Olivia Morris could have topped a list of people least likely to live in the Holy Land not long ago. The progressive Diaspora Jew’s involvement in issues regarding Israel only began after she attended events held by left-leaning groups such as J Street and IfNotNow on her college campus.
But the 2018 graduate is currently entering her fifth month in Israel as part of the social justice Achvat Amim program — and doesn’t think she’ll leave when it ends.
“I would feel very strange about building these relationships and doing these projects I am passionate about and then just going back to the States,” said Morris.
While an increasing number of left-leaning young Diaspora Jews appear to take issue with the Israeli government and its policies, a few progressive programs are set on bringing some of these dissenting voices to Israel, for longer-term stays than the almost archetypal 10-day Birthright trip.
In conversations with The Times of Israel, program participants frequently described forging a deeper and often more complex bond with the land of Israel and its people than they had in activist circles back home. This new bond, it should be emphasized, does not necessarily increase their love for the Israeli government.
For example, Achvat Amim, which means “solidarity of nations” in Hebrew, is a five-month volunteer program in Jerusalem that places participants in social justice roles in areas such as coexistence, human rights advocacy and minority empowerment, with a focus on “self-determination of all people.”
Morris interns at American-born Rabbi Arik Ascherman’s Torat Tzedek organization, working towards reigniting campaigns to stop efforts by Israeli authorities and the Jewish National Fund to evict the Palestinian Sumarin family from their home in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan.
As a Diaspora Jew previously “not connected to the state at all,” Morris has also seen her Jewish spirituality grow while learning in Achvat Amim’s religious and spirituality track. She believes the growing divide between Israel and progressive Diaspora Jews encouraged her to do the program.
“Achvat Amim is operating in a space that bridges the Diaspora Jewish left and the local left,” explained Karen Isaacs, who cofounded Achvat Amim. “That is why it is important to bring people here for a long time and not just take them here for a hot second.”
Exactly what approach these programs take often shapes the unique relationship participants develop while in Israel. The Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, a non-denominational yeshiva in Jerusalem, also brings many progressive Jews — along with those of other political orientations — from the Diaspora to Israel for longer-term stays. But unlike Achvat Amim, it is decidedly Zionist.
Founded in 1972, Pardes immerses its students in Jewish texts, exposing them to the full array of religious interpretations and arguments, and connects the texts’ relevance to issues of today.
Dr. Rabbi Meesh Hammer-Kossoy founded the Pardes social justice track in 2000 and strives to give Jewish students “a deeper, more nuanced relationship” towards the State of Israel and Jewish texts “with compassion and nuance yet without apologetics.”
As a social justice fellow at Pardes last year, Alex Ronay credited Pardes’s balanced approach in exposing him to speakers and texts — from both the left and right — with transforming his perspective. Ronay said he had been “really turned off” by the Israel programming he received at Camp Ramah as a teenager and felt that “how the conflict was being framed was unfair.”
Encouraged by friends, he later checked out IfNotNow, but also found its approach problematic. He believed the situation was more complex than what the group was saying and that he “would have to surrender certain critical perspectives” by aligning with it.
When he went on Birthright in the summer of 2017, however, Ronay felt “very frustrated and alienated” by a lack of nuance and an inability “to explore the narratives.”
“If I had gone back to America after that experience,” said Ronay, “I would have gotten more involved in programs that were anti-occupation.”
Instead, he began studying that fall at Pardes. He recalled visiting a settlement near Jerusalem last year and asking pointed political questions. But after speaking more with those on the Israeli side who have suffered as well, his approach has changed.
“I think going back to that same settlement, you can see the wall [Israel’s West Bank security barrier] and a huge amount of building there. You see this huge imbalance of power,” said Ronay. “But at the same time, I’ve learned more about the humanity and inhumanity. This time, I recognized that more.”
Ronay said programs such as Pardes help to “curtail a lot of the more non-self-critical approaches of organizations like BDS or IfNotNow that may have members with nuance, but in general have a very ‘us versus them’ mentality.”
Harassment of future Diaspora diplomats?
Some Pardes participants have run afoul of authorities, most notably Julie Weinberg-Conners, who was detained and threatened with deportation at Ben-Gurion Airport in September despite already being in the process of making Aliyah (immigration).
“There’s a difference between opposing the occupation or wanting to be involved in conflict resolution or advocating for Palestinian human rights, and being anti-Zionist,” said Hammer-Kossoy.
With “anti-Zionism and intersectionality in the air” back home, Hammer-Kossoy said “it’s really a shame the government harasses our students when they could become fantastic ambassadors when they go back abroad.”
In the case of Achvat Amim, which remains neutral on topics such as Israel’s Jewish character, the Jewish Agency and Masa Israel decided to withdraw its funding in September 2017 after a video from right-wing NGO Ad Kan showed participants volunteering at the “Sumud Freedom Camp” in the South Hebron Hills. Program leaders denied as “smears” claims that participants, who were there independently, were engaged in any illegal or “anti-soldier” activity.
“For a lot of people that knew me and how much I care a lot about this place, they were like, ‘Hannah’s program? Really?’” recalled Hannah Bender, who was an Achvat Amim participant when the program lost its funding.
A self-declared “Reform baby” for whom Israel was an integral part of a wider Jewish identity, Bender became involved with interfaith groups on college campus and was exposed to “really incredible Muslim women who really changed the way I thought about Israel.”
Now studying at Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem, Bender looks back on their Achvat Amim experience as pivotal in being able to “live in Jerusalem sustainably.”
Similarly to Pardes students, Bender, whose Hebrew is “okay,” along with other participants of Achvat Amim, noted there isn’t a lot of social interaction with Jerusalemites outside their programs’ circles. But Bender credited that “bubble” with helping internalize a fraught environment.
“Whether or not you’re engaging with the outside Jerusalem community, you’re here,” said Bender. “You’re existing, and it’s hard. It’s really hard.”
Bursting the bubble
In contrast to participants from Achvat Amim and Pardes based in Anglo-heavy Jerusalem, Liat Yael Kastner spent her first nine months in Israel in Lod, a mixed Jewish-Arab city, as a social change fellow with Yahel, a service learning Israeli organization intended to bring non-Israelis from abroad for longer-term stays.
Kastner found a varied group of Ethiopians, Russians, asylum seekers, and Gazans who helped Israeli security forces and were subsequently relocated within Israel for their safety. She described them as being “swept under the rug” in the usual discussions about the region and the conflict. She was struck by “how messy things can be and that human beings are caught in the crosshairs.”
“These people don’t fit the narratives of either side, and people don’t want to talk about it,” said Kastner. “Would BDS want to talk about how people from Gaza collaborated with the Israeli government? And would Zionists want to talk about how the Israeli government has really mistreated these collaborators so that they are at the lowest rungs of their society?”
Meeting anti-Zionists in high school and at Oregon’s Reed College left Kastner struggling with what she had “been taught and grown to be complicit in.” However, she said that at times she felt dislocated as a Jew on campus, such as when students cornered her and demanded she tell them whether she thinks Israel is an apartheid state.
After writing her thesis on the conflict and working for American Friends of Hand in Hand (Hand in Hand is an Israeli network of integrated, bilingual schools for Jewish and Arab children), Kastner says living in Israel has helped her understand and reconcile this place’s many contradictions and complexities.
Now a social justice fellow at Pardes, Kastner at times finds the views of some speakers that Pardes invites “problematic,” such as one representative from the right-wing organization Regavim whom she riddled with questions. But she cherishes the space Hammer-Kossoy has cultivated to question and engage with these perspectives.
While she’s not sure exactly what she wants to do after leaving Pardes — she fancifully mused about opening up an “interfaith, anti-occupation bakery” — Kastner knows she wants to stay in Israel long term.
“Once I learned the realities of this place, I couldn’t unlearn it,” said Kastner. “I want to devote my life to this place.”