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The Jews Lied to Me at Summer Camp!

The narrative of awakening to reality after being blinded by pro-Israel propaganda is all the rage among young progressive Jews. Except it’s crap.

by
Suzy Weiss
May 21, 2021
Jewish Historical Society of the Upper Midwest/Flickr
The Hillel Israeli folk dance group gathered in front of Northrop Auditorium on the University of Minnesota campus, 1982Jewish Historical Society of the Upper Midwest/Flickr
Jewish Historical Society of the Upper Midwest/Flickr
The Hillel Israeli folk dance group gathered in front of Northrop Auditorium on the University of Minnesota campus, 1982Jewish Historical Society of the Upper Midwest/Flickr

There’s a new line of thinking going around within the American Jewish circles I find myself in (young, urban, mostly progressive). It’s memeified, infographic-heavy, and shared in viral Twitter threads. It goes like this: Young Jews have been lied to about Israel by our families and our communities.

It says that our Jewish day schools, our summer camps, our synagogues, and our youth groups intentionally told us something untrue: that the state of Israel is beyond reproach; that when the country was established it was on barren, empty land; that the Palestinian people are nothing but a band of bloodthirsty terrorists. This line of thought maintains that, while we were raised to think Israel is good and gentle, a Jewish safe space, in truth the country is actually evil and committing myriad war crimes, and it’s, like, totally apartheid. In this new telling, our Jewish day schools, our summer camps, our synagogues, and youth groups were all well-oiled lie and propaganda machines covering up the dark truth about the Jewish nation: namely, that Israel is a villainous colonial project that is barbarous toward its true natives and probably the worst abuser of human rights in the world.

Maybe I was goofing off in the bathroom during that lecture. But to the left-wing Jews who own the most powerful microphones in the culture, you’d think our Camp Ramah counselors held our eyes open Clockwork Orange-style and forced us to watch Palmach propaganda on a continuous loop.

Seth Rogen said he was “fed a huge amount of lies” when it came to the Jewish state on a podcast with Marc Maron last summer. Jeremy Slevin, Ilhan Omar’s comms director, opened up on Twitter about the unending trauma of receiving a Hebrew school education: “This conflation of religious/communal identity with a faraway nation-state is reinforced constantly and repeatedly,” he said. “I grew up in a Jewish American school system that was explicitly Zionist,” announced one brave victim of private education at a recent Jewish Voice for Peace rally in New York. Imagine. What horror.

Young American Jews are among the most literate and well-resourced cohort of people in history. We have the internet. We have books. An enormous number! We have television. We have our own two eyes. Lied to? You couldn’t sneak a crouton into these people’s salads, let alone hide the fact that Palestinians exist and that they suffer. And that Israel’s history is complicated and tragic and miraculous.

Besides, the Jewish professionals and teachers that I know and who raised me are smart and dedicated, but they can barely pull off a Purim carnival. You’re telling me they somehow coordinated an international early development curriculum that was both singular and politically standardized? And they say our space lasers have bad aim!

I first encountered this supremely vain idea—that there are people special enough that others in their own community would go out of their way to conceal some hidden truth from their perceptive eyes—while on a supremely expensive gap-year program in Israel (go figure). It was full of coastal Jews from rich families. I was obsessed with their sharpness and worldliness—it was a different universe from Pittsburgh where I grew up.

That year, we traveled to places that would’ve fallen outside the “ashki-normative” narrative: India, Morocco, Greece, in the name of encountering the Jewish communities there. It was eye-opening and challenging, and I was nothing but lucky to experience it.

The point of seeing these communities was to impress on us that Jewish life was not contained to those of us of Eastern European descent. And that’s true. But also: I encountered most of these exotic Jews in the form of their gravestones, or shards of their gravestones, or piles of their gravestones stacked atop each other. So it didn’t do much to dissuade me from the fact that Jews, regardless of being Ashkenazi or Mizrahi or Sephardic or African, are hated and hunted, and deserve safety and peace.

But then, in college (shocking) peers started saying the quiet part out loud; that our rich Jewish education was in fact a handicap to seeing Israel for what it really was, and our trips to Israel were a mere publicity stunt. Then came the charge to pull an Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

Now, people like Jeremy Slevin tell me from behind their screens that I must unlearn what I’ve been told. Unlearning is the meaningless concept du jour for an activist class so uncomfortable with themselves and their identities that they seek to do the impossible: purge knowledge from their own skulls.

From whence should I unlearn? 1917? ‘48? ‘67? The destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem? I am meant to pretend that the history of Israel began with the erection of the separation wall? Or the creation of J Street? Are there at-home lobotomy kits to assist in my unlearning? Or should I just rely on the infographics?

And I won’t pretend I don’t notice that looking for a lie is way easier than confronting a difficult truth: that being Jewish is both a birthright and a choice.

Looking back to the Jewish institutions that supposedly brainwashed me: Camp Ramah in Canada, Temples Sinai, Beth Shalom, and Tree of Life, NFTY, Chabad, The Friendship Circle, Community Day School, Hillel, The David Project, TAMID Group, Kivunim, dozens of JCCs and my parents’ own dining room table, I can confidently say that I never felt as though I couldn’t raise my hand. Or that I couldn’t push back, or, God forbid, that I was being fed Zionist propaganda, foie gras-style. I was taught history and I was taught ideas and I was taught, thank God, to come to my own conclusions.

I don’t feel bad for the kids living with the painful knowledge that in eighth grade they hopped on a flight and probably had fun in a country that is now verboten in the art school circles they wish to inhabit. And neither should you. I also won’t call these Jews self-hating—if we can learn anything from their self-righteous Insta stories, it’s that they certainly don’t hate themselves!—because I don’t want to give even a fingernail to the idea that any belief that any Jew may hold disqualifies them from being Jewish. It doesn’t.

I don’t agree with my peers who seek to distance themselves from Zionism, or who attempt to cleave their religion from the State of Israel because they hope to be accepted or because they see this conflict as purely an exercise in political theory. But they are entitled to their views.

That said, I won’t be told that I was lied to when I wasn’t. And I won’t pretend I don’t notice that looking for a lie is way easier than confronting a difficult truth: that being Jewish is both a birthright and a choice. And that on the streets of Los Angeles and New York, in Vienna and London, we are seeing the history that we were taught not to repeat playing out once more.


Suzy Weiss is a reporter for Common Sense.

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