Here is an excellent new documentary about Israel education in American Jewish day schools. Between the Lines describes itself as a “deep-dive into how Jewish Day Schools teach Israel’s controversial narrative, and the students who emerge with quivering loyalty toward their community and the State.” The makers are Ali Kriegsman and Jana Kozlowski, and they say they want to motivate Jewish communities around the country, including “synagogues, camps, schools, programs – to stray from a whitewashed Israel narrative and instead engage alternative perspectives and current day complexities, criticisms, and accomplishments.”
The documentary is superb because it demonstrates beyond question that young Jews are being indoctrinated in a narrative of Israel’s formation that is inaccurate, and shows how the indoctrination originates in the need to protect Israel politically in the United States, and also in the trauma inside the Jewish community over the Holocaust.
I’ll ignore the fact that the makers say they “love” Israel in their p.r. material. The journalism here is first-rate. One of the reasons our website exists is because the editors came to understand years ago that most of the information Americans get on these issues is propaganda and there was a real opportunity for journalists to tell Americans what’s actually happening. Kriegsman and Kozlowski are working in that tradition of honest reporting, in this case documenting an intellectual scandal.
Why did a Jewish day school student cry hysterically on learning about the Deir Yassin massacre? Because her teachers had deceived her about the history of Zionism and Israel. She had to get a book out of the library. Deir Yassin was in April 1948, a village on the road outside Jerusalem, taken by Zionist militias with the slaughter of over 120 civilians.
What this doc shows is that Jewish day schools steep young American Jews in a history of persecution that ends with the creation of Israel, and they do so because these schools see themselves as the farm system of the Israel lobby. The students are going to go out and advocate for Israel.
Watch it for yourself. Here are a few excerpts from the doc. Former day school student Simone Zimmerman shows how Israel’s creation is the capstone of the Jewish story of victimization:
“I learned, my entire life growing up, about the history of anti-Semitism, about the Holocaust, and very much Israel was portrayed as the answer to European anti-Semitism, and it very much was part of my own family history, and part of my communal history. The theme definitely was, ‘This is our past, and our past is a history of darkness and persecution and victimhood, and now we have Israel. And Israel is the place that we have to defend and protect, and Israel as the answer to all of those things. And if we don’t defend Israel, and we don’t protect Israel, then what happened in Europe is just going to happen again.'”
Ezra Kurtz, a student at Penn, relates that Israel turned his school’s intellectual mission on its head:
“The motto of my high school was ‘Inspire and Challenge,’ and obviously I’d say the inspiration is more of an educational motto, but the ‘challenge’ aspect was supposed to be about introducing complexity into things, and I think that complexity was lost when it came to the Israel discussion, when it came to the Israel– whatever, almost ‘curriculum,’ whatever you want to call it. And it was a little bit insulting, because we were expected to be challenged in so many other aspects, and to think critically about these things, even historical narratives. But when it came to Israel, it wasn’t so much of a discussion as much as it was a ‘this is what happened, and this is why we are so great, and thus, this is what needs to happen in the future.'”
Two older rabbis are shown. Brooklyn rabbi Andy Bachman speaks of the political imperative inside Jewish schools to describe Zionism in a positive light. Rabbi Ron Stern also says the education reflects a political necessity, to create advocates:
I would say that the Jewish community is — by virtue of necessity, for the previous decades — has felt that Israel — and there are still many people who feel this way — that Israel is an embattled stakeholder in the region, and that as long as that embattled stakeholder has to fight for its very survival, then we have to take a circle-the-wagons, present a particular perspective to the world, advocacy has to be monolithic, we can’t open a door to let any of the cracks of light get in that might be, in some way or another, break down that narrative.
Zimmerman explains how that necessity was conveyed to her:
“I had a pretty strong sense that, like, my duty going out into the world was going to be to defend Israel and, you know, to be the person who was countering all the lies in the media, and to be telling people the truth. But when I think about, like, specifics of the day-to-day in my high school, I don’t really think that– I don’t think we were actually given so much, like, real content about what was actually going on there.”
Leanne Gale (an impressive young writer whose work has appeared in the Forward and on our site) is especially eloquent about the intellectual shock. She had a course based on the book, The Case for Israel, by Alan Dershowitz. It did not prepare her for a real engagement with Israel:
“I remember reading this book that I just took out of the library, and I ended up reading some things about Israel that I had never heard about in school. I was reading about the Deir Yassin Massacre in 1948, and I was shocked about what I was reading. I was reading about Jewish soldiers actually massacring innocent Palestinian civilians. And I remember doing this research, it was during my winter break in high school, and I was crying hysterically, just reading the book. And I was like, ‘I can’t believe this happened. It must just be that my teachers at school don’t know, because if they knew, they would’ve told me.’ So I wrote about this in my paper, and I submitted it, and– I didn’t get a good grade on my paper. And I was in shock. And I was like, ‘why, what did I do wrong, I did all my research, I did everything I usually do.’ And I went to the teacher and I said, ‘Why, why didn’t I get an A on this?’ And the teacher said, ‘You gave too much credence to the Palestinian narrative.’
And at the time, I didn’t know what a Palestinian narrative was, I didn’t know there was any such thing as a Palestinian narrative. And so hearing that kind of piqued my interest and made me think, ‘There’s something that I’m missing here. Clearly if there’s a Palestinian narrative, there must be a Jewish narrative, there must be an Israeli narrative– that must be what I’m learning. There’s clearly another side.’
So when I got to Penn, immediately the first classes that I took were Introduction to the Middle East, and Arabic. And I– my motivation was really to figure out what everyone is so upset about. Why is there another side, why do people hate Israel so much, why is there all this anti-Israel sentiment. Is it really anti-Semitism, or is there something else going on? And immediately all of my assumptions were totally turned on their heads…
I went through a period where I was like, ‘I’m not really gonna be a part of this conversation, I’m not interested, I’m just gonna take my anger and, and go focus on something else.’
I was feeling really betrayed by the Jewish community and I was wondering why I hadn’t learned all of this in school, and I was wondering if it was really just this huge conspiracy to restrict information and to brainwash me into becoming a cog in some kind of political Israel-advocacy system and force me to support things publicly that I don’t actually support. And I felt really belittled too, because I thought, ‘How easily did my community think I could really be brainwashed? Like, why do they have so little faith in their youth? Did they not think that I could really handle this information?'”
I have long argued here that Zionism is eroding the great Jewish 20th century claim to leadership in literacy and education. Zionism has made us stupider because we have to argue that black is white. These young Jewish filmmakers have documented that tendency inside the most affiliated portion of the Jewish community. This is a real blow for liberation. Young Jews like Leanne Gale want to be in the forefront of liberal movements and an American conversation about social justice. To gain that presence, they will have to find Palestinian teachers, who know more about Zionism than anybody else.