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Teaching Zionist Kids to Lose Their Minds

05/13/2010 10:24 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

This story in the Forward today reminds me of something my older son wrote to us in a letter from Jewish summer camp when he was 14.

He told us the kids were terrific but that some of them were so paranoid about Israel that he thought they were "crazy." After all, these were all pretty well-off Jewish kids at a beautiful spot in Massachusetts and yet they acted like they were under assault by the world . Some of them were even Republicans (because of Israel).

"Dad, he wrote, there is nothing worse than fascist children."

Naturally, I saved that letter.

Of course, they weren't fascist, just brainwashed.

I was reminded of those kids when I watched the debate at Berkeley over the issue of divestment from two companies that supplied weapons to Israel.

AIPAC and Hillel, the Jewish student group allied with AIPAC, came up with the strategy of having Jewish students tell the university senate that seeing signs calling for divestment frightened them. Some broke down in tears when describing the pain of seeing pro-divestment placards in the student union.

It was hilarious because it was so utterly bogus. I know that I come from a different era. Back in the day when I was a pro-Israel activist on campus, we traded insults and threw chairs when confronted by our adversaries (some were scary Maoists!) but I don't recall weeping. We liked confrontation. We were college kids.

But this is the new style of pro-Israel advocacy built on victimhood. No wonder so few American kids buy into this. (As for Israeli kids, they would fall over laughing).

Not long ago, I talked to a boy from LA who had taken one of those propaganda trips from Auschwitz to Israel, designed to convey that the alternative to maintaining the occupation is death camps.

He said that it was awful. He was blown away by the horror of what he had seen. But on the bus leaving Auschwitz for Krakow or Warsaw, the adult escorts tried to work the kids up into a frenzy of weeping.

"They seemed to think that us seeing the ovens wasn't enough. They had to milk it and then turn it into a propaganda exercise. And I guess they thought that weeping hysterically was a good place to start. Even a couple of the boys cried," he said. "But I don't cry in public and my friends didn't either. I felt like thinking not crying. So they told me I didn't understand. But I understood. Me and my friends are just not big criers."

And now this Forward report about a 17-year-old who, while taking the AP test in English Literature, freaked out when a test question referred to the late Palestinian professor and author, Edward Said. From the Forward:

The English Literature and Composition test, in which the question occurs, requires students to read excerpts of poetry and prose and compare them to other works they have studied in class. The passage from Said contains no reference to Palestine or Israel. But the test's description of the late Columbia University humanities professor as a "Palestinian American literary theorist and cultural critic" has led some pro-Israel students to object that the test has been politicized.

"I was really startled to see that quote because both of the practice questions didn't mention the writers' nationalities," said Ayelet Pearl, a senior at New York's Bronx High School of Science. "For me including this one clearly had political implications."

The Said quote on the AP test reads: "Exile is strangely compelling to think about but terrible to experience. It is the unhealable rift forced between a human being and its native place, between the self and its true home: its essential sadness can never be surmounted."

"I'm in a public school and most students here have the impression that Israel is the one attacking [the Palestinians]," the 17-year-old Pearl said. "To put a quote in like this subconsciously reinforces the idea that Israel's the antagonist, the aggressor, the one in the wrong."

The poor student was distraught!

Though she had just 40 minutes to write the required essay, Pearl froze when she encountered the Said text. "I didn't know what to do because I wasn't comfortable answering it," she said. She decided to put a paragraph objecting to the quote's inclusion at the top of her essay. "I find it really inappropriate to put a political question like that on a test," she said she wrote.

Using this quote in the AP exam "is very reflective of the widespread use of education and testing as a platform for anti-Israel propaganda," she told the Forward.

So this is what pro-Israel advocacy has come to: turning kids into scaredy-cats.

Lots of luck with that, AIPAC & Co. Israel is the 4th strongest military power in the world. It has 200 nuclear bombs. It has an army of cool, tough, non-weepy soldiers -- many of whom look like Olympic athletes. And you are teaching victimhood.

No wonder the only way you get Jewish kids to line up behind Israel's current policies is by giving them free trips. But even that won't work if crying on cue is demanded.

There are plenty of things to cry about in this world. And Israel's self-destructive policies (and its treatment of the Palestinians) are among them. But, that isn't what the lobby is aiming for. Like the fundraising letters from AIPAC and the American Jewish Committee that clutter my mailbox, their goal is to convince the most secure Jewish community in history that they should be afraid, very afraid.

Here's a response from one young Jewish kid, Jason Serota, that appeared in the New York Times yesterday that is typical of the way the kids I know think (having worked on Capitol Hill for decades and now at Media Matters Action Network, a liberal organization, I am one oldster who actually knows hundreds of kids in the early 20's).

As a young American Jew, I can sympathize with those who feel that we don't have the connection with Israel that previous generations had. For our parents and grandparents, who lived in the shadow of the Holocaust, Israel -- the place and the idea -- was more of a necessity. For my generation, especially in the Northeast, anti-Semitism is rare and the Holocaust a history lesson.

Israel will always be a special, important place for me (I was a bar mitzvah at Masada), and I believe its existence is vital. At the end of the day, however, I am an American and a Jew, and I find I don't have much in common with Israelis, other than as Jews. My home is here, in the diaspora.

Jason Serota
Philadelphia

He is not scared. And he is certainly not weeping.

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