Let’s keep Israel lobbying out of Jewish youth groups

Petra Bensted FLICKR

If you belong to a Conservative synagogue and want your teen to participate in USY (the Conservative Jewish youth group), to practise their Torah chanting and grapple with text and tradition and Jewish ethics and sing and eat with other Jewish kids, be prepared to enter the world of single-mindedness on Israel.

When I recently received notice of an upcoming USY convention in Ontario, the invited groups included in the weekend lineup – Hillel, AEPi and Stand With Us –  made me wonder when USY had adopted such narrow messaging, and when it had become a hasbarah (public diplomacy for Israel) shop.

In the eyes of those who value free and open inquiry around Israel, Hillel International has egg on its face after Hillel at Ohio State University cut ties with (and advising, access and funding to) the campus Jewish LGBTQ group, B’nai Keshet.

‘Training teens to do hasbarah means asking them to suspend their critical faculties’

B’nai Keshet’s crime? Partnering with 15 organizations to co-sponsor a Purim fundraiser for LGBTQ refugees organized by Jewish Voice for Peace. Hillel’s standards of partnership forbid affiliates from partnering with JVP (or other groups who Hillel claims seek to “delegitimize,” “demonize,” or apply a “double standard” to Israel).

At the upcoming USY convention, will teens be warned not to get too close to groups who demand that Israel uphold civil rights, international law and end the occupation?

As for AEPi, the Jewish fraternity, type in “Israel” on its website. The extent of the discussion is that it partners with an array of hasbarah organizations, including AIPAC, an “Israel Training Program” (listed under the word “hasbarah”), Stand with Us and the David Project.

Most blatant on the hasbarah list at the USY weekender is Stand With Us (whose name already tells these USYers what to do). Its website’s tagline is “Aims to enhance Israel’s image in the eyes of the world.” Training teens to do hasbarah means asking them to suspend their critical faculties. In the context of a synagogue youth group, it is also telling them to deploy their Jewish identity for a specific political end.


As a scholar-educator and as a Jewish parent, when it comes to Israel, I am guided by three values: knowledge, critical thinking and social justice. Teaching teens to deflect criticism of Israel and prop up its public image serves none of those principles. Doing hasbarah is the domain of diplomats who are paid for their work and enter that field as adults. Pushing hasbarah on Jewish teens in a synagogue youth group is something altogether different.

When I posted an open letter to USY on my (public) Facebook page, a USY regional director responded. “Developing a deep engagement with and love for Israel is part of USY’s mission,” Jessie Greenspan wrote, adding that Save a Child’s Heart, CJPAC and Out of the Cold would also be joining. Greenspan concluded: “Your point about ensuring that our USYers receive balanced information is well taken, and I can assure you that Israeli politics and government policy does not form part of the agenda at any ECRUSY [Eastern Canada Region USY] program.”

I appreciated Greenspan weighing in, and I appreciate her desire to seek balance, but the lineup doesn’t reflect that. And the claim that “Israeli politics and government policy does not form part of the agenda” is not borne out by teaching hasbarah. To engage in activities to make Israel look good on the world stage means to bolster its policies, and to sideline criticism of those policies. And who makes policy? Governments, of course.

Some parents may want their teens to do hasbarah. For that, there was last week’s AIPAC convention, which has a youth wing. Other Jewish parents are no doubt kvelling over their millennial sons and daughters attending the “Resist AIPAC” campaign run by the anti-occupation, millennial Jewish group If Not Now. Either way, AIPAC is a lobby organization. A synagogue youth group  is not.