Identity, Israel

Service learning programs in Israel will widen the generation gap — thankfully

Spotted in Jerusalem, advertising for human rights tours for North American Jews
At the Forward, Repair the World and the Jewish Agency present their new study of service learning opportunities for young North American Jews. They argue that addressing societal needs in Israel — a context of service to others in a Jewish place with other Jews — is “unparalleled” in successfully attracting young people to visit Israel for longer than ten days, feel Jewish, and get involved back at home in North America.
But after eight years working at the intersection of the Jewish social justice sector and pro-Israel organizations, allow me to issue the Jewish community a warning: Social justice trips to Israel will widen the generation gap. So please, continue straight away.
Really, I’m enthusiastic to welcome to the Jewish Agency into the future because it’s damn time somebody in the establishment finally arrived. While orgs like American Jewish World Service, Hazon and Avodah pioneered service learning outside Israel, only the New Israel Fund was implementing it in Israel. Only in the past two years have service learning programs in Israel truly blossomed as they have at home and abroad.
And quite understandably so, because the mainstream Jewish community immaturely fears discussing an Israel with warts. Birthright, as a big example, is based on the assumption that young people must “love” the country first, before any critical discussion. Jewish educators (at least the wise ones) have lamented for years that soldier worship and recitation of pro-Israel talking points are out of step with the kind of critical relationship young Jews have to their own country and the rest of the world.
This is because the moms and dads, bubbes and zaydes who sit on the boards of and contribute money to Jewish institutional life themselves refuse to criticize Israel. For our grandparents and those who remember the collective trauma of the Holocaust, Israel can almost never behave badly enough to deserve rebuke. For their children, our parents, Israel was an inspiration at a time when Jews were fighting to integrate into American society. To them, some societal friction and an Arab underclass were perfectly forgivable given the alternative — not having Israel.
Social justice in Israel
In our generation, the Intifadas generation, the bar is higher. The “novelty” of a Jewish state is wearing off for us, in the words of Zionist historian Shlomo Avineri (and he said it 1981). Young North American Jews, seeking “meaning and significance” in their Jewishness, ask “What impact does my being Jewish have on the world around me?” And Israel is no exception: “What impact does my engagement with Israel have on the world around me?” And impact is evaluated in largely universalist terms.
So in our parents and grandparents’ desperation to continue preserving and perpetuating the Jewish people (for what mission, they cannot articulate), they are giving the most wonderful gift to the Jewish people that I can think of, sending young Jews to help fix Israel’s societal woes. And they will receive something completely different than what they expect: more criticism of Israeli policies of all kinds, from their very brightest and most loyal.
Think about it. Hundreds if not thousands of young impressionable Diaspora Jews marching straight to Israel’s regions and issues of greatest shortcomings: persecuted African refugees, Ethiopian and Russian immigrant slums, Mizrahi racial discrimination, disillusioned middle-class Ashkenazim on the verge of yerida, and Arab children in overcrowded schools, all of whom harshly criticize their country’s political leaders. Even young Israelis their age who are social justice-minded see themselves as beleaguered and ostracized by a public divided along sectarian selfishness. Wow, try to explain that to Bubbe.
International volunteers spend Holocaust Remembrance Day campaigning in Tel Aviv on behalf of Sudanese Refugees, photo by the author
Exactly such an effect birthed Right Now: Advocates for African Asylum Seekers in Israel, a band of American young Jews toiling daily across both coasts to save the lives of friends among African asylum seekers persecuted by race-baiting Interior Minister Eli Yeshai. They participated in many of the programs investigated by the Jewish Agency and Repair the World — MASA-supported programs like Yahel and New Israel Fund’s Social Justice Fellowship. In less than a year, they’ve acted on their knowledge of Israel’s shortcomings to get a few thousand of signature on petitions, pepper social media with video testimonials, and aid Israel’s human rights NGOs with overseas advocacy.
These young activists will one day lead an American Jewish community capable of more than simplistic and shallow fawning over a mythical Israeli perfection. As the Jewish Agency and Repair the World’s Forward op-ed noted,

This study has opened our eyes to a different reality. We, as a people, are more confident and mature than that. Our Jewish identities are strong and complex enough to love a complicated country. We can date and get married and feel more deeply in love than ever. You can open the closet, the junk can fall out and we’ll still love the house.

Israel to a Millenial’s eyes is not yet worthy of idolization from afar. Instead, our parents and grandparents have been idolizing a fantasy in their minds based off tragically low expectations following an even more tragic past. Israel can indeed become a place worthy of admiration for things that matter more to the coming generations: world-winning social equality, overcoming a violent birth by resolving Palestinian statehood and dispossession, and championing human rights on the global stage by a people who once had none of it.
It may indeed be that mission which could bridge the generation gap with providing continuity for the aging generation and meaning for the new one.

5 thoughts on “Service learning programs in Israel will widen the generation gap — thankfully

  1. KFJ, I think you’re counting your political chickens far too soon. I know quite a few Israelis deeply involved in social work – including religious Jewish girls who spent two years in alternative service programs throughout Israel, some in very difficult, multicultural, poverty-like settings (i.e. among African migrants, Russian immigrants, Arabs) – without having come out embracing the types of sociopolitical outcomes you may prefer, much less becoming NIF-funded anti-Israel advocates.
    In that way, your promotion of these programs is no less superficial than the motives of the Bubbes and Zeydies you ridicule. They want their Jewish “product”, and you want yours. This is no longer social justice (the work these kids are sent to do), it is social engineering (attempting to manipulate reflexive, emotive allegiance and control the outcome of human product). That is deeply misguided, even when you’re the one doing it, and perhaps especially so.

  2. There is a difference between service learning and social justice.
    Service learning is another way of talking about organized acts of Hessed run by a group that also pre- and de-briefs its participants about the experience so that they begin to see acts of Hessed as an essential part of their identity. It is entirely possible to have those pre and debrief discussions without even once mentioning the social justice aspect of why the service is needed in the first place.
    The need for Jews to take action on social justice issues can be taught with or without the service learning element, though the service learning can really strengthen the lesson.
    As an example take a youth group trip to serve dinner at a local soup kitchen.
    The pre brief is going to be all about treating the folks getting the food with proper respect and dignity; it is meant to make sure the participants are not anxious when interacting with individuals whose lives are drastically different from their own. A debrief can then be a simple discussion of how the participants felt while doing the work and perhaps sharing some stories of the people they met. While there is no social justice in these conversations there is still value – the participants will tuen the generic label “the hungry” or “the homeless” into real people and they are more likely to seek out Hessed opportunities in the future.
    Bringing social justice into the conversation during the pre and debriefs is pretty simple but it is often not done for the average one shot program. One reason for this would be that it is impossible to discuss social justice without talking about decisions made by the local and national legislative and executive branches of government; most of the Jewish community tries to avoid discussion of domestic politics in official programs. Another reason would be that a lot of the people running these experiences have, at best, only a basic grasp of the associated issues. If they are not trained to bring social justice into the conversation they are unlikely to.
    I think that many of the Hessed/service learning programs that have become part of gap year and other Israel programs over the years are similar to the soup kitchen situation above: they are good at training participants in going out to do acts of Hessed but fall short on training the next generation of social justice leaders.

  3. I don’t see much support for this hypothesis that a new leftist power generation is ready to leftify Israel as soon as you sweep those crotchety oldsters out of the way.
    Also have you listened to Pacifica or NPR, or read the Forward, Ha’aretz or any “peace & justice” publication lately? There’re plenty of people in the lucrative aging hippie demographic who luuuuvvv to “criticize” and “rebuke” Israel. The issue isn’t age or birthdate; it’s values.
    Meanwhile an anecdote: the original leader of Israeli NGO efforts to assist Sudanese migrants is a young woman (a friend) from “the settlements” in the West Bank. She’s a patriotic Israeli, proud of her hometown and committed to her work.
    She’s a “social justice activist” who probably doesn’t need Great White Yiddish Hopes from America coming over to tell her how “complicated” her country is and demanding increased “criticism”.
    Maybe my friend and “Bubbe” aren’t as ignorant or dumb as you think. Maybe they can even understand the great “complexity” you’re talking about. Maybe they think you’re just wrong.

  4. I also think my friend and most Israelis would laugh at your proposed “toilet tour” of their country (“persecuted African refugees, Ethiopian and Russian slums, Mizrahi discrimination… disillusioned Ashkenazim… Arab children in overcrowded schools…”). Sounds like a real blast!… If your goal is to try to build a coterie of bitter “activists” who hate the place…..or, er, “rebuke” it….
    But is that what you’d produce? If Israelis don’t laugh your project to death, IMO it’s more likely that you’d just end up inadvertently recruiting new citizens who fall in love with the country and decide to build their own lives and families there.
    To forestall that reaction you’d have to keep the CITs (critics in training) almost hermetically sealed in “misery bubbles” that evade the pulsing, flowing mainstream of Israeli life. I just don’t think you can do that for long.
    But maybe in a few decades when they’re bubbes and zaides, the new olim will head over to Ben Gurion airport to offer Shabbat hospitality to the next generation of young foreign “critics”…

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