"Israel education is helping young and old develop their own positions about what Israel can be, what it should be." - Dr. John Ruskay, Executive Vice President & CEO, UJA-Federation of New York.
Breakout session number two, "Israel Engagement: A New Narrative," was a new way to look at Israel and Jewish education in the U.S. The different speakers discussed the importance of renewed education in this field to promote advocacy and engagement. One of my favorite quotes was: "To be confident around an issue doesn't mean you already know the answers; it means you are willing to ask the questions." I love this; it's totally true. We are all passionate and educated about something (or a few somethings) but we all still have more to learn. We have to be able to admit when we have questions and to listen not only to new information but also to differing opinions if we want to become a true intellectual. I've always felt that it is essential that we understand opposing views in order to accurately form our own arguments.
As a Taglit-Birthright alum, I was thrilled when he mentioned the program that changed my life. His statement was not what I expected about such an amazing program, but it definitely made me think and realize how fitting it actually is. He said, "Birthright is activating a poetry around Israel but we still need to add the prose." This metaphor gets exactly to his point and I couldn't agree more. Birthright was a way for me to get my feet wet; after that I had to plunge into the pool headfirst. The experience sparked my interest both in the Middle East in general and in Jewish culture there. It definitely accomplishes its goal of encouraging young Jews to continue investing themselves in Israel and its future.
Yonaton Ariel, the executive director of the NGO Makom, shared his opinion that "Israel is politics on Viagra," which brought quite a laugh from the audience. Israeli politics are analyzed on every front by everybody, which exaggerates them and turns them into much larger issues, which actually happens with most politics in the Middle East now. Mr. Ariel brought up good points in his talk. Everything that happens in Israel and the rest of the Middle East is scrutinized and debated until it becomes heated and difficult to discuss in certain arenas. This stifles its advancement. As Mr. Ariel stated, "If you want a tree to grow, don't pull it out every day to examine its roots." However, education should not be lost in this endeavor. I believe that debates may not be as passionate if we didn't have to first educate the other people (and they us) on various topics, to an extent.
The Arab Spring has brought the Middle East into sharp focus. Its eventual effects on Israel are not yet clear. But what is clear is that the Middle East as a whole is moving more toward democracy and freedom than ever before. As Dr. Haleh Esfandiari, director of the Middle East program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, said in her talk about the recent Arab revolutions, "Suddenly, governments feel a sense of accountability toward their people." What does this mean for Jews? In going to the forum, "The Impact of the Arab Spring on Jews in the Muslim World," I wanted to discover just that.
My experience being a Jew in the Muslim world was an interesting one. While in Cairo for eight weeks this past summer, I discovered so many new aspects of the Arab world and its relationship with Israel and Jews in the diaspora. Most, if not all, of the Egyptians who saw the Star of David hanging around my neck were confused at first. They knew that I am American and that I have no Israeli relatives of which I am aware, which is why the Star confused them. I realized that many Egyptians think that all Jews are Israeli. They equate one with the other. In fact, the word in the Egyptian dialect of Arabic that means Jewish ("yehudi") is also the term used to identify Israelis. This intrigued me as I walked around the streets of Cairo, since the Jewish population there is so small it is almost non-existent. Many of the Egyptians I spoke with about Judaism had a narrow-minded view of the religion simply based on Israel's politics. But then I realized that many Westerners have a similar jaded view about Islam. They see extremists, the Muslim Brotherhood, and veiled women as the only representatives of the religion. This is incredibly stereotypical, one-sided, and sometimes completely false, as the radical Islamists represent only a skewed interpretation of the true religion. I think many people of both cultures and both religions could do with some non-biased education about the other, just as many people involved in various debates and conflicts should learn about the other position. So next time you're browsing through Barnes N Noble, take a look at something new. Knowledge is power; education is the path to understanding.