In May 1967 I was a seventeen-year old high school senior and a not particularly religious Jew. I was born in New York City, as were my parents, although my grandparents were immigrants from Eastern Europe. My family strongly identified with the state of Israel and at the time my stepmother was visiting her brother who had emigrated there to fight for independence after serving in the U.S. army during World War II.
The survival of Israel as a Jewish state was important to my identity and the identity of my friends and family members. My friends, siblings, cousins, and I grew up in the shadow of the Holocaust and we had family members who were murdered. Jews had been victims for two thousand years but the survival of Israel meant we would be victims no more.
As the crisis in the Middle East intensified Americans were evacuated. My father and I spent a night at Kennedy Airport waiting for my stepmother to return home. The next morning two friends and I went to the Jewish Agency to sign up to go to Israel as volunteers in the event of war. We hoped to fight but said we would do anything that was needed.
On June 5, 1967 Israel launched a preemptive strike. The Third Arab-Israeli War lasted six days and ended with a resounding Israeli victory. American volunteers were not needed so we never went. But we would have gone and we would have fought for the survival of Israel and of Jews, whether the United States government gave permission, looked the other way, or even if it tried to stop us.
I am no longer a Zionist and I have not supported Israeli policy, especially the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, since the 1973 Arab-Israeli War. I now see Israel as the aggressor in the region, but that is not the point. As a teenager, I would have defied the U.S. government and risked legal repercussions because of my strong sense of personal identity. I wanted to be a freedom fighter for my people.
What if events had been different? What if the war was prolonged and American Jews were needed for Israel to survive? What if the U.S. government, bogged down in South East Asia and dependent on Arab-controlled Middle Eastern oil, ended its support for Israel? What if a desperate Israel attacked civilian populations or even used nuclear weapons against its enemies?
My friends and I, loyal Americans from the Bronx, freedom fighters in defense of our people, would have been seen as enemy combatants, supporters of terrorism, maybe even as terrorists. Many Americans would have wondered, what motivated us to do such terrible things?
I don’t think this is such a big stretch, the United States reversing its position on Israel or us participating as combatants even when ordered not to. We were teenagers. The holocaust was still lived memory. Our existence as a people was threatened.
I have been a teacher for almost forty years and I do not believe the teenagers and young adults I work with are very different from the way my friends and I were when we were their ages. They are upset by what they see as injustice and that to see it rectified. Today, on a daily basis I read in the newspapers about Islamic young men and women who believe their people are under attack by a powerful enemy that disrespects their beliefs and traditions, occupies theirs lands, and is willing to use its military might to force its way of life on them. Like my friends and I forty years ago, their sense of identity requires that they rally in support of their people. They want to be freedom fighters also.
They are not monsters, they are not insane, nor are they are fanatics. To dismiss them in this way is to misunderstand their motives and leaves us incapable of dealing with them. They see themselves as fighting for a just cause. Whether they individually live or die is inconsequential. People they identify with as brothers and sisters are already dying because of their enemy’s actions. They want to participate; they want to do something that is historically worthwhile.
I do not believe in killing civilians. Whether it is done by suicide bombers or by military drones is not an act of heroism nor is it in any way justified. I recognize, and support the need of the United States to take precautions that protect its civilians and military personnel from attack.
But dismissing individuals and movements as terrorist for defying U.S. policies and responding in the only ways they have available to them is counterproductive. It prevents any resolution of the underlying conflict and it ensures new generations of disaffected young people will follow in their path.
As a secondary school teacher I learned that the best, perhaps only way to control a classroom of rambunctious teenagers is through organization and relationship. When classes and lessons are organized and students feel related to the teacher, ninety percent of the problems do not happen. All disruptive behavior does not end, there are always students who are having a bad day or a bad life for one reason or another.
Based on this experience as a teacher, I believe that when Islamic youth believe there is hope for the future, that they have dignity and that their religion is respected, that their lives will change for the better, and that there will be justice in the Middle East, the threat of attack will lessen significantly, although it will probably never end completely. Branding these young people as terrorists will just convince them that their view of the world is accurate and that they need to be martyrs.
Alan Singer is Director of Secondary Social Studies in the Department of Curriculum and Teaching at Hofstra University. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.