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Woke In Content, Jewish In Form: On The Failings Of Jewish Education In America

The following is a chapter excerpt from the new book Betrayal: The Failure of American Jewish Leadership, compiled and edited by Charles Jacobs and Avi Goldwasser (May 2023), from Bombardier Books, an imprint of Post Hill Press.

“We know the Zionist perspective,” a chorus of Jewish students at elite Jewish day schools across the nation continuously assure me. “We want to hear the other side. We want to know the Palestinian side.” Indeed, the tagline of IfNotNow, one of the most virulent anti-Zionist Jewish youth groups, is, “You never told me.”

It was my latest visit to a prestigious Jewish day school in North America that prompted me to re-evaluate how it is that we got to a place where I question the efficacy of Jewish and Israel education in America. It was at one such lecture that I had given on anti-Zionism and antisemitism that students complained of my bias, presenting me with a plethora of grievances with Israel. In that moment, I decided to switch gears: “You have presented criticisms of Israel, and you claim that you come from Zionist homes and a Zionist school. So, you tell me: Why should Israel exist as a Jewish country?”

The Zionist challenge, as I have come to call it, was met with alarming rejoinders. One student proclaimed, “To be completely honest, as I am thinking out loud, I have to say, I would be willing to give up the land if human rights would be restored to the Palestinians.” Her friend further explained: “Yes, because I can pray and practice my Judaism here [America] without ever having to be there [Israel].” Another student stated: “I can’t trust Israeli courts when it comes to settling land disputes because they are majority Jewish and therefore, biased.” And finally, a student settled it all: “I don’t see a reason to call myself a Zionist. Zionism has fulfilled its purpose.”

How did we get here? How do our brightest and most dedicated Jewish students surrender the land, the trust in their people, and their history?

It used to be that within Jewish families in North America, one sensible reason to send kids to Jewish day schools and to Jewish youth programs was to avoid anti-Israel bias in the classroom. This strategy, however, has proven to not only be ineffective, but more alarmingly, produced a generation of anti-Zionist Jews — or, as Natan Sharansky and Gil Troy call them, the “un-Jews.” Likewise, having Israeli parents or joining Israeli youth movements, such as tsofim, provide little to no real shelter from the dangers of radical leftism, which has ushered in anti-Zionism, today’s most potent form of Jew-hatred. 

A stark example is a graduate of a K–12 Jewish day school, Simone Zimmerman, the founder of IfNotNow (a Jewish organization whose goal is to oppose “Israeli occupation”). Zimmerman is but one, although vivid, example of how Jewish education provides little refuge from an education steeped in Marxist thought. But the phenomenon of Jewish young adults graduating Jewish day schools and joining anti-Israel groups such as J Street, Jewish Voice for Peace, IfNotNow, and even Students for Justice in Palestine, has been in the making for decades now. Indeed, Jewish day school graduates are at the helm of anti-Israel and anti-American movements on college campuses. They aren’t just members, they are leaders. How did this happen?

To help answer this question, I turn to a Soviet policy enshrined during the Stalin years: “socialist in content, national in form.” Having formed a nascent Soviet government in 1918, several ethnic minorities (that is, Jewish, Ukrainian, Uzbek, and Armenian) found themselves under Soviet rule. Party officials had a problem to solve: how to unite these diverse ethnic minorities under the aegis of a common ideology.

What the central committee devised was ingenious: Allow ethnic minorities to speak their native language, publish newspapers and books in their native language, and support the arts of the minorities. The only caveat: The content had to promote socialism. Indeed, in the 1920s and even in the 1930s, there was a burgeoning of Yiddish in the Soviet Union. This is why Jews scanning the globe in 1919 declared the Jewish future not in Palestine or America, but in the Soviet Union! How wrong they were is for another time (anti-Semitism returned in greater force in the Soviet Union with the murder of Yiddish poets, artists, and writers during Stalin’s last years in power).

In a rather twisted turn of historic events that would make Stalin chuckle, Jewish day schools in North America practice “woke in content, Jewish in form.” Indeed, all major Jewish groups that oppose the “Israeli occupation” or promote the BDS movement have been started by Jews who either graduated from Jewish day schools or were involved in Jewish youth groups:

  1. Jewish Voice for Peace: Founder Julie Ivny joined Hashomer Hatzair, a Jewish youth group focused on social justice and Judaism, when she was in the third grade: “The older teens in the youth group,” a sympathetic article says, “encouraged their waist-high counterparts to think and talk about the world around them, to not ignore the inequality that persisted in Los Angeles’ neighborhoods and schools.” According to the ADL, Jewish Voice for Peace is a “radical anti-Israel activist group that advocates for a complete economic, cultural and academic boycott of the state of Israel.”
  2. J Street: Founder Jeremy Ben-Ami completed Hebrew school at Temple Rodeph Sholom in Manhattan, a Reform synagogue. Ben-Ami founded J Street as a reaction to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), whose goal is to foster a strong relationship between the U.S. and Israel. According to J Street, the “ongoing Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory is a major obstacle to the achievement of Israeli-Palestinian peace, is a systemic injustice violating the rights of the Palestinian people, and poses a severe threat to Israel’s long-term future as a democratic homeland for the Jewish people.”
  3. IfNotNow: Founded by Simone Zimmerman, a graduate of two Jewish day schools in Los Angeles, the group calls itself a movement to end Israel’s “occupation.” In 2018, IfNotNow held a mourner’s kaddish service for Palestinians killed by the Israeli army in a Gaza airstrike.

This is not a coincidence. This is a pattern. And it comes from Jewish educational institutions that focus not on Judaism and anti-Semitism specifically, but on promoting “anti-racist” education, restoring “climate justice,” and battling gender and racial “inequity.” Moreover, at the root of it all is discomfort with Jewish particularism: a majority Jewish state with borders and, by extension, Jewish nationalism. Jewish mainstream institutions have abandoned Jewish particularism and gravitated toward universalism. Through universalism, we have re-written, so to speak, three major concepts in Judaism: tzedek, tzedek tirdof; tikkun olam; and derech eretz.

  1. Tzedek, tzedek tirdof: “Justice, justice shall you pursue…” This phrase, taken from Deuteronomy 16:20, appears in most Jewish schools’ mission statements, at times even emblematized on the front gates of the school. The original text reads: “Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may thrive and occupy the land that Adonai your God is giving you.” In its entire context, it is an imperative from God that the Jewish people occupy and settle in Eretz Yisrael by appointing magistrates and officials who will “not judge unfairly.” Willfully forgetting the remainder of the passage, Jewish educators apply these words, “justice, justice shall you pursue,” as an ethical permission slip to embrace social justice causes such as racial and gender inequity, inclusivity, and immigration reform, to name a few.
  2. Tikkun olam: “Repair the world.” While tikkun olam is a signature theme of Jewish tradition in North America, somewhere along the way Jewish educators came to believe that the goal for the Jewish people was to help to repair the world through solving world hunger, campaigning against occupations real or imagined, ending gender wage gaps, and fighting climate change; however, in its original formulation, tikkun olam is achieved through ethical and ritual mitzvot, such as keeping the laws of kashrut and observing the Sabbath. Similar to those who invoke tzedek, tzedek tirdof piecemeal, tikkun olam, which comes from the Aleinu, a seminal prayer in Jewish liturgy, appears in a passage that extends hope in “You, Adonai our God… to completely cut off all false gods; to repair the world, Your holy empire.” We make a grave error, therefore, in thinking that tikkun olam means embracing a woman’s right to choose, open immigration, or supporting equity of outcome policies. 
  3. Derech eretz: “Way of the land.” Although the literal translation is “way of the land,” Jewish educators have applied derech eretz to embrace compassion, kindness, and “common decency.” The problem, however, is that compassion and kindness to each person mean different things. I once asked my students to define kindness and received disparate responses. To one, kindness was giving something from oneself in order to benefit another person; to another, it was saying kind words in order to make someone else feel better.

Derech eretz appears in several iterations in rabbinic literature. Take, for example, the midrash from Exodus Rabbah (Shemot Rabbah 35:2). In this tractate, an example of derech eretz is “refrain[ing] from using wood from a fruit-bearing tree to build a house.”10 Here, derech eretz is not a commentary on kindness, but rather a frame to help people to make better economic and ecological choices. But as I once heard among a cohort of Jewish senior educators at a conference, practicing derech eretz was finding a way to incorporate LGBTQ awareness into the Jewish middle school curriculum.

To return to the dictum “socialist in content, national in form,” Soviet officials relied on this policy in order to unite a society around a shared system of values. In its entirety, the slogan, taken from Stalin’s 1934 essay “Marxism and the National-Colonial Question,” reads:

“The development of cultures national in form and socialist in content is necessary for the purpose of their ultimate fusion into one General Culture, socialist as to form and content, and expressed in one general language.”

This “one General Culture” was emblematized by the “new Soviet man” — novyj Sovetskii chelovek — an archetype of the Leninist-Marxist ideals. Regardless of the chelovek’s ethnic background, he was a highly conscious individual, hyper-aware of his role to oppose private property and the greed of capitalism and to support the worker against the petty bourgeoisie. The policy to conform was a success. Within five to ten years, ethnic minorities touted the Soviet policy line; and within fifteen to twenty years, as was planned, the “national form” had disappeared.

By the 1960s, Jewish homes in the Soviet Union saw a 66 percent decline in spoken Yiddish. But at least in the Soviet Union, it was done for a cause, granted a rotten one. What is the reason — the cause — for Jewish educators to practice “woke in content, Jewish in form”? Certainly, it is not due to external forces, as in the case of the Soviet government that mandated educational policy. In North America, we cannot point to a single leader, a legislative document, or unique event that demonstrates a widespread adoption of these principles. What we can do, instead, is look to the triad — tzedek, tzedek tirdof, tikkun olam, and derech eretz — and find a common denominator: the removal of God from each of the Jewish ideas. In each invocation of the triad, God is not present.

The consequence of an absent God is that man must step in to restore order. Therein lies the problem: The moral compass is thus defined by individuals and not the institutional codex from which the principles emanate. The lack of explicit theological grounding allows individuals to sanction ideologies and policies they see fit to promote.

My recent encounter with young Jews demonstrates that in each of their articulations — from discomfort with a Jewish majority court system to enshrining human rights, and, most significantly, finding no reason to be a Zionist since “Zionism has fulfilled its purpose” — somewhere along the way, Jewish educators, along with the institutions, have dropped the ball on Jewish identity. It was most painful to hear a young Jewish student surrender one of the holiest pillars of Jewish identity, the Land of Israel, in order to “restore” justice and human rights to the Palestinians. And what is most painful is that behind her reasoning is a well-oiled Jewish education system that has taught this young lady that, in order to be a Jew, she must repair the world, seek justice for the persecuted, and jettison her parochial Jewish nationalism. This young lady, therefore, surrenders the Land because she is a Jew, a Jew who has been taught social justice in content while national in form.

What then is the answer? How do we treat this alarming malaise? First and foremost, we address the root cause: discomfort with Jewish nationalism. Next, we unpack Jewish nationalism by reminding American Jews that we are, first and foremost, a people, not a religion. We are an indigenous people from the Land of Israel; the reason we have been dispersed around the globe is because we were exiled from our national homeland.

We need to stop capitulating to the Zeitgeist, that is the desire to fit Jewish identity into a woke framework. Yes, Zionism is a movement of justice; yes, Zionism sought to restore power to the persecuted Jewish people. But this is partial. We must inspire our Jewish youth in the idea that we are living in the most miraculous moment, a most supreme Zionist moment. Through Zionism, Jews have returned to history: We are not being written about, but rather are the scribes of history. What is Zionism? Zionism is a national Jewish movement — it is about returning the Jewish people to their homeland, with self-determination, with power, and with secure borders.

This chapter excerpt is published by permission from Post Hill Press. Betrayal: The Failure of American Jewish Leadership, is compiled and edited by Charles Jacobs and Avi Goldwasser.

Naya Lekht received her Ph.D. from UCLA in Russian Literature, where she wrote her dissertation on how Soviet writers pushed communist-enforced boundaries of Holocaust representation in literature and film. A passionate educator and public speaker, Naya writes and teaches on the topic of antisemitism, and Soviet influences on contemporary anti-Zionism in particular. She is currently a Research Fellow at the Institute for the Global Study of Antisemitism and Policy, as well as a senior educator at Club Z, a rapidly growing Zionist youth movement.

The views expressed in this piece are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Daily Wire.

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