New young Zionists are tired of waiting

In September 1999, I left home to spend a year in Israel with a youth movement that had filled my Sunday afternoons, winter and summer, for the entirety of my teenage years. That journey had more impact on shaping my identity than any other experience I'd had so far and cemented my relationship to Israel. It is no coincidence that not a year has passed since then where I have not found myself in Israel at least once, and often several times a year.

I grew up being taught that the Jewish people had redeemed a piece of land that was not really inhabited. Mine was the story of the pioneers employing Jewish labour to work the land. It had never occurred to me that perhaps there were other versions of this. But it didn't really matter because, in 1999, as far we were concerned, peace was coming. The Oslo Accords had been signed, the massive terror that had ensued during and immediately after their signing had abated. Palestine was just around the corner, both literally and metaphorically.

Disputes over 1948 and 1967 were being consigned to the history books. I hitch-hiked, took Christian friends to Bethlehem, and pitched tents in the middle of nowhere without a second thought. It was a golden moment. We watched the withdrawal from Lebanon. We read newspapers and watched the TV to keep abreast of the news.

Twelve months later, I arrived at university and the world changed. The second Intifada erupted - out of nowhere, as far as I was concerned. Then 9/11 happened, Afghanistan and Iraq were invaded, the government introduced university tuition fees and I found myself on a politicised campus and a member of the student union executive committee for two years. My fellow union activists told me that my politics were just great but that I really should get over this Zionism thing.

I watched Jewish students stand up and recite paragraphs out of "Speaking up for Israel on campus" pamphlets as to why settlements were not a barrier to peace and why the current situation was not "our" fault. Suffice to say, they did not win the debate when faced with 10 students returning from a week in Ramallah, during which Israel launched Operation Defensive Shield and surrounded Yasir Arafat's compound.

At this point, we did not have the internet in my student house - we used it in a computer room on campus. I kept on top of the news in Israel by reading back editions of the Jerusalem Report that I found in the offices of my youth movement, or by watching the news unfold on the international pages of our newspapers.

I imagine my story resonates with many. It is not unique to me - it is the experience of a generation of British Jews, although what follows will not speak for all. Not every student will agree with the content of this essay. Not every youth-movement activist thinks Israel education needs rethinking.

However, it does speak to many of the individuals I have the privilege of spending time with as they engage with the work of Yachad, the pro-peace, pro-Israel movement. The voices throughout this piece are those of individuals running youth movements, and of active members of student Jewish societies.

The difference between my generation and the next is that they did not have that sense of euphoria as they watched Rabin and Arafat tentatively stick out their hands and shake them on the White House lawn and, a year later, when they witnessed Rabin and King Hussein do the same.

They did not participate in the national grief that united Israel and the Jewish people after Rabin was assassinated. Instead, there was the second Intifada, a war with Lebanon, withdrawal from Gaza, failed peace talks, war with Gaza and the rise of nationalist extremism in the settler movement.

This is not the place to discuss who bears the burden of responsibility for any of these moments in history. What is important are the scenes and the images with which a whole generation has grown up - scenes that are a million miles from the Israel I knew and loved.

And it was not just the conflict between Israel and her neighbours: "I arrived on tour aged 16 as disengagement from Gaza was taking place. It shattered the narrative I had grown up with of a unified Jewish people: there was a war taking place between Jew and Jew" said one person. And, unlike me, they could watch all this unravel in real time, on the pages of Israeli papers online, on Facebook and Twitter.

As one student told me: "I care about Israel and feel deeply attached to it, but I don't feel a great sense of pride in the way I think people used to. In 1994, when you were celebrating peace with Jordan and the Oslo process was flourishing, I was starting nursery. Oslo is what we discuss in history lessons."

For a group that came of age in the middle of the second Intifada, much of the relationship to Israel was built on hasbarah (Israel advocacy). As one said: "My relationship to Israel was fostered on the idea that we are under attack, and therefore we must defend."

Or the thoughts of another: "We were hard-wired that advocacy for Israel, dressing up in blue-and-white and eating falafel is what it meant to be pro-Israel, while at the same time understanding, through having access to information at our fingertips online, that not everything our parents said about Israel, or what was written in the paper of their choice, was necessarily quite right."

But the disconnect between the hard-wiring and the reality has left them with a gaping hole. Several months ago, I spent an afternoon with the leaders of one of the youth movements, now at university and responsible for educating the next generation. They were having what I would describe as an existential Jewish identity crisis. They were trying to work out how they could, as responsible, thinking adults, best educate the younger members of their youth movement about Israel. They were not coming up with easy answers.

They wanted to keep them connected to Israel and instil in them a love for the country, but also show them that it is a complex and not necessarily comfortable story. Many of these individuals and others to whom I have spoken said they are no longer satisfied with one side of the story - they want a bit more objectivity. They want to understand how the occupation looks to Palestinians living in the West Bank. It is no longer tenable to spend a month in Israel without more than a cursory nod in the direction of non-Jewish narratives.

T his generation want to do things differently but they are not quite sure how. "Ironically, the advocacy lessons we were given during the second Intifada gave us a basis of support for Israel on which we then built a complex narrative, but I worry that without that base, this generation will just get the complex narrative and will probably end up being apathetic about Israel," they explained. I asked several individuals why this dilemma could not be solved by teaching the same straightforward Israel narrative they learned, and wait until the younger generation were a bit older to worry about the "grey". I was told this would be "intellectually dishonest" and that they refuse to be "like the people who were doing it to us 10 years ago". Plus, one added "time is running out. We can't wait another 10 years for these young people to be engaging in the political debate."

The political debate is, of course, ripe among Jewish students on university campuses, which are seen to be the battleground for Israel's legitimacy. Many students do not want to engage any longer in what they describe as "shouty hasbarah".

They don't think it works and don't want everything they do on campus in relation to Israel to be "only a reaction to campus hostility". I have heard time and again that they want to inject their liberal and progressive values into their Zionism. "My liberal values push back at my Zionism and my Zionism pushes against my liberal values and that clash is a permanent battle". They no longer want to feel a dissonance between how they relate to the rest of the world and how they relate to Israel.

A common theme running through all these conversations is the desire to be empowered to create a new type of engagement with Israel, one that can be proudly taken into the public sphere. One movement worker told me she had found refuge in her youth movement, in being surrounded by others who felt like her about Israel. But she feels it has only been in the past few years that they have become brave enough to make certain changes to the Israel education they offer.

Some of this newfound confidence she attributed to the fact that traditional organisations like the UJIA and the Board of Deputies have become involved in the Task Force on Arab Citizens of Israel. This, she said, makes it harder for people to criticise them for tackling these issues. And she and several others added, much is down to the work Yachad has done in bringing to the mainstream a discussion in the community around the importance of British Jews expressing their support for a two-state solution.

T his summer, Yachad worked with Ir Amim, a Jerusalem-based organisation, to build a half-day education programme suitable for 16-year-old tour participants. It tackled issues related to citizenship, political rights and the peace process in Jerusalem. Around 380 young people from five youth movements took part, seeing areas of Jerusalem they would never have had the opportunity to see a few years ago, and dealing with the complex political narrative of the city, a topic not usually tackled on Israel tours.

It was successful because there is a demand for it from youth movements. They sent their Israel tour leaders for an extra day of training with Yachad so they could spend the day in East Jerusalem learning about the issues the programme would raise. And they sent their new movement workers with Yachad to East Jerusalem and the South Hebron Hills in the West Bank at the beginning of their year, because they no longer want to shy away from these conversations. A group of 50 students gathered at the start of the academic year to discuss how this work might play out on campus. It was no surprise to see them deep in conversation for part of that day about the application of international law in the West Bank. They want to learn and understand.

It is from this group that the next generation of our community's leaders will come. It is probably accurate to describe them as more sceptical when it comes to Israel than my generation has been. However, it is a place to which they feel a very deep attachment and connection, and a very serious sense of responsibility.

They do not take lightly the question of how you create a relationship between young people and Israel. Neither are they prepared to dismiss a political reality that they feel deeply troubled by and also implicated in, by virtue of being part of the Jewish people. They will not stand by when they feel Israel is being unfairly treated on campus but neither do they want to be just foot-soldiers in an army of reactionaries. They want to forge a Zionism reflective of their values and ways of thinking about the world.

This is an impatient generation. They see the world in 140 characters on Twitter and can spread information across the world via a Facebook status in a matter of minutes. There is frustration among these individuals about the time it has taken for some of the more traditional organisations of our community to give them the tools - and permission - to rethink Israel education. There is a sense of relief from those we work with that Yachad has been able to provide this for them.

They are tired of waiting: tired of waiting for the right moment for a young person to be shown that Israel is not just flags and falafel, tired of waiting for a credible peace process to emerge, and tired of waiting for the atmosphere on campus to change so they can then stop reacting and start being proactive.

So they have stopped waiting. They are reclaiming Zionism and reframing Israel education. And we as a community should be delighted by the fact they are turning up the volume on Israel. After all, it would be much simpler for them to press the mute button.

Hannah Weisfeld is director of Yachad

Last updated: 10:57am, November 16 2012