Young people today expect more from their tours in Israel

Yachad youth worker Amos Schonfield says we must embrace the debate — not shut it down — if we want young people to care about Israel

July 04, 2018 18:16

Visiting Israel is never just about one story.

The Israel you see when you are in the White City of Tel Aviv and its iconic Bauhaus architecture is a world away from the Red Canyon outside Eilat and the Port of Haifa.

Tapping into the rich vein of stories and narratives around Israel, both historic and contemporary, is one of the key challenges of someone leading an Israel tour trip.

Five years ago, I led an Israel Tour for 16-year-olds and witnessed the country come to life for the participants, and today, some of my participants are taking their turn as Tour leaders.

As the youth and student outreach worker for Yachad I lead countless, more focused tours; this summer I will take close to 600 people of varying ages, some on organised programmes with youth movements and others on bespoke Yachad trips

The role of Israel educators has come under close scrutiny in recent weeks after five American Birthright participants walked out of their trip in order to visit Hebron – a divided city in the occupied West Bank – with Breaking the Silence.

I don’t blame them.

There are many Israel programmes that relegate the key issues of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the occupation, saying that these issues are “complicated” or “political”, or worse still, just “the Palestinian narrative”.

Some groups will receive an “Israel update” from an academic or educator that may touch on these issues.

What you are unlikely to see, and what those that walked out of the trip demanded, was a real and open debate, access to information, and the chance to hear a variety of voices.

Someone on every delegation I lead will comment on how the daily and uncomfortable reality of the conflict is on our doorstep. Drive south from Jerusalem for 15 minutes on Derech Hebron and you find Checkpoint 300, separating the residents of Bethlehem and Jerusalem.

The reason many organised programmes don’t visit the West Bank to see the daily reality of conflict and occupation is not that it’s not logistically possible. UJS visit Palestinian territories on every trip.

They don’t go there because it doesn’t fit their agenda. It raises uncomfortable questions and challenges the neat narrative that they would prefer to promote.

By denying these narratives to younger members of our community, as Miriam Shaviv pointed out in her recent JC piece, we set ourselves up to be “baffled and thrown”.

Avrum Burg, a former Knesset speaker and chairman of the Jewish Agency, recently said that “Israel doesn’t have a public relations crisis; it has a moral crisis”.

By not confronting this crisis, we will guarantee three things: the hurt of having not been shown the whole picture will be prolonged, the conflict will be imported, and ultimately young Jews will be alienated.

We have made significant progress here in the UK, in partnership with youth movements and other communal organisations, in broadening the scope of content on organised Israel tour programmes, but there is still much more to be done.

The participants I led on the Yachad Student Trip last year visited the unrecognised village of Umm al-Khair and met young Bedouin Palestinians who hadn’t slept for two weeks because their tents had been pelted with rocks by neighbouring settlers.

They came home emboldened, wanting to work for a more just Israel and to give their time and money to those that are doing the same.

This is what commitment to Israel looks like today, and these tired itineraries that stifle debate are in dire need of a facelift.

Amos is the Youth & Student Outreach Worker for Yachad, who he also represents at the Board of Deputies

July 04, 2018 18:16

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