By Hannah WEISFELD, Director of Yachad.
Over the next week or so, more than one thousand 16-year-old Jewish students board planes to Israel to take part in a four-week tour.
“Israel tour” is billed as the most significant Jewish identity-building experience for the next generation of the community. More than 50 percent of this age group take part in the experience every year, with a variety of youth movements – each with their own religious and ideological lens.
In the main, the most committed, capable leaders are given the honour of being responsible for this precious experience. It is an achievement to be proud of. Over the past year, Yachad has been working with five of the youth movements to develop a half-day programme for the tour, focusing on one of the most challenging aspects of Israel: Jerusalem. This is the third consecutive summer we have worked with movements to develop a programme, adapting it based on year-on-year feedback.
But why would Jerusalem present such a challenge to these movements? It is such an obvious place to spend time with 16-year olds getting to know Israel. It is the capital of the Jewish state, the direction to which Jews pray daily and a place imbued with Jewish history and culture. But the city is so much more. And youth movements know that. They know it is also the city that may or may not hold the key to an agreement
between Israel and the Palestinian people. It is where questions about what it means to be a Jewish and democratic state are most alive. It is a place where Palestinians are treated differently to Jewish citizens in every way, right down to how many trees are planted in a neighbourhood. These youth movements do not buy the idea that their four-week experience is a time to instil the next generation of our community with an infantile love for Israel –a hope that one day, when they are a little more mature, someone else will present the challenges. They don’t believe that this is a sound education, not least because it is the type of education they received. They regret that difficult questions were glossed over and they were left to their own devices to explore them.
Consequently, they want to find a way to address these issues – hence the challenge of Jerusalem. I have just returned from there, having spent a day with 28 Israel tour leaders from the five youth movements, who between them will be responsible for guiding 400 participants. The programme – created by Yachad and an Israeli organisation, Ir Amim, whose tour guides will be used to deliver the programme includes visiting Jewish neighbourhoods where there are view-points into Palestinian neighbourhoods of East Jerusalem – places like Silwan, Shuafat refugee camp and Sheikh Jarrah.
It raises questions such as how one shares a city between two nations, what challenges a mixed population present and how Palestinian neighbourhoods in which 300,000 Palestinians live (around 38 percent of the inhabitants of the city) test the ideals enshrined in Israel’s Declaration of Independence.
The most fascinating part of the day was watching the conversation that took place during the final hour between the 28 tour leaders. There was consensus across the board. They wanted participants to leave Israel with a love for the country and a desire to be invested in her future. They thought that four weeks in Israel must include an experience that tackles difficult questions – shades of grey.
They wanted to “ideas share” about how to process these challenging questions and make sure they were being the best, most honest educators they could be. So this summer, 400 British Jewish 16-year-olds will come back from Israel tour having stood in the east Jerusalem Jewish neighbourhood of Pisgaat Ze’ev looking out into Shuafat refugee camp, home to more than 20,000 Palestinians inside the municipal borders of Jerusalem.
The question is whether they will return to families and shuls that will be willing to ask the same tough challenging questions the future leadership of our community will have asked this summer, having looked out over that view.