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December 21, 2015 7:23 am

The Need for an ‘Educational’ Birthright Program

avatar by Steven H. Resnicoff

The Israeli flag flying proudly. Photo: "Extend Birthright Israel for College Credits and Volunteer Opportunities" Facebook page.

The Israeli flag flying proudly. Photo: “Extend Birthright Israel for College Credits and Volunteer Opportunities” Facebook page.

Numerous studies have documented that college campuses are increasingly hostile not just to Israel, but to all Jewish students. Most Jewish high school graduates are unprepared for the onslaught of antisemitic and anti-Israel propaganda they will encounter.

Unfortunately, some of these young Jews are fall prey to these hateful disinformation campaigns and, as a result, become alienated from the Jewish people. Many of those who resist the propaganda nonetheless experience significant emotional distress because of the prevalent antisemitic and anti-Israel social pressure. For fear of how they might be labeled, these students refrain from challenging the insulting antisemitic opinions expressed in their classes and elsewhere, both by classmates — and, far too often, by their teachers.

This reticence to speak is exacerbated by the fact that, alas, these students are often astonishingly ignorant about Israel and the Middle East. The silence of such students perpetuates the hostile, antisemitic environments at many schools. Many Jewish students painfully acknowledge that they end up taking off their Magen David charms and mezzuzahs and are hiding the fact that they are Jews.

The regular Birthright Program is terrific; it provides a wonderful, eye-opening experience.  But a richer, more intellectually meaningful component is at least equally important. This article is a call for creation of a broad scale “Educational” Birthright Program. Specifically, I propose:

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1. A free, college-accredited course for high school students in the summer before they start college. The course might be listed, or cross-listed, as a history, political science, or writing and rhetoric offering. The precise content of the court could be tailored to different target audiences of Jewish students, just as, at many colleges, professors use different syllabi for the same course title. To maximize the number of students who take the course, it should be offered both on a face-to-face basis and as a distance learning course.

2. Among other things, the course would educate students about the historical background of antisemitism, including Arab antisemitism, prior to the creation of the State of Israel, the historical events surrounding Israel’s War of Independence, and the ensuing Israeli efforts to reach peace with its neighbors. The course would explore how those neighbors treated Arab refugees– and would contrast the ways in which Israel and those neighbors treat women and various minorities (e.g., minorities based on religion and sexual orientation).

The course would also focus on the many ways in which Israel has provided humanitarian aid not only to many nations throughout the world, but even to Middle Eastern Arabs who dwell in areas (e.g., Syria and even Gaza) that are hostile to Israel.

3. Moreover, the course would educate students regarding the resources available — online and elsewhere — regarding the Arab-Israel conflict. Thus, students would be introduced to the web sites of many pro-Israel advocacy groups, such as AMCHA, the Brandeis Center, the David Project, StandWithUs, etc..

4. Guest lecturers could include articulate non-Jews from the Middle East (e.g. Christians and Muslims).

5. The course would require students to engage in written and/or oral exercises in which they would need to articulate arguments demonstrating that they had mastered course material.

6.  The course would also educate students about the legal rights they have as students to be protected — by their colleges — from a hostile, antisemitic environment on campus.

7. Finally, the course would also introduce students to the major Jewish organizations active on campus. Such introductions may begin a “bonding” process that might facilitate the students’ participation in the organizations once they arrive on campus in the Fall.

Of course, the exact contours of each cohort of the course could differ  For example, some sections might devote more time to emphasizing Israel’s artistic, economic, medical, or scientific accomplishments — and Israel’s contributions to the world culture and prosperity. The point is that the course would not only instill pride in Jewish students but it would prepare them to respond to the propaganda to which they will be exposed.

I have proposed that such a program be tried on an experimental basis in summer 2016. Offering the course with college credit for free is part of the “carrot” designed to attract students to enroll and to convince their parents’ to encourage such enrollment.

What is necessary, of course, is seed money to engage people to develop the course and to help market the course. Moreover, funds would be necessary to pay the educational institution that would confer the credit (at a negotiated, reduced rate) and engage charismatic, qualified (and possibly adjunct) instructors.

I have no proprietary interest in this proposal. I would be extremely happy if the Birthright Program decided to expand its approach by implementing it. What is important is that the program be begun. Every year lost represents yet another class of Jewish college students who are at risk.

 The author is a Professor the DePaul University College of Law and Director of the College of Law’s Center for Jewish Law & Judaic Studies (JLJS).  He may be reached at sresnico@depaul.edu.

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