This year I took part in a five month programme based in West Jerusalem called Achvat Amim (Solidarity of Nations). The programme is based around the principle of self determination for all peoples in the place they call home and as a participant, I studied the Israeli-Palestinian conflict while taking part in direct action projects in Israel and Palestine with seven other participants. I felt very sure that I was adhering to my Jewish values by taking part in such a programme which promoted a humanistic Jewish community and collective culture.
When I took part, the programme was funded by Masa, the umbrella organisation that funds the majority of long-term Israel experience programmes. This made me feel that my values were being included and encouraged, and the complicated relationship with Israel I had nurtured during my upbringing was given an outlet to express itself.
A highlight of my stay was my experience of the life-affirming Sumud (Steadfastness) project, where Jews and Palestinians worked together to set up a freedom camp. The recent decision by Masa to pull the funding from Achvat Amim was in response to a spurious report by Ad Kan, an extreme right-wing watchdog, which falsely claimed that the Sumud camp was illegal. This was picked up by Channel 2 and other news outlets. Ad Kan is an organisation infamous for targeting human rights groups, and Masa’s decision to side with them over such a vital programme as Achvat Amim fills me with dismay. It sends a dangerous message: that left-wing Jews are not welcome in Israel.
I have emailed many Masa representatives and they cite security reasons - although Karen and Daniel, the programme coordinators emphasised that safety was a priority for us at all times. It seems to me that when Masa began to face media attention about Achvat Amim, they were not brave enough to continue to support it. However, they do continue to support many other Israel experience programmes that take place in settlements in the West Bank.
I feel that as dissatisfaction with the Israeli government grows and the portrayal of Israel in mainstream media makes it increasingly challenging to defend, the Israeli government and the bodies they fund - such as Masa - should be making a conscious effort to offer politically diverse inroads for young people to connect to Israel. Achvat Amim encourages nuanced discussion and creates genuine bonds with Palestinian communities.
Jewish youth throughout the world, myself included, struggle to describe our connections, criticisms and relationships to Israel. How are we supposed to face our non-Jewish counterparts when they question our commitment to Israel, without programmes such as Achvat Amim? Though a proud and practicing Jew, there are times I have mumbled in embarrassment, “I’m Jewish, but I don’t support Israel,” because anything else just seemed indefensible while the media reported human rights abuses on such a large scale. But this does not do justice to the way I really feel. I want to support Israel, and programmes such as Achvat Amim allow me to do that by creating space for honest discussion and real experiences.
During my stay I took part in peaceful demonstrations, and witnessed many more. I was spat on, I saw a soldier break my friend’s arm, and I was called a descendant of Goebbels. Is this how diverse opinions should be treated in Israel? And yet the backlash itself reinforced my conviction that our voices are an essential contribution to Israeli political discourse, and that our opportunities to raise them with love and honesty should not be stopped.
Returning to the UK has made me realise just how important this experience of Israel was for my Judaism. My relationship to this complicated country is now a beautiful, challenging, vibrant and treasured part of my identity - as a person and a Jew. I hope to return to Israel many times, maybe even move there. I am passionate about being Jewish; and I care about the future of Israel, so much so that I choose to spend my time, my energy, and my money defending my idea of Zionism. But I feel as if the State of Israel does not want me to be included.
By retracting funding from Achvat Amim, Masa encapsulates the attitude of the current Right wing coalition in power in Israel; unless you follow our policy of brutal occupation, you are not welcome. The impact that this will have on the ability of current and future generations to cultivate any meaningful relationship with Israel should unquestionably be a cause of active concern for Israelis and Diaspora Jews - from across the political spectrum.
In the meantime, I will not let this decision lessen my energy and enthusiasm for the work I did, the projects I was a part of and the dreams I have for the future of this incredible place. Let’s celebrate diversity of opinion, and create spaces to share ideas and acknowledge our differences. Only by doing this can we hope that all Jews will continue to connect to Israel, and create a brighter future.
Nina Morris-Evans is in her first year, studying PPE at Oxford University