Emma Nagli will never forget the day last year that British parliamentarian George Galloway, an outspoken critic of Israel and unabashed supporter of the Palestinian cause, visited her university campus in Birmingham.
“It was during the conflict in Gaza and an anti-Israel demonstration was going to be held on campus,” recalls the 22-year-old Londoner, who spent a year here as a participant on the Federation of Zionist Youth’s Year Course Program in 2005/06, prior to starting her studies. “Rather than just throwing insults at them, we decided to hold a peace rally at the same time. We utilized everything we had learned in FZY and that gave us the strength to stand up for Israel in a more intelligent way.”
It was this event and similar experiences exploring her Jewish identity and connection to Israel that led Nagli to become a counselor this year for FZY’s Year Course.
“I had such a phenomenal year when I was on Year Course and an amazing experience being involved in FZY that I wanted to come back and help others to build up a connection to Israel and their Jewish identity,” explains Nagli, who joined FZY when she was 14, following in the footsteps of her mother, Alison Nagli (nee Marks), who was a member in the 1970s and her grandmother Betty Marks (nee Lazarus), a former honorary secretary or chairwoman in the 1940s.
“I started at FZY purely for social reasons,” says Nagli of her time in the British Jewish youth movement, which runs weekly meetings across the UK, summer camps and tours to Israel. “But as I got more involved and went to more FZY events, I realized that I also liked the movement’s ideology. I liked the fact that it was based on pluralistic values and promoted charitable activities.”
It is exactly these tenets, say former members of the movement now living here, that have allowed FZY to flourish since its creation in 1910 and to continue appealing to generation after generation of British Jewish youths.
“FZY has always been able to attract all sectors of the British Jewish community and that is definitely the single most important element of the movement,” states Paul Lenga, a former FZY secretary/chairman, who made aliya in the early 1980s mainly due to his positive experiences in the organization.
“That is its unique advantage,” continues Lenga, a Tel Aviv-based lawyer, who established the sister movement, FZY in Israel (FZYI), here in the decades after he immigrated. “Unlike other youth movements in Britain that might be religious or politically oriented, FZY only has Israel as its common denominator.
“Its strength was also always based on the social element; people were not forced to go to FZY because they held certain religious beliefs, rather they could go to FZY and keep in touch with a broad spectrum of friends from all backgrounds.”
Lenga is among the former FZY-niks currently involved in organizing the movement’s 100th anniversary celebrations here. Set to run in conjunction with a similar event taking place in London a week before, FZY alumni here are planning a reunion at Beit Hahayal in Tel Aviv on March 18 (http://www.fzy.org.uk/fzy100/israel/). As well as the hundreds of former members expected to participate in the evening, guests will include Jewish Agency for Israel Chairman Natan Sharansky, British Ambassador Tom Phillips and Minister of Welfare and Social Services Isaac Herzog, whose father Chaim – Israel’s president from 1983 to 1993 – was an active member of FZY before making aliya.
ACCORDING TO Lenga, who is currently preparing a detailed history of the movement, FZY was born in 1910 out of a collaboration of small Zionist groups from around Britain that began to correspond with one another.
“They started off as an association of university societies that later merged with groups of young professionals,” he explains.
These groups continued to work together in this loose affiliation, corresponding on different topics, until 1925 when a resolution was passed to set up a national Zionist youth movement. The Association of Young Zionist Societies (AYZS) was subsequently created.
Throughout the late 1920s and early 1930s, talks were held between the AYZS and other prominent Jewish youth and Zionist organizations with an aim to set up a more solid federation within the Zionist community. Existing groups such as the University Zionist Federation (UZF), Habonim, Ziona and the Young Mizrachi were all approached but eventually a merger between AYZS and UZF led to the establishment of the Federation of Zionist Youth in 1935.
Among its most active members in those pre-state days was Aubrey Eban, who is most noted for his work as editor of the movement’s Young Zionist magazine. Eban, who later changed his name to Abba, was to become a pivotal figure in Israel’s history, serving first as a Jewish Agency representative in London where he worked behind the scenes negotiating with the British government and the UN to create the State of Israel.
He later became a liaison officer to the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine, where he was involved in securing approval for the partition of Palestine in 1947. Eban, of course, went on to serve as ambassador to the US and, after moving to Israel, became education minister from 1960 to 1963 and deputy prime minister to Levi Eshkol from 1963 to 1966. He served as foreign minister from 1966 to 1974.
WHILE FZY-NIKS recount Eban’s and Herzog’s connection to their movement with deep pride, they are not oblivious to the thousands of other members who made good on their Zionist talk and ended up moving here.
“The best part about FZY was that it did not push any particular kind of aliya,” comments Edith Dinar (nee Waldman), who made aliya in 1957 and lives in Ra’anana. “Other movements such as Habonim, which was specifically a kibbutz movement, or B’nei Akiva, which was religious, had agendas in addition to being Zionist.
“At FZY, it did not matter how you came to Israel or what you came for – no particular program was pushed – they just wanted people to come to Israel.”
Dinar recalls the FZY meeting in Ilford, northeast London, which encouraged her to explore her commitment to Israel.
“We’d had a talk about the  Suez Canal crisis and were told that Israel needed volunteers,” she remembers. “I was on the bus going home and could not stop thinking about it. When I walked in, my mother said, ‘What’s that long face for?’ and I told her, ‘I am going to Israel.’ She asked me when and I told her in the summer.”
With both her parents supportive, Dinar arrived in the summer of 1957 and, although she did not initially set out to make aliya, the young woman never returned home.
“My parents were very Zionist minded and even though they never would have thought of coming to Israel, they were big supporters of the state,” says the 78-year-old, who has five children and 11 grandchildren.
Dinar credits her involvement in FZY to Woolf Abrahams, who back in the 1940s created the group in Ilford.
Abrahams, 83, who now lives in Netanya, is among those former FZY members who hope to attend the celebrations next month.
“At the time, I was chairman of a small group called the East London Education Group – we’d started it during World War II – and although it was not a big group, someone from FZY must have heard about it and thought it would be a good match for them,” remembers Abrahams, who has been busy these past few weeks preparing an article about his experiences in the movement for FZY’s 100th anniversary magazine.
Abrahams recalls the mood among the Zionist community in London as being “amazing.”
“I can’t speak for everyone but those that I knew were very empathetic to the Zionist cause,” he says. “The Balfour Declaration [in 1917] had made a strong impact and people were anticipating a country.”
Although it would take Abrahams more than half a century to make aliya, the grandfather and great-grandfather says it was his involvement in FZY that cemented his love of Israel.
“I first came here in 1959 and after that came every year, sometimes up to six times. In 1982, I bought a flat here and had been so often that when we finally moved here five years ago, Israel was already home for us,” he says.
AS WELL as contributing more than 2,000 of its members to the country over the past 100 years, Michael Freeman, director of FZY in Israel, points out that the movement has also been involved in numerous charity projects, including raising funds for the Stress Prevention Center in Kiryat Shmona, aimed at assisting residents in the area in dealing with Katyushas; various physical contributions to Ashkelon, such as two kindergartens and other structures; and, more recently, the Ethiopian bar mitzva project.
“We also bring hundreds of British Jewish teens to Israel on summer programs and help teach Jewish youngsters the basics of hasbara so that they can argue Israel’s case on their campuses,” says Freeman, who estimates that the movement touches up to 2,000 young British Jews every year via its various programs.
“FZY has a strong ideological commitment to Israel and we are excited
about celebrating all that the movement has done in the past 100
years,” he says.
As for Nagli, who still has another five months left as Year Course
counselor, she has still not yet decided if she will make Israel her
However, there is one thing she is certainly going to do: “I will
encourage my children to go through FZY, just like my mother and
grandmother encouraged me.”