Civil discourse and hands-on service, if done well, can lead to lasting positive change in the world. Rabid arguments, unleashed aggressively, will do the opposite.
For those on the extreme right of the Israeli-Palestinian argument, anyone who does not believe that the disputed land should be fully part of Israel is an anti-Zionist. For those on the far left, anyone who declines volunteering in a Palestinian village is a racist. And week after week, it seems one organization or another is derided for something as simple as planning a service trip to Israel.
In these extreme and competing narratives, anger and rhetoric leave no room for real dialogue. What’s worse, they prevent solutions.
Because amid the shouting and vitriol, we are losing sight that real people need help. And all the while, a whole generation of young American Jews tunes out — not because they can’t care about Israel and about the issues, but because they are turned off by the extremists who claim to represent the mainstream.
The situation mirrors the debate raging in the United States over education reform. Listen to one narrative, and you hear that teachers’ unions are evil, that teachers are overpaid, under-qualified and unaccountable, and that the only way to save education is by building charter schools and giving vouchers for private schools.
The other narrative suggests that the wealthy supporters of education reform are corrupt, interested in making government money off the backs of poor kids, that standardized tests don’t measure anything worth measuring, that the No Child Left Behind Act is destroying public schools — and that accountability efforts are misguided and unjust.
In education, as with the Israel-Palestinian debate, much is at stake. But as pundits seek to sway public opinion — as they argue — a generation of children is at risk.
In the U.S., only 75 percent of high school students graduate on time. Barely half of African-American students and less than two-thirds of Latino students, do so at all. High school dropouts suffer from an unemployment rate triple that of college graduates and are eight times more likely to end up in prison than high school graduates.
While those who claim to care most vilify each other, hunger, poverty, and unemployment pervade our communities. Cities and towns across our nation face severe budget cuts that threaten crucial social service programs and essential educational initiatives.
This is why service matters. It is why organizations like Teach for America and City Year put thousands of young people per year in classrooms in disadvantaged neighborhoods, where the dropout and illiteracy rates are highest. And while these young people serve, they learn firsthand about the issues faced by the children they serve — so that one day they can become advocates for education and, we hope, bridge the gap between the two sides that now prevent progress.
This work is not about the debate. It is, simply, about helping children. It is about raising a generation of citizens who care and gives back throughout the rest of their lives. And the worst thing we could do is to discourage young people from volunteering with effective organizations that may not fit our own narrative.
We want our young people’s hands in the dirt, we want them helping people, grappling with issues and learning about them — and we will continue to partner with a variety of organizations that allow them to do just that.
That is why Repair the World is launching a campaign to inspire young Jews to join the fight for educational opportunity, to embed themselves in the classroom trenches, to join with organizations on the educational front lines. We want them to make a real difference and to learn about how to do more.
Ultimately, the solution is not to quash the discourse, but to lessen the noise so that service becomes the main attraction and not a sideshow. It is about avoiding histrionics and not allowing partisanship to supersede our obligations as human beings and as Jews.
Jewish tradition speaks to obligations of caring and justice. Authentic service — in Israel, in the United States, and around the world — can help fulfill those obligations and lead to deeper understanding of our shared bonds of humanity. And as we serve, we can learn about the complexity of issues, the potential for solutions, and more effectively search for common ground. Doing so is far, far better than glaring at each other with our fists shaking in the air doing nothing.
We must go beyond our current fractured, opposed, and distant narratives, roll up our sleeves and get to work.
Jon Rosenberg is CEO of Repair the World.