Israel at Camp – Part II
Friday, August 6, 2021 – כ”ח באב תשפ”א
Walk into many Jewish camps and the visual images show that this space is different. There may be an Israeli flag; the paths may be labeled with improvised Israeli street signs; Hebrew might designate buildings. The idea is to establish a sense of default existence, that camp culture is infused naturally with the Hebrew language and connection to Israel as an integrated element of Jewish life and identity. Once we affirm Israel and Hebrew as our default experience, how does it manifest for the members of our camp communities?
Camp is a place of identity formation. A place to experiment, influence, and be influenced, and most of all to feel a part of something greater than oneself. During these weeks at camp, I am using my time as a bit of a laboratory. I have an opportunity to sit with groups of high school students (10th and 12th graders), college-age staff, Israeli shlichim, and an inter-generational group of faculty members who come from our congregations and work with our young people year-round.
A colleague researching this phenomenon describes it this way:
“Our students growing up are [loosely] instilled with the values of social justice, Tikun Olam, and general liberal and progressive values of openness, tolerance, and of course, the venerable ‘speaking truth to power.’ We’ve taught them catchphrases like King’s famous ’No one is free until we all are free,’ and we have laudably touted the values of acceptance and teaching kids to feel good about who they are. We accept kids who are different-different bodies, different backgrounds and homes, different Jewish observance, and so on. We teach them to respect the environment and to adhere to the latest advances in PC/Woke cultural norms. Then, when they arrive on college campuses, they are exposed to an education that puts the ’liberal’ in ’Liberal Arts.’ They attend courses where professors teach theories such as ‘Settler colonialist theory’ – a theory that sees colonialism as an attempt to replace the original population of the colonized territory with a new society of settlers – and they begin to see the world anew.”
So, where does Israel fit within this matrix? The modern State of Israel that we celebrate at camp is worthy of celebration. With that, we must be cognizant of the fact that a nuanced approach should include multiple narratives, highlighting the variety of Jewish ethnicity as well as including challenging stories and sharing Palestinian narratives. This of course runs the risk of exposing our young people to stories that show unsavory episodes and incidents in Israel’s past and present. However, when our students hear these accounts on college campuses their reactions are often those of shock and embarrassment, frustration and anger that they had not heard these things in their religious schools and camps that raised them as Zionists and to learn a love of Israel.
It has become clear that our students and chanichim won’t care about Israel unless we demonstrate that we, as the Jewish establishment, care about other people, including Palestinians. Speaking to this point, Rabbi Eric Yoffie wrote this week in Haaretz:
“But the broader problem may simply be that an occupation lasting more than half a century has finally caught up with Israel, shaping attitudes and political perceptions, especially among the young. Jews and non-Jews who are under 40 know Israel only as an occupying power, and they are much less supportive of Israel than their elders. And while Israel may be more of a benevolent occupier than not, winning support for an occupier of any type is a hard sell.”
“You taught us to fight for freedom, and to stand up for those who have no voice,” one young person said, “and we feel that that message is now hypocritical because we didn’t and don’t stand up for the Palestinians,” regardless of the factual truth of said statement.
Some say “Don’t change the narrative and paint Israel as the victim” despite having endured war after war and thousands of rockets aimed at Israeli civilians. That won’t work. Now it is an issue of trust. For so many young progressive Jewish Americans, their primal connections are to the progressive community. We trust them on most issues and are now suspicious of those who kept this information from us.
Some camps celebrate Yom Yisrael, and/or IDF day, do Israeli dancing, promote Hebrew and Israeli culture, but all this is now regarded by some of our young idealistic staff and teens as a conflict with their political values.
“I was raised with a very pro-Israel education,” one 15-year-old student shared with me with a tinge of regret and embarrassment this week as we sat down for my two-week elective course on Israeli politics. “And I’m very interested in hearing ‘the other side’ now.” “Why don’t we talk about the Occupation more? Why can’t we bring Palestinian voices into our educational programming?” she demanded.
While the Israel presence at camp can be an issue for some, it can also be the safe space for open, nuanced, and challenging conversations about the meaning of Israel and progressive Zionism. Camp is a microcosm of our Jewish community with kids, teens, college students, senior staff, rabbis, cantors, educators, and young Israeli shlichim (more on that later) to share their voices and to hear what’s being said. Sometimes this cross-pollination of interaction works, and sometimes these groups are siloed and polarized from each other.
While outlooks differ on what Israel education should look like at camp, I suggest that camps provide the opportunity to treat our chanichim, teens, and staff with maturity and trust. Camp is the place where they can engage with complicated subject matter in an honest and forthcoming manner. It is an opportunity to couple our Jewish values of justice and equality with our Jewish values of Zionism to create a generation of Reform Zionists who, rather than reject and cast off the Israel-infused memories of their childhood, develop their connection to Israel with maturity, discernment, and hopefully love.
Camp sets up the perfect environment, as it is for many the only chance to leave their phones and devices behind, to unplug and tap into previously unexplored curiosities, that weren’t covered in any depth by their supplementary and formal education. But, let’s also remember what camp is not. It is not an academic course in Jewish and Israel studies with a reading list and syllabus. It is also not an Israel program that focuses solely on this hot topic. The primary goal of camp is not to come and work out one’s feelings and issues around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but rather to grow, have fun, play sports, do arts and crafts, go swimming, and have color wars. One hour spurts of conversation, no matter how enlightening or in-depth face a drastic transition as the bell rings and they run off to shoot bows and arrows.
Camp is the place where we can promote a vision of inherent connection and affinity to Israel with a sophisticated and intellectual approach towards Zionism and Jewish peoplehood, as a reckoning with our liberal Jewish values and ethics.
More to come on how we can teach and hold progressive values, our Zionist commitments, and how the two can mutually reinforce each other.