Despite the Eilat tragedy, Israel programs heal

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 10-9-12

Last week’s Eilat tragedy is a nightmare scenario those of us working in informal education dread.  A troubled participant on an extended Israel experience program, William Hershkovitz, murdered Armando Abed, a 33-year-old sous-chef at Eilat’s Leonard Club hotel, in a workplace dispute. Security forces then shot and killed Hershkovitz.  Acting responsibly, the Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky promised a full inquiry into how this troubled young man ended up on the “Israel Way” program, which is part of the Jewish Agency for Israel’s successful Masa initiative, which has subsidized 70,000 young Jews’ extended stays in Israel since 2003.

I can save Sharansky and his JAFI colleagues time and money. The only inquiry really required should scrutinize the hotel’s security training — if initial reports are accurate and Hershkovitz wrestled the gun away from a security guard. Beyond that, neither the Jewish Agency nor “Israel Way” is responsible. Moreover, I regret to say, a repeat of such violence, while as rare and anomalous as this first incident, is not really preventable.

Modern Western civilization craves order, abhors messiness and takes the smooth functioning of life for granted.  When something goes wrong, we demand explanations, establish commissions, and try to prevent a recurrence. But screening procedures for such programs are necessarily cursory – resources are limited, the focus is on recruitment more than rejection, and, as in all successful educational interactions, goodwill is generally assumed.<

Examining the far more rigorous college selection process also proves that these processes are not predictors.  Some troubled people are well-practiced in covering up their violent tendencies. Sometimes, disturbed behavior emerges abruptly, with little warning.  Moreover, the mental health crisis is so acute among young people today that it is virtually impossible to distinguish the many unhappy ones from the violently disturbed.

We tend to overlook it in two worlds I inhabit – the Israel program world and the university universe – but those of us working with twenty-somethings are working with masses of emotionally fragile young people. So many of our program participants and students have scarred psyches, are traumatized by broken families, and take psychotropic drugs just to endure.  We are experiencing but mostly ignoring epidemic levels of loneliness, rootlessness, alienation, anxiety, depression, and all kinds of dysfunction. My friends who are university mental health counselors, camp directors, social workers or psychologists working with this age group are deeply worried.  By contrast, universities in particular appear to be in denial about this widespread and acute problem.

At first glance, this epidemic does not make sense. Even amid this prolonged recession, our society is the wealthiest and freest society in history. Never before have so many people enjoyed so much autonomy, so much prosperity, so many toys, so many prerogatives. This good life and these extraordinary liberties were supposed to facilitate the pursuit of happiness, not the spread of misery.

But something is seriously wrong. Too many are overdosing on ultimately unsatisfying indulgences, on alienating technologies, on illusory consumer choices.

In many ways, Israel programs are responses to this mass misery. The programs do occasionally stress some participants and Israel experiences cannot substitute for the serious psychological counseling some need. But as facilitators in the process of identity formation, the programs’ popularity stems from their widespread success in propelling most participants on journeys toward greater rootedness, deeper meaning, and more fulfilling lives.

Natan Sharansky himself has written so eloquently in his 2008 book Defending Identity about the way being a part of a larger communal story helps anchor individuals, most of whom ultimately want their lives to count for something significant, grander than simply surviving.

In his latest book, The Promise of Israel: Why Its Seemingly Greatest Weakness is Actually its Greatest Strength, my friend Rabbi Daniel Gordis makes the powerful case for Zionism itself, saying that Israel stands for a vision of enriching, anchoring, traditional particularism rather than empty, alienating, modernist universalism.  Gordis shows how embracing a national model, in this case a Jewish national model, is actually the most effective way to build a life of idealism that does the world good. By being comfortable in your own skin, by being connected to your own people, by buying into your own particular values framework, you can then change the world for the better, and service humanity – working with your communal comrades and building on enduring traditions.

Positing a Zionist response to North American emptiness requires subtlety not arrogance. Every individual has a biography and no one’s personal misery should become cannon fodder for ideologues.  Moreover, championing this aspect of Zionist ideology as an answer to a North American challenge should not send Zionist ideologues back to the old negating-the-Diaspora model. A true partnership encourages constructive criticism as well as splendid synthesis. Just as Zionism seeks an ideal mix of the best of the West and the gems of Judaism, so, too, both the Israeli and North American Jewish communities should seek to learn from each other’s strengths and weaknesses.

Still, there is a cost to the identity annihilation, to the cutting of ties, that the American sociologist Robert Bellah has identified as the defining model for maturing in America, especially among elites.  The notion that growing up entails going beyond tradition, family, values, community rather than growing into them has helped spread this psychic stress.

So, yes, the commission investigating the Eilat murder should do its work. But the commission should not overreact and burden Israel programs with unnecessary, unwieldy admissions procedures that cannot predict that which remains unpredictable. And the commission must remember that these anchoring, orienting, meaning-seeking, Israel programs are offering important, compelling, creative solutions to the broader problem which so many responsible adults are simply ignoring or denying.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Research Fellow in Jerusalem. The author of “Why I am a Zionist: Israel, Jewish identity and the Challenges of Today,”  his next book, “Moynihan’s Moment: America’s Fight Against Zionism as Racism” will be published by Oxford University Press in the fall.

Why Ha’aretz Hates Birthright

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 8-14-12

Taglit Birthright Israel remains “the most successful project in the Jewish world,” according to the chair of its steering committee, Minister Yuli Edelstein. The Birthright Bump has helped young American Jews grow “More attached to Israel” and “marry in.” Even “Young Israeli Jews get [a] Jewish identity boost” when they participate in the program. Birthright “covers all the bases” by bringing in Jewish baseball players for special trips, and has reaffirmed that one effective way to a Jew’s heart is through the stomach, with a special culinary trip for chefs. And, of course, again and again, the love bug bites and blossoms into a lasting Zionist charm as “American girl meets Israeli soldier and stays.”

I learned all this by reading articles published in the news section of Ha’aretz over the last two years. Unfortunately, the Ha’aretz opinion pages offer a different spin. There, readers learn that “Birthright Israel tours are insulting young Jew’s intelligence” with “sanitized infantile content spoon-fed” to them; that “the Birthright model is consumer-based,” peddling “Israel and Jewish peoplehood” to these willing dupes; that it serves as “a gateway drug of sorts – in which customers consume the environment and programming around them”; and that Birthright purports to be apolitical but in exposing these young innocents of “Taglitistan” to “Jewtopia” by “carefully avoid[ing]” the “Arab-Israeli conflict, socioeconomic divisions and the ethnic and religious rifts within Israel,” a manipulative right-wing agenda is being advanced, seductively, secretly.

This gap between the facts reported and the opinions offered is symptomatic of Ha’aretz’s worldview, reflecting a general problem afflicting the Israeli and Jewish left. They take the modern media compulsion to bash, to criticize, to mock, to a pathological, self-destructive extreme. Taglit has become such a juicy target because it so successful. It ruins the reigning self-critical leftist story lines. It proves that young Jews are not alienated from Israel. It proves that Israel has not become an embarrassment to modern Jews. It proves that Israel is not only not a failure, a disappointment, an oppressor but remains a source of fascination, pride and inspiration for most participants on these now iconic ten-day trips.

To make matters worse for our perpetual cynics, Birthright Israel succeeds by not propagandizing, by not being an advocacy trip, and by being rooted in a sophisticated educational model that is person-centered, non-partisan, substantive, sensitive, broad-ranging, and thought-provoking, with its famous guarantee: “no strings attached.” The program invites young Jews to launch their own, personal, Jewish journeys rather than imposing a one-size-fits-all worldview. In fact, neither the heavy-handed, ideological, hidden-agenda-driven, propagandistic program nor the round-the-clock sex-drugs-and-rock-n’-roll idiocy the cynics claim to see would work with this generation of smart, savvy, skeptical, and serious students.

This is not to say that Birthright Israel is a sober graduate seminar. It is a fun, experiential, ten-day trip for 18 to 26 year olds. It cannot undo the party culture that is a fact of university and twenty-something life. But it strives to offer alternatives to the failing, enervating, exasperating, guilt-ridden, hidebound, hierarchical, superficial, soporific and materialistic Jewish experiences that have turned off so many young Jews today.

Ultimately, Birthright Israel’s true secret to success remains Israel itself. The gap between the distorted version of the Israel story most visitors bring to Ben-Gurion airport, and the different country they experience transforms millions every year from Israel skeptics or agnostics to Israel enthusiasts. Even with all its challenges, Israel’s mix of surprisingly normal, familiar, orderly, safe Western-style life with its charmingly offbeat, old-new, Jewish yet cosmopolitan, Zionist but not doctrinaire character continues to entrance.

That is at the heart of the Ha’aretz beef with Birthright.

Birthright shows that Israel is not just a bundle of problems and that those who see Israel solely through the lens of the Palestinian conflict have myopic vision. Israel – and Birthright – are considered exceedingly political because a relentless, delegitimizing propagandistic campaign has tried to make everything about Israel political. When an organization educates about Israel with a minimum of partisan posturing, when it unites right-leaning funders like Sheldon Adelson with left-leaning funders like Charles Bronfman and Lynn Schusterman, when it creates a conversational space that acknowledges problems and sees some ugliness but also toasts successes and appreciates the enduring beauty, it repudiates the Is-crits’ Johnny-one-note approach, it normalizes Israel, and yes, it also celebrates Israel, unapologetically, not neurotically.

The Israeli and Jewish left has yet to learn the lesson that both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama mastered to get elected. In a proud, functioning democracy, valid political positions, important self-critiques, and valuable ideological challenges, can best be heard by dissenting optimistic patriots not seemingly self-hating sourpusses. As president, Obama has struggled to find the right balance. Candidate Obama spoke eloquently during his 2008 “Hope and Change” campaign about the failure of many 1960s radicals to convey their love of country while trying to reform it. Yet President Obama has sometimes foolishly, and self-destructively, made too many apologies for American foreign policy, going too far to validate the Blame America First crowd.

Especially since the hopes of Oslo degenerated into the horrors of Palestinian terrorism, the enduring animus of the Blame Israel First, Last, and Always crowd has sabotaged some important messages that the Israeli left should be broadcasting. Critics of Israel need to be heard, for example, raising moral issues about the cost of controlling millions of unwilling Palestinians. They would be heard better if they acknowledged the toxic impact of Palestinian negationism and violence on Israel’s peacemaking efforts. Broader critiques of Israel and Zionism would also resonate better if some Israeli and Zionist successes – like Birthright Israel – could also be respected, appreciated, cheered – and then criticized carefully, constructively and lovingly in those areas where improvements are still needed.