British youth do Israel initiatives better

3/27/14 This article first appeared in Haaretz 

The past few months have seen young Jews in the United States and United Kingdom attempting to challenge the educational settings of their conversations on Israel. In the United States, the continued back and forth over the “Open Hillel” movement even reached the New York Times. In the United Kingdom, a group of youth movement graduates made waves calling on all Jewish educational institutions to use maps that showed the Green Line.

To the outside observer, both of these campaigns can be seen on the same spectrum: young members of each community combating the more conservative funding elite. This, however, would miss the mark. While in the United States there is an ongoing battle between politically motivated funders and the end users of programs, in the United Kingdom the challenge is different. The unique way that Zionist Youth Movements function in the United Kingdom allow for a different sort of campaign that can yield far greater results.

This was particularly evident this month, when a group of young involved members of the Anglo-Jewish community launched a campaign that received a tremendous amount of press coverage. “Sign on the Green Line” urges all Jewish groups in Britain to only use maps of Israel that mark the Green Line (which signifies the 1949 armistice lines). Doing so, the campaign holds, will improve education about the Jewish state by highlighting the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and portraying a more “honest” picture of the country.

After a burst of press coverage, the campaign is now attempting to use the pressure of its launch to get different groups to sign up. While no schools have signed to date, five youth movements, one synagogue and four Jewish organizations have.

Unlike their American compatriots, the students in the United Kingdom are not fighting “the man.” Rather, they often try to convince other graduates of the same youth movements they went through. The uniqueness of the British youth movement scene means that many of the communal leaders that students try to convince have a common educational core.

There are nine different youth movements in the United Kingdom that cater to every political and religious sector within the community. These groups are run by volunteers and sabbatical officers all under the age of 23. Every year, the United Jewish Israel Appeal, sends half of its Jewish 16 year olds to Israel on its Israel Tour, and many other young Jewish adults on its various Israel engagement programs. This is a remarkable achievement, one that is attained through the pressure cooker of peer-to-peer leadership.

In addition, every summer, thousands of Jewish kids go to summer camps run by young adults ranging from ages 17 to 23. These camps are held in fields across the countryside, with activities that deliver informal education through glue, paper and felt tip pens. With the exception of the sabbatical officers, none of the counselors are paid. In fact, in the first year of being a counselor, many of the youth groups charge first timers for the privilege.

These youth movements create lifelong bonds and the vast majority of teachers and community leaders within Anglo-Jewry are graduates of these various movements.

This common bond is what allows the members of Sign on the Green Line to achieve the change they want; not through public pressure, but through engaged education. Looking at the Facebook discussions of the senior members of each of the youth movements, one can see they are engaged in conversations about how they teach about Israel in an inclusive manner, and many of the movements have democratic forums where policies can be written and changed.

By creating a forum within each movement for these informal educators to discuss how they can best tackle the issues that the politics of Israel presents them with, they can achieve their mission of getting the Green Line in every map that every movement uses. By sticking to a purely educational platform, members of this movement can be welcomed in every British youth movement. Once there, the community will naturally adapt as the graduates of those programs go on to take positions across Anglo Jewry.

There is no scary, politically motivated funder closing off debate in the United Kingdom. It is an open community willing to have hard and educated discussions about Israel. If one wishes to institutionalize the openness, they must start early on within the informal learning environments, where half of Anglo Jewry spends it time.

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