If you take participation in summer schemes as a yardstick, British Jewry’s bond with Israel remains strong. Every year, around half or more of UK Jewish 16-year-olds set off after GCSEs on an UJIA-backed Israel Experience tour.
It is a figure all the more impressive since most will have been to Israel with their family before and, in increasing numbers, on a Jewish school trip as well.
But while educators may be gratified by the high take-up, they recognise Israel education today is a complicated business — certainly more so than in the golden days of the period following the Six-Day War. A generation with memories of the heroics of 1967 and the 1973 Yom Kippur War has a different experience from one growing up in the shadow of half-a-century of Israeli control of the West Bank, settlements and the absence of peace with the Palestinians.
It is not only history that is leading organisations such as the UJIA to grapple with change in their educational approach. They have also had to contend with factors such as university tuition fees, which have contributed to the halving of numbers on gap-year programmes in Israel.
Although increased enrolment in Jewish schools has led to more children being exposed to some form of Israel-themed content, UJIA trustee Ruth Green acknowledges that “Israel knowledge among young people is lower than we think it should be”.
Israel knowledge among young people is lower than we think it should be”.
One response has been the launch of Fast-Track, a one-year programme piloted this year among 20 sixth-formers. It involved intensive weekend sessions on Israeli history, culture, politics and society as well as a residential seminar in Israel.
“It was a deliberate attempt to raise the intellectual ante,” says Michael Wegier, UJIA chief executive, “to take a cadre of people and work with them through all the deep, complex and inspirational elements of Israel. It was a rip-roaring success. We will expand it next year.
“Although we had some northerners who came to London, that’s not good enough. We have to have a regional option as well.”
Fast Track is “not a hasbarah (public diplomacy) course,” he emphasises. “The best hasbarah comes from a position of deep knowledge and understanding, as opposed to slogans and political slanging-matches. We want to underpin young people’s ability to have a serious conversation around Israel with their peers, Jewish and non-Jewish, and that for us is the measure of success — if they are able to go on to campus and have serious discussions on Israel from a position of knowledge.”
Fast Track is more about prompting questions than feeding answers. As Robin Moss, head of the UJIA’s centre for Israel engagement has written, “the days of adults telling young people that there is precisely one way to understand each issue are over”.
The new sixth-form programme caters for those who “thirst for more” after their month-long summer tours, says Green. While those tours remain “fantastic” for exciting interest in Israel, she cautions against undue expectations. “You can’t reasonably expect a 16-year-old to come away with a deep understanding of Israeli politics and society post-GCSE. People who think that can be achieved are unrealistic.”
What tour should offer is inspirational contact with Israelis. “Encounters with inspiring people are much more likely to be memorable than the fact they learned the dates of Masada,” she says.
The launch of Fast Track is also partly a response to the fall in numbers on the Zionist gap-year programmes in Israel, which traditionally have been the recruiting pool for youth movement leaders. While research has borne out the “transformational” impact of a gap year in Israel, Green says, “we have to be a realistic that a smaller subsection are taking that opportunity”.
Numbers on youth movement gap-years in Israel are down to 90-to-120 a year, compared to a heyday of 250 before the financial crash. However, the 500 or so on long-term schemes in Israel overall has held up — it is just that the make-up is different; an increasing proportion go to yeshiva or seminary or spend some time there after university.
“One of the things we are looking at is bespoke opportunities,” says Ruth Green. “If someone is going to be a medical student, can we find them work experience as an intern at one of the medical centres we have built.”
Meanwhile, UJIA is also increasing investment in schools — whether supporting a shinshin, a member of the Israeli scouts, as part of the informal Jewish education team, or a Yom Ha’atzmaut programme.
For UJIA, the community’s main Israel-orientated organisation, Israel education is not about priming advocates with a ready-made party line but helping young people find a personal connection with the Jewish homeland.
“One cannot pigeonhole a whole generation,” Wegier says. “Among millennials, you have a huge range of approaches right from the hard-core deeply committed Zionist for whom engagement with Israel is built into their DNA — people like me when I was that age — to those for whom Israel is not a big part of their identity at all.”
While he believes the numbers of young Jews attracted to the anti-Zionist hard left at university is small, “the bigger challenge for us are the people who find Israel irrelevant or too complex.”