Tuesday, April 5, 2011

‘Wildcats for Israel’: Reflections on Jewish Students in America

Last night I spoke at the ‘Wildcats for Israel’ event. The event consisted of an audience of Northwestern University campus activists and leaders. Most of the participants were Jewish, but certainly not limited to, sharing an interest in Israel’s well being.
The event was further distinguished by two prominent figures speakers – Illinois’ Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky (Democrat) and Congressman Joe Walsh (Republican).
Both speakers discussed the American consensus on commitment to Israel and praised this bi-partisan agreement on this issue.
Jan Schakowsky spoke of her recent trip to Israel and of the importance of promoting a two-state solution to enable peace and to uphold the state of Israel’s democratic legacy and for its future, as well as the Palestinian’s well being.
Joe Walsh discussed the risks and affordances that the changes in the Middle East hold for Israel’s future. He was less optimistic on the short-term prospects for peace and emphasized Israel’s right to exist as an important premise for negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians; the Palestinian crises of leadership and the importance to fortify Israel’s security, before engaging in peace negotiations with an unstable partner.
Closing the evening, I decided to reflect on my experience of engaging Northwestern students, and the complexities of Jewish Identity today in the Diaspora, as compared with the Israeli experience. I summed my lecture in the following text. Please write if you have more to add to this topic.

‘Wildcats for Israel’: Reflections on Jewish Students in America

As a visiting scholar from Israel, I see it as part of my mission to introduce American students to the vibrant world of Israeli culture and society. However, arriving here I began to find the similarities and differences between Northwestern and Israeli students intriguing. I should add that I am less than a year at Northwestern University and have been privileged to meet with students in formal occasions in classes, but also had the opportunity to talk to students on a much more informal basis in corridors, university cafeterias or at the wonderful Hebrew table that is sponsored by the Jewish Studies Center every Wednesday on campus.
Through these conversations, I encountered firsthand issues I only read and heard about in Israel. I got acquainted with the identity dilemmas that many Jewish students face here.
Let me be more specific. In Israel, most students you meet are after their army service, which means they are a bit older and have confronted their identities partially through their military commitments to the state and its values. Furthermore, most come from Jewish families that have little connection in their daily lives to non-Jewish people. So in that sense they are not confronted with the same challenges of choosing their identities. These things are more of a given nature to them and not a source of consideration or anxiety. This is not to say that they don't have issues with identity formation – just that they are very different…
At NW I’ve met Jewish students of a different kind altogether that face other dilemmas.  These youngsters are often born to families of dual faiths. Many come from families that have divorced and remarried, leading to ‘half siblings’ that may be of a different faith or may differ in their Jewish orientation (e.g. ‘Frum’/religious, secular) and have made different decisions on the ways they would choose to celebrate their identity. Some of them may ask: how do I connect to my family’s identity (if at all), do I accomplish this through religious practices? Are there other options open for me? What kind of identity will I forge for my offspring?
The seminal question of ‘who is a Jew’ as well as how or if does one express her/his Jewishness, is as central in the lives of such American Jewish students as it is in today’s Jewish world at large. This is extremely challenging for youngsters who are more secularly inclined or from interfaith families, who may have had limited Hebrew schooling, were perhaps bat/bar mitzvahed, but after the age of 13 had few further opportunities to experience Jewish life.
From conversations, some research I have conducted on the Jewish internet, and reading the literature on these subjects I can note various ways of connection that are not religious and that occasionally converge and occasionally diverge in their ties to their Jewish legacy.  These connections seem also to typify the Jewish Wildcat youngsters, and I hope you will add to my knowledge by email or by personal conversations whenever you can.
Let me list some of these venues:
The 1st form that I observed (that is American and non-Israeli geared) is:
1)     Participation in the Jewish Heebster community. A fluid and undefined subculture of American Jewish youth is evident and can be illustrated by two sold-out events in Chicago of the popular Maccabeets group, just a month or so ago, or hip hop reggae  experimentations of Chassidic artists such as Matisyahu playing live; the fervent dating scene on J-date, frumster and countless expressions and performances of Jewish youngsters on YouTube videos, blogs and Facebook.

2)     Connection to Jewish associations on campus, most notably that of Hillel or Chabad.

The second form (geared towards Israel) includes 3 aspects: 

1.      Political mobilization (through Aipac – America’s pro-Israel lobby, J-Street and others), or supporting pro-Israeli representatives in the local or national political arena.

2.      Direct Experience - Participation in trips to Israel. Especially notable is the famous ‘birthright’ program that enables youngsters to travel to Israel at a very low cost, facilitates students’ fun-filled activities with other youngsters while enjoying the breathtaking views and learning about the geography, history and the “Israel experience”.
3.      High Education - Through Jewish studies, and of late, ‘Israeli studies’ that has been flourishing in the US.  Let me elaborate on this.

While Jewish studies are sadly in a state of decline in Israel with less students, and fewer hires of staff members in universities, programs for Jewish studies and Israelis studies have shown particular fervor and striking growth in the past few years in Harvard, Berkley, Brandeis and many other leading universities in the US.

This academic field has become a field for Jewish students to learn as well as network among themselves, and perhaps even a nice way of meeting nice Jewish girls J – on campus. These classes are often sponsored by prominent Jewish philanthropists such as Charles Bronfman, Lynn Schusterman and the Crown family. In fact, there are now eight institutes or centers for Israel studies in North America that are separate or connected to Jewish studies and Middle Eastern studies.
I would like to suggest that these programs have a lot to offer. Just as some may find their identity through religious practice and belief, a wealth of knowledge also lies within the corridors of Jewish thought. They enable one to explore their identities through the rich experience of others that have pondered on these questions before – albeit philosophers, poets and various scholars. Studying history, sociology and literature – all have bearings to the experience of Jews and non-Jews that have faced similar situations and have struggled with the possibilities of meeting these challenges.
These lessons won't be taught on twitter J. I think that a close look at Jewish history and the revival of the state of Israel through the eyes of philosophers, authors, ethnographers and others can provide some much needed perspective for us and for our offspring.
At any rate, I must say that I am excited about meeting you wildcats and look forward to learn more about your lives, interests and concerns, to enrich my perspective about the mysteries of Jewish life around the world.  

The Daily Northwestern Just published an article on the "Wildcats for Israel Event" See http://www.dailynorthwestern.com/campus/illinois-reps-speak-at-nu-urge-support-for-israel-1.2530486

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