A Promised Land for Young Jews


The summer of ’95 was a lonely one for me at Camp Swig, the Jewish camp where I spent six summers growing up. There were only twelve people in my age group that year (there had been over a hundred the previous year) and—horror of horrors! —not one of the twelve was male. We were forced to woo younger guys or scavenge in the reject bin of the older group. Most of my friends from previous summers chose not to join in the song sessions and color wars at Camp Swig that year. Instead, they all went to Israel.

The summer after tenth grade is probably the most popular time for American Jewish kids to go on Israel trip programs. The trips were heartily endorsed by the rabbi of my tiny synagogue in the desert suburb of Riverside, California. Even Camp Swig, which was floundering financially, encouraged us 16-year-olds to skip camp that summer and go on an Israel trip.

Without any context about the realities of the situation in the Middle East, it's easy for this kind of entitled attachment to Israel to bleed into a sense that others don't have the right to live there.

"We were very, very encouraged to go," says Lisa Arbitman, 23, a teacher in New York City, citing pressure from peers and instructors at her Hebrew High in Scottsdale, AZ. Rachel Posner, 19, now a UCLA student, says everyone from her Jewish youth group in Fremont, CA was expected to go. "It was like, okay, now you all go to Israel. It was just what everybody did." I resisted the hype, mostly because I loved camp obsessively and refused to miss a summer, plus I had been to Israel the previous year with my family. Our trip to Israel was fun, but we also visited Greece, where I ate hundreds of cheese pies made of flaky phyllo dough. Blasphemous as it may sound, the Western Wall just couldn’t compete.

Israel trip programs have been around for over fifty years, but a variety of new trips have recently sprouted and now there are well over 100 programs, some of which send thousands of youths to Israel each year. Each trip fills a specific niche, ranging from yeshiva study to extreme camping. Young Jews can work on a kibbutz, earn college credits, or volunteer for the Civil Guard. Most trips are geared toward high-schoolers, but others cater to college students or recent grads. They range from spiritual explorations to secular tours, but almost every trip stipulates that participants be Jewish; many programs only accept American Jews. And all participants must be young—thirty is the absolute limit.

You might think that teenagers and twenty-somethings would consider religious pilgrimage a stodgy way to spend the summer. But the trips seduce young people by painting the experience as one big pilgrimage party—regardless of how religious you are or how "Jewish" you feel. As the Young Judea program boasts, there is "plenty of time for personal exploration and leisure." Usually the leisure consists of snorkeling, night club jaunts and ample free time spent with other American youths.

The program that truly takes the advertising cake is birthright israel (yes, all lower-case letters, as if such modesty could make up for the presumptuous name). The young program asks prospective participants to "Imagine this…A FREE VACATION, including recreation, touring, and hang out time…" and so far, 28,000 youths have snapped up this irresistible offer. When they say free, they mean it: many programs offer funding of $500-$2,000, but birthright israel actually offers all-expenses paid trips to young Jews—18-26—who have never been on an official "peer group Israel trip" before. I was an econ major, so I happen to know that there ain’t no such thing as a free vacation. The "gift," as the program refers to it, is actually paid for by American Jewish congregations, wealthy individuals and—revealingly—the state of Israel.

Who could turn down a free vacation? Or a chance to escape home for six weeks at the tender age of 16? Posner remembers older peers bragging about how fun the Israel trip was and playfully taunting "Ooh, we went to Israel and you didn’t!…They’d be so bonded. I remember looking forward to that." Says Arbitman, "I guess I expected to have a lot of fun and meet new people. That was about all."

Who could turn down a free vacation? Or a chance to escape home for six weeks at the tender age of 16? Posner remembers older peers bragging about how fun the Israel trip was and playfully taunting "Ooh, we went to Israel and you didn’t!…They’d be so bonded.

The trips attended by most Camp Swig-ites are full of perks, and according to my friends’ reports, gave them plenty of reason to choose Israel over camp. The camp rules were strict: definitely no smoking, drinking, or heavy petting. Curfew was 10:00 p.m. sharp, even for teenagers. But on the legendary Israel trip—which my friends described in hushed tones as if they still might get caught—they were just hitting the streets by 10:00 and smoking was the least of their allowable vices. My first boyfriend lost his virginity on the Israel trip. Clearly, in the words of my friends, this was the Promised Land.

The aim of these programs is no secret: they want young Jews to explore the homeland in a fun atmosphere, so that they will have a meaningful experience and become intimately attached to Judaism and Israel. Paul Reichenbach, who coordinates Israel trips for NFTY (the North American Federation of Temple Youth), says kids should return home feeling "personally connected to and invested in Israel and the Jewish people." The Livnot U’Lehibanot program seeks youngsters who are "looking to get in touch with their Jewish roots while connecting to the land of Israel." And birthright israel "believes in promoting Jewish peoplehood and Jewish renaissance with NO STRINGS ATTACHED." Which I guess means, you can enjoy a sunny Jewish vacation and we won’t evangelize. But there are definitely strings attached.

After returning from Israel trips, I have heard many friends give new meaning to the words of Elie Wiesel: "The fact that I do not live in Jerusalem is secondary; Jerusalem lives within me." Israel trips encourage an unthinking Israelophilia in young American Jews. When 16-year olds become attached to Israel, they may not distinguish between falafels, disco boats, their new American friends, cute soldiers, green lines, Likud, Labor and illegal settlements. They just love everything about Israel, Tzahal and all..

That enthusiasm cannot avoid political undertones. Most people I talked to thought nothing of the incongruous mix of recreational and politically-charged activities on their trips. "It was six weeks, typical tourist trip—slept at youth hostels, visited the Western Wall, stayed with the army for a week," Posner says casually. Israel trips bait youngsters with their recreational vacations, then invest them with some very political sentiments. Young Jews are exposed to the joys of the Jewish state, but not the perils of its land disputes—even the army becomes just a campy way to spend a week. The trips instill a simple adoration for Israel that makes the answers to any political questions predetermined. Posner told me that she wasn’t involved with Israeli politics, but then added, "Of course whenever there’s a pro-Israel rally or anything on [the UCLA] campus, I’ll be there to support Israel."

Most programs, like birthright israel and NFTY which are geared toward Reform Jews, work this magic subtly. However, even the trips that advertise apolitically can be disturbingly militaristic, which accurately reflects the American relationship with Israel in general. NFTY, and other similar trips, include an elective week when participants can choose from options like backpacking, a kibbutz stay, tours focused on art or politics—or boot camp with the Israeli army. Boot camp is a very popular option. Other trips are explicit about their political goals. For example, successful candidates for a program called Project SSNAP "must show…a dedication to the cause and a commitment to devoting time and energy organizing pro-Israel programs on campus." The trip includes meeting with soldiers and even volunteering for the Israeli Defense Force.

American Jewish youths learn from Israel trips that the land is uniquely endowed to them. If they weren’t dreadfully important to Israel, why would they be inundated with entreaties to come visit? The trips emphasize the idea that Jerusalem can dwell within the hearts of all Jews, and that one need not actually live in Israel to be connected to it. Without any context about the realities of the situation in the Middle East, it's easy for this kind of entitled attachment to Israel to bleed into a sense that others don't have the right to live there.

The fact that a few young American Jews really like Israel would seem unimportant—were it not for the fact that the US gives one-third of its entire aid budget to Israel. A country the size of New Jersey, Israel will receive approximately $3 billion from American coffers this year, much of it earmarked for buying American weapons. Sierra Leone, the war-torn poorest nation in the world, got only $9.50 per person in 2000 aid, while generally well-fed Israelis get nearly $470 per capita every year.
Of course Israel trips are not "evil Zionist camps" as one non-Jewish friend referred to them. They don’t viciously conspire to win the hearts of American Jews just so that the IDF can get ample US funding. The programs truly seem to have the best interests of young people in mind. Trip organizers have created a beautiful system: they offer youngsters good, clean fun and simultaneously do the Jewish people a good turn by winning new devotees for Judaism and the state of Israel. "Unlike in past generations, for most American kids today, being Jewish is a choice that they have," says Reichenbach of NFTY. "We hope that while being in Israel, instead of being passive observers, the epic journey of the Jewish people is their journey."

The Israeli government, which provides funding for trips like birthright israel, knows where its interests lie. It recognizes that Jewish supremacy in Israel is highly dependent on the ideological support of American Jews and the $3 billion sponsorship of the US government. And what better way to buy the loyalty of the younger generation of Jewish Americans than by making them feel that they themselves are Israeli, their souls married to their homeland even if their bodies are divorced from it. (Despite their deeply felt connections, very few trip alumni choose to move to the Promised Land.)

The Israeli government, which provides funding for trips like birthright israel, knows where its interests lie. It recognizes that Jewish supremacy in Israel is highly dependent on the ideological support of American Jews and the $3 billion sponsorship of the US government.

Israel trips breed simplistic love for Israel with serious consequences, but this does not have to be the case. On the contrary, exposing young people to new parts of the world is a valuable project. Jewish teenagers are used to being a religious minority in the United States, so discovering a homeland so richly steeped in their culture and history produces a glorious shock of recognition. David Knipp, a twenty-year old college student in Texas, thinks his Israel trip was "the best experience I’ve ever had. It was like connecting to a past life." How can an Israel trip be such a positive experience with such negative consequences?

Danielle, 20, explained this perfectly: "My main criticism of my trip is that it gave us this attachment without giving us the knowledge to analyze political conflict with understanding for all individuals involved…I believe this is what breeds hatred between Arabs and Jews: strong attachments to religion and culture with little knowledge." Being of Iranian-Jewish descent herself, and being a student at UC Berkeley, where tensions between Arab and Jewish students are reaching a boil, Danielle has a uniquely insightful perspective and she wasn’t fooled by the officially apolitical slant of her trip. "The goal of the trip," she asserts, "was to rally support in the US for Israel through us."

I asked Reichenbach of NFTY what he thought of Danielle’s assessment—that Israel trips make kids fall in love with Israel without understanding its politics. "That’s probably a realistic appraisal," he replied. Most trip-goers come in with little background knowledge, and "you can’t throw too much heavy-duty political stuff at them. Most of what we do is about loving Israel and enjoying Israel; it doesn’t allow for sinking your teeth into the political situation."

Fortunately, a few Israel programs are jumping the Israelophilia bandwagon by creating trips that focus on education, confronting the diversity of Israel and its complex politics. While Zionist-oriented trips tend to breed Zionists, people who go on multicultural, educational trips develop a broader perspective. Those I spoke to described meeting and even travelling with Arab-Israeli teenagers and engaging in fiery but civil and productive debates about Israel’s future. "I would never have gone on a yea-Jewish-homeland trip," says Sarah Margon, a twenty-five year old living in Washington, D.C. Her small travel group, part of an Interlocken program, included Christians, Jewish Israelis and Arab Israelis. "There was a lot of open discussion and you were encouraged to learn from the world around you," says Margon.

The Bronfman Youth Fellowship trip (funded the Bronfman media tycoon family) is also unusually progressive and its focus is academic. The Fellowship’s first objective is "to deal with the challenges of a diverse community. This is done through study, through discussion…without a priori assumptions." David Schlitt, 20, a Columbia University student who attended the trip three years ago described learning about US-Israel relations and meeting with Arab students from the organization Seeds of Peace. "You had to be open-minded for this trip," he says.

Most Israel program itineraries stick to predominantly Jewish areas without exception. They cite safety reasons—a valid concern—but trip-goers didn’t think safety was the only reason; venturing out of would disrupt the Disneyland atmosphere of the trip. As Arbitman recalls, "It just feels like they keep you in a bubble." But alternative programs like Bronfman and Interlocken make a point of bringing kids to Arab-Israeli towns and staying with Arab families.

Mainstream trip-goers come home feeling "bonded" with Israel, but they are not particularly worried about its violent conflict. After all, in the sanitized Israel of their trip, conflict was obscured from view by all the sunshine and Arabs on either side of the border were invisible. I don’t remember much from my family trip to Israel, but I will never forget that our family friends, two clean-cut brothers who took us to the Tel Aviv Hard Rock Cafe, were escorting us everywhere with Uzis tucked in their pants. The moment I found out they were armed, it hit me that civilian life in Israel was quite a departure from the carefree life of a middle-class American teenager.

Knipp believes that " conflict is inevitable." Posner is "not really worried." Well, that’s fine to say from your California suburban wonderland, but what does it mean for the average Israeli or Palestinian who has to live with the ever-escalating threat of violence? As long as the concept of Israel lives in their hearts rather than their minds—and as long as it is physically available when they choose to visit—American youths do not need to think or care about Israel, even if they love it.

Needless to say, this is dangerous for both Jews and Arabs. While there is nothing wrong with introducing young Jews to their homeland, the trips nurture simple love for Israel without examining the web of issues that surround its existence. They encourage blind emotion, which, as Danielle pointed out, works like kerosene on the conflict. Blissful ignorance isn’t doing American kids any favors either; they are being sold the false promise of a Jewish Eden with no Tree of Knowledge. And they also miss camp.

Emma Pollin is a 23 year-old freelance writer living in Brooklyn.

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