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Wednesday, November 26, 2014

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Asking teens, ‘Are you a Zionist?

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In collaboration with professors Alex Pomson and Howie Deitcher of Hebrew University, for the past two years, I have been listening to Jewish high school students describe their views on Israel and Zionism. In total, we’ve interviewed and videoed nearly 100 day school students as they recount their developing relationship with Israel and the various factors that weigh into forming their opinions.

We’ve learned more than I can possibly recount in this column, but I will use this space to tackle one particularly intriguing issue.

Among the American teens we interviewed, about one-third either flatly rejected the label or wavered about whether to call themselves Zionist. When asked, “Do you consider yourself a Zionist?” we heard responses like that of Rachel, who stated, “I don’t really know, because I’m all for the State of Israel and all for Jerusalem and I support Israel no matter what... I would just not put the specific label and the restrictions on saying that I am a Zionist.”

These are not teens estranged from Israel. In addition to attending day schools, many travel frequently to Israel, read news from Israel, and attend Zionist camps and youth movements. So why do they dither when asked if they’re Zionists?

Listening closely, we found a difference in the way they view a Zionist’s engagement with Israel and their own.

In defining a Zionist, they described politically motivated engagement – public activity motivated by instrumental considerations. For example, Mike stated, “A Zionist is someone… who always supports Israel no matter what, who ensures that Israel, and acts to ensure that Israel, has security and stability in the world and will always be around for Jews to go to. They will build it up, they will protect it, and they will advocate for it.”

When defining their own relationship to Israel, however they spoke of a civically motivated engagement – public activity motivated by a sense of duty, regardless of the outcomes.

When Jordana describes a Zionist she says, “They go to rallies. They express their opinions. They tell it to other people and try to convince them that [Israelis] deserves their own state.” But in describing her own relationship to Israel she states, “To me, Israel is a home for me, personally, and I think for every Jew… I think the whole beauty of Israel is that when people go to Israel, even if they don’t want to make aliyah, I think they still feel some kind of connection to the land, so although it’s not necessarily their home-home, it’s still a type of home for them.”

Initially we were puzzled and troubled that so many highly engaged Jewish teenagers would waver when it came to defining themselves as Zionists.

But upon closer inspection, we realized that their hesitation is not an indication of a distanced relationship to Israel, but a nuanced understanding of their relationships to Israel vis-a-vis their conception of Zionism. By understanding these two underlying relationships to Israel – politically and civically motivated – we can begin to address what and how we teach about Israel and Zionism and tailor our pedagogy to develop the desired deep and rich relationships.

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