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U.S. Jewish Leader Malcolm Hoenlein: Young American Jews Ignorant of Judaism, Israel

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TEL AVIV – Veteran U.S. Jewish leader Malcolm Hoenlein said that young American Jews are ignorant of Israel and Jewish history and do not fare better than their non-Jewish counterparts when asked questions about the Jewish state.

Hoenlein, who is the executive director of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, gave an interview to the Times of Israel about the state of American Jewish youth ahead of the Conference’s annual meeting, which began on Sunday.

Hoenlein bemoaned the fact that Jewish college students are woefully unequipped to combat growing anti-Israel trends on American college campuses.

He argued that Israel experience programs such as Birthright cannot provide the only solution for “young people, who don’t know much, whom we ignore as Jews for the first 18 years of their lives, and send them to Israel for two weeks, and say we can make them Jews and educate them to do everything.”

A report from Brandeis University showed that over half of Birthright Israel applicants polled do not have “the requisite knowledge to participate in productive conversations about Israel.”

Hoenlein highlighted the importance of instilling appreciation of Jewish heritage into American Jewish youth by using archaeology to make Jewish history more tangible.

“They find a stone with a carving of the menorah that somebody who was in the Temple drew, and then just threw away, saying, ‘I’m not schlepping this home.’ You find all the things that for a hundred years they’d looked for, all of a sudden, now, everything has tangible proof. Irrefutable because it’s there — you can go and touch it and see it,” he said.

“Who talks to our young kids and says, ‘You have doubts? You want to know our history? Here, take a Bible — it’s a GPS.’ Just go into the City of David, into Jerusalem, into the tunnels, the digs. How can you ignore this? God is sending you a message that for 2,000 years he hid all these things. And now, our generation gets it, and we just sit there and say, ‘Oh well, another thing and so what?’”

Hoenlein cited various studies indicating just how little American Jews know of their heritage.

“They don’t know the history and don’t do much better than non-Jews on a lot of these questions. You ask them what happened in 1948, they have no clue. You ask them who Ben-Gurion is, 80 percent of them don’t know. Ask them who Natan Sharansky is, they don’t know,” he said.

“The biggest danger we face is a historic danger that Moshe Rabbeinu [Moses] already pointed out — that the greatest danger to the Jewish people is apathy, indifference, and ignorance,” said Hoenlein.

Even students who had a Jewish education (either part-time, day school, or both) got 47% of answers on Israel and Judaism correct on average, compared to 42% among those who had no Jewish education.

According to Hoenlein, the ignorance that is prevalent on key points in Jewish and Israeli history is particularly dangerous today, when the battle for public opinion on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is fought in so many liberal forums on campus.

“When kids come to campus, for the most part they are not prepared to respond,” said Hoenlein. “Anti-Semitism and anti-Israel movements on campus are a very serious issue. That 75% of American Jewish kids said they’ve experienced or witnessed anti-Semitic events on campus — it should be an alarm bell for all of us, but it’s not.”

He added, “I believe in the smorgasbord approach: We have to give something to every student so that he should find a way into the community, into Jewish life. It means that there will be some things that we’re more comfortable, some things that we’re less comfortable with. And hopefully it can be done through Hillel.”

Hoenlein also warned that American Jews in general are facing increased hostility and anti-Semitism and are not “immune from physical dangers.”


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