US Conservative camps defiant after criticism of counselors on left-wing course

Movement says its commitment to Israel should not be questioned after some counselors train on how to teach both Jewish and Palestinian narratives

IfNotNow protesters demonstrating at the AIPAC policy conference in Washington, DC, March 26, 2017. (Ron Kampeas/JTA)
IfNotNow protesters demonstrating at the AIPAC policy conference in Washington, DC, March 26, 2017. (Ron Kampeas/JTA)

NEW YORK (JTA) — The Conservative movement’s summer camps said their commitment to Israel should not be questioned after some counselors participated in training on how to teach both Jewish and Palestinian narratives related to Israel.

“We, the leadership of Ramah, are proud that Zionism is a central part of our core mission, as we nurture within our campers and staff members a deep and enduring love for Israel,” read a statement sent Thursday to supporters of Camp Ramah in Wisconsin by its national leadership. “[A] wide variety of positions supporting Israel can be voiced and discussed. We do not, however, permit the sharing of anti-Israel educational messages at camp.”

The statement was sent from the National Ramah Commission, which oversees the movement’s 10 overnight camps in North America, as well as day camps. It came a week after JTA reported on a weekend seminar run by IfNotNow, a left-wing millennial Jewish group, that taught about a dozen counselors from various camps how to teach their campers Palestinian perspectives as well as material reflecting criticism of Israeli policy. Staff from multiple Ramah camps attended the seminar.

Rabbi Mitchell Cohen, national director of the National Ramah Commission, told JTA for the article that the camps have no problem talking about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and about “people suffering on all sides.” But he said they do not allow counselors to teach anti-Zionist material and they ground their curriculum in a love of Israel.

The statement echoed those points. Coverage of the IfNotNow seminar, it said, has led “some to believe that our 70-year history of strong pro-Israel ideology has changed. It has not.”

Participants in a camp counselor training by IfNotNow in Boston, May 27, 2018. (IfNotNow/via JTA)

“As we have done for more than seven decades, Ramah will continue to create educational communities based on meaningful and lasting connections to Judaism and Israel,” the statement said.

In its own statement Thursday, IfNotNow said it was “deeply disappointed” in Ramah’s response.

“We know the counselors that we trained over Memorial Day Weekend — as well as the dozens of counselors we’ve been in touch with since then — remain committed to teaching their campers an honest Israel education, including about the Occupation,” the statement said, adding that “we are saddened to know that too many of them will have to to do so without the support of their camp leadership.”

Ramah isn’t the only Jewish camp network feeling heat from IfNotNow because of its educational curriculum. Dozens of alumni of the Union for Reform Judaism’s camps and youth movement signed an open letter Monday calling on the Reform movement to publicly oppose Israel’s recent actions in the clashes on the Gaza border, as well as last month’s transfer of the US Embassy to Jerusalem.

“Just as the Reform Movement has led the way in the fight for social justice, we know that the Reform movement can lead the way for American Jews in condemning the occupation,” said the letter, which was published in Jewish Currents magazine. “If we do not offer bold and powerful action, we are missing an opportunity for our community to stand on the side of freedom and dignity for all people, and we are betraying the values that our tradition taught us.”

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