before they disengage unilaterally.
Lack of engagement of American Jewish youth has a ripple affect on any potential reliance Israel may have on their future support. A July 2015 Jewish People Policy Institute report noted glaring discrepancies between younger (under 30) and older American Jews’ attitudes to the threats against Israel.
Asked if Israel’s enemies constitute an existential threat, only 70% of the under-30 participants said yes, versus almost 90% of older participants.
One explanation for the decline in almost unilateral support for Israel is found in a Brandeis study, “US Jewish Young Adults React to the Gaza Conflict.” Published just after the 2014 Gaza war, it concluded that young Jewish adults show “nuance and the ability to think of both sides” in the Israel-Hamas conflict. The report also cited other data pointing to a trend that American Jews aged 18-29 are disproportionately liberal in their political views (two-thirds), in comparison to the broader US population of the same age group (one-third).
Prof. Leonard Saxe, head of Brandeis University’s Maurice and Marilyn Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies, explained that findings to The Times of Israel in 2014, saying, “People thought what Israel did was justified and felt a strong connection to the country. But, at the same time, they were as concerned about the loss of Palestinian lives as Israeli lives.”
This nuanced look at the conflict is found on campuses today, where many students remain unwilling to give blanket support to a pro-Israel group that “ignores” the Palestinian struggle. And for his part, Hoenlein doesn’t expect students to be staunchly pro-Israel on every issue.
“But legitimate criticism doesn’t lead to ostracism, legitimate criticism should lead to engagement. The issue is, do you know what the basic facts are? Do you understand the threats that Israel faces? And do you understand the context in which these things are happening?” he said.
When students do have a grasp of the facts behind the complex nature of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, then they can be critical, said Hoenlein.
‘In most cases, you ask them about the things that they are protesting, and they haven’t got a clue’
“But in most cases, you ask them about the things that they are protesting, and they haven’t got a clue,” he said.
There are several groups on campus that harness ambivalent Jewish students’ desire for activism, including the more extremist Jewish Voice for Peace and Students for Justice in Palestine. But there is also the more moderate, but critical of Israel, campus wing of J Street, an organization Hoenlein labeled as “fringe” at The Times of Israel meeting.
“J Street offers an opportunity that shows that Jewish students do want to have an association with the Jewish community. They want to have something. So we have to provide a constructive one for them,” he said.
“I believe in the smorgasbord approach: We have to give something to every student so that he should find a way into the community, into Jewish life. It means that there will be some things that we’re more comfortable, some things that we’re less comfortable with. And hopefully it can be done through Hillel,” said Hoenlein.
“But we can’t bend the truth; we can’t sacrifice the truth to increase our appeal,” he added.
With the perspective of a Jewish leader who has been serving for half a century, Hoenlein said it’s easy to get a headline if you’re critical of Israel. “Man bites dog, you know.”
“If you support Israel, you just get knocked,” he said. “It’s okay, it’s a price worth paying.”