Rabbi Dov Huff, Maimonides Middle and Upper School Judaic studies principal, shared an emotional experience with teachers in a recent memorandum.
“After our Yom Ha'atzmaut chagiga and parade ended, we sent the students back to class. As everything settled down, I looked around the corner to find the juniors, wearing blue and white face paint, waving Israeli flags, going into classrooms and singing Am Yisrael Chai. It was very powerful. Their ruach and their modelling of love for Eretz Yisrael were amazing.”
As these students move into senior year, their energy must be channeled into knowledge and skills that will be effective on campuses and sustainable into adulthood. Keys to accomplishing this are the weekly class in Israel advocacy and the four-day AIPAC Policy Conference in March.
Much of that task is handled by Refael Fadlon, who has been teaching Israel advocacy weekly to the seniors since 2007. “The combination of Israel advocacy and the annual AIPAC Policy Conference has been really helpful and important,” Mr. Fadlon said.
To ensure that the students have a solid historical context, Mr. Fadlon has introduced a new summer assignment to juniors: Read Israel: A Concise History of a Nation Reborn by Daniel Gordis. “That provides the overview. Then we will have time for deeper questions,” the teacher said.
The course addresses three advocacy scenarios: Debating in front of an audience; discussing privately with another individual; and combatting lies and conspiracy theories, some of which have become mainstream. The teacher uses video examples that portray the consequences of inadequate preparation.
“We used to teach the David Project curriculum,” said Mr. Fadlon, referring to the college advocacy group founded by Dr. Charles Jacobs. “Every unit started with some kind of allegation against Israel, and then disputed it. We also asked them to read The Case for Israel by Alan Dershowitz, which also talks about different ways to advocate.”
He acknowledged that his perspective has changed in recent years. “It’s not necessarily the point to prove that you are right. You want to reach out to people and create dialogue, especially with people who are unfamiliar with the facts, and try to explain to them a very complicated reality.”
The approach has evolved, Mr. Fadlon said, as “I realized based on feedback that students want more depth. And they want to hear the other side’s voice. It is no longer enough just to learn why Israel is right, just to learn the history. So what I started to do is try to explore every question from a different point of view.”
“Kids want to hear the authentic voice of the other side,” Mr. Fadlon said. “They understand it’s not black and white.” He said initially he was concerned enough to discuss the classroom approach with Gordis himself at an AIPAC event. “He told me, ‘Don’t make the decisions for them.’”
“The bottom line is personal education and dialogue though positive meaning,” Mr. Fadlon said. Yet the instruction also makes clear that “sometimes you don’t have a choice but to oppose the other person, those who delegitimize Israel.”
Discussion of Arab refugees from Palestine includes historical data, the subsequent expulsion of Jews from Arab countries, and various 20th Century refugee exchanges, including India and Pakistan, or Turkey and Greece.
One creative exercise reviews the drafts of the Balfour Declaration and combines them into a format resembling a page of Talmud. “That helps students discover what exactly is the meaning of every word in historical context,” Mr. Fadlon said.
When he teaches about Israel’s political system, Mr. Fadlon said, “it’s not enough just to know the results. When Prime Minister Netanyahu has to make a decision, what are the forces that influence him? How does he create a coalition, and how does it limit the power of the prime minister? The kids say they finally realize what it means when Israel makes a decision.”
The class also explores conflicts in Israeli society -- involving Jews and Arabs, political left and right, religious and secular – through media like music and art, Mr. Fadlon noted.
The year of advocacy training is augmented by attendance at the annual AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington, DC. The school has sent the senior class as delegates for three consecutive years.
For Yoni Gelb ’16, the AIPAC Policy Conference “was really eye-opening. There was so much to learn, so much to take in. It was powerful to see so many people come together, with different backgrounds, different opinions. It gave me a feeling that I wanted to be more involved.”
Inspired by his experience, Yoni joined Badgers for Israel soon after he began classes at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and now serves on the board. The group has a strong AIPAC connection, he said.
Last semester, Wisconsin students supporting the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign “tried to pass a student government resolution targeting Israel and we mobilized about 100 people to speak at an open forum.” Then the issue was brought up again during Pesach, and although there was a favorable vote, the student judiciary vetoed it because the timing was deliberately exclusive, he said.
That has been “the only real presence BDS has had on campus,” Yoni said. “We don’t see people walking around campus with signs. There is no Apartheid Week.”
Are there opportunities for dialogue? “There are people working at the grass-roots level,” Yoni said. “There are people who want a civilized conversation. The open forum is combative.”
Yoni said he was well-equipped by his Maimonides advocacy course and “the tools I got from AIPAC.” Indeed, last winter he was a delegate to an AIPAC conference for college students. “I learned a lot of tactics, ways to work to further your goal and not let detractors get in the way. Everyone was really passionate and doing good work.”