The United Jewish Israel Appeal (UJIA) has just turned 100, and the birthday celebrations have opened a debate on the pages and screens of the Jewish News and Twitter, and elsewhere. UJIA has been accused by members of an organisation called Na’amod of presenting “a distorted education on Israel”, providing education that “routinely justifies the occupation”, and generally having a pro-occupation bias in its approach to Israel.
I don’t think this view is fair to the UJIA, and wanted to provide my view as someone involved in youth movement education. I never have, and never will defend Israel’s occupation of the West Bank.
As mazkir of Habonim Dror, I am proud to lead a youth movement that has a clear set of values. We oppose the occupation and, as we have for the past 91 years, we will continue to strive towards an Israel of peace, justice, equality, and democracy.
Our movement motto is ‘Al tikra banayich – Elah bonayich’ ‘Don’t call us thy children, call us thy builders’. As young Jews we know that Israel and our connection to it is never simple, and never defined by one issue or one approach to the occupation.
Seeing ourselves as ‘builders’ of Israel means that engagement is not about pro-occupation or anti-occupation, pro-public transport on Shabbat or anti-, Bibi or Benny, Jerusalem or Tel Aviv, Jew or Arab, Negev or Galil. Israel is a complicated place, that can seem only to exist as binaries or contradictions. At Habonim Dror I have learnt to constantly question the binaries and fight the contradictions, rather than let one issue dominate my approach.
Too often I see those on the left of the British Jewish community look at Israel in exasperation and assume it’s so obvious: if Israelis are anti-occupation or in favour of a two-state solution, why not simply vote for the left-wing parties and bring that about. The answer I would posit is that once in the voting booth voters are more concerned with who they think will keep them safest on the bus tomorrow than with who might create peace in 20 years.
A similar dynamic I would argue is in play here in the UK. People on the left wonder how parents can send their children to left-wing youth movements but then also support what they see as a right-wing establishment or organisations such as StandWithUs or North West Friends of Israel? How the community can express a desire for a two-state solution one day, and yet refuse to condemn the occupation the next? In my view the answer is similar to the Israeli voter thinking about their safety on the bus tomorrow: many in the community are happy to oppose the occupation or support more nuanced views of Israel in private, but when faced with the harsh reality of antisemitism on university campuses (let alone in the Labour Party) they seek a more strident defence of Israel at all costs. It is more comfortable simply to be seen as pro-Israel than to acknowledge nuance, especially if doing so might accidentally place you in agreement with Corbynistas.
The great irony here is that when it comes to Israel, two small but vocal minorities within the community have polarised the issue. Some on the British Jewish left criticise the community for being pro-occupation, and in turn other, more conservative elements within the community worry that our children are not being brought up to believe in Israel as an ideal, and thus double down on what I call a ‘falafel and flag-waving’ Zionism, devoid of real intellectual engagement; and the cycle continues.
The reality is that many young British Jews are not brought up with an instinctive understanding of what Zionism is to them. More of them than ever go to Jewish schools, and (perhaps fortunately) don’t have the visceral sense of Israel as a safe refuge as previous generations did. If we are truly honest with ourselves as a community, do we think most of our children come out of Jewish schools understanding Altneuland, Dreyfus, and the twin currents of racial antisemitism and modern nationalism that culminated in early Zionism? Is Israel the wondrous new nation and underdog it was 70 years ago to them? No, of course not. Is it therefore any wonder that when they inevitably learn about the occupation and oppose what Israel does on a daily basis to Palestinians they cannot combine these realities with a sophisticated love for Israel?
At Habonim Dror, choosing to be ‘builders’ of Israel means facing up to these realities, but also understanding the project of Israel: it is not a project bounded by electoral terms or Bibi’s political lifetime, or even the 100 years of UJIA, but a project of millennia, the eternal project of the Jewish people. Surely we as a community are capable of providing Israel education that acknowledges and tackles the occupation, but also recognises that Israel is and should be so much more than that. Just as Israel education cannot ignore the occupation, so too it cannot be dominated by it, losing the essence of ownership and responsibility over Israel. Zionism and Israel predated the occupation, and I hope will outlast it, and we cannot lose sight of this.
Personally, it was on a seminar run by Yachad (whom many UJIA-funded youth movements work with), as part of my Habonim Dror gap year programme (proudly supported by UJIA) that my own connection to Israel became most crystallised. I am not a Zionist despite being anti-occupation, and I am not anti-occupation despite being a Zionist. I am anti-occupation because I am a Zionist, because I believe in the potential of a Jewish national home to be a light unto the nations and a beacon for peace and democracy. I will never stop striving towards that vision, and I am forever grateful for the support of UJIA in helping me build towards that goal.
In my role so far the message from UJIA as to their mission has been clear: they want to support the Jewish youth movements in their work, especially Israel education and engagement. I have not felt any pressure on what the nature of that education should be. Indeed, from what I have seen, it appears that to UJIA the variety of political views amongst the organisations it supports is not a weakness, but a strength. This strength is central to any judgement that would, rightly I believe, put UJIA into the very top bracket of communal institutions.
Without UJIA’s support, Habonim Dror would not be able to send chanichimot to Israel to grapple themselves with the dilemmas of Israel, Zionism, and Jewish identity. Without UJIA’s support, Habonim Dror would not be able to run a flagship machaneh on the Holocaust and antisemitism. Without UJIA’s support, Habonim Dror would not be able to run programming inspired by activists from all walks of life in Israel and beyond. Without UJIA’s support, I am certain that I would not be the person I am today, a proud Jew who may not always be proud of Israel’s actions but is certainly always proud of my connection to Israel.