(photo credit: AP [file])
A British current affairs magazine has compared the Marva and Gadna IDF youth summer programs to Islamic Jihad "summer camps," and questioned what the difference would be if the participants were British Muslims.
In the latest edition of New Statesman, journalist Matthew Holehouse begins his article, entitled "The British children who train to fight in Israel," by stating that Israel denounced the Islamic Jihad summer camps in Gaza, which trained Palestinian adolescents to become suicide bombers, after hearing about them in 2001.
However, he continues, "what went unreported was that at a purpose-built barracks in the Negev desert, every summer, hundreds of Jewish teenagers from Europe, Mexico and America pay to spend nine weeks saluting, marching, firing guns and otherwise pretending to be soldiers."
Holehouse then asks what would happen if these were young British Muslims who had trained in Yemen or Pakistan.
"There's not much to be won in games of moral equivalence and assertions as to which side's indiscriminate attacks on civilians are the more reprehensible," he says. "But ask yourself this question: If these were British Muslim 19-year-olds firing machine guns and running assault courses in Pakistan or Yemen, would we not have them all arrested at the airport?"
Holehouse says the increasing number of Jewish youth signing up to the program is due to the "security situation improving" and notes that they were facilitated by Jewish youth organizations such as the Federation of Zionist Youth (FZY) and the Reform Synagogue Youth (RSY).
He adds that "one half [of the participants] are girls, and large numbers come from public schools in Manchester and North London."
Michael Outmezguine, from Woodside Park in North London, did Marva in 2004.
"I was part of the Royal Air Force (RAF) cadets program when in school. We learnt about the RAF and its history and had to comply with basic military rules and behavior, such as saluting and marching," he told The Jerusalem Post on Tuesday. "My brother was in the Territorial Army (TA) cadets when at the City of London High School. This included using the SA80 rifle and military maneuvers. We had no doubt that this, although being a military activity, was an interesting experience and added to our out-of-school education.
"Turning 18, I wanted to discover more about the history and the culture of Israel. Marva was a special experience for me - I got see many interesting parts of the country, had a lot of fun and learnt a great deal about the country. It also improved my Hebrew drastically. Being similar to that of the cadets and being run by the military, it required us to adhere to certain military standards, which was clear to me before I signed up and was an aspect of the program which interested me," he recounted.
"Marva is a unique and exciting experience which I will never forget. One of our first lessons ... was the purity of the weapon and the understanding that the IDF will do anything in its power to live in peace and never to attack anyone, no matter who they represent, unless in clear and present danger," he said.
Michael Freeman, director of FZY in Israel, said in a statement released Tuesday that his group was "appalled" by Holehouse's article.
"The outrageous, unsubstantiated and unconnected headline, introduction and conclusion reflect a poorly researched piece of journalism. ... FZY is rightly proud of our year program and the work that it does to foster understanding and our aim to see peace in the region."
He continued: "Mr. Holehouse attempts to make the spurious connection between a terrorist training camp - designed to indoctrinate children with hate and encourage them to become suicide bombers whose aim is to kill and maim innocent civilians - with a program that aims to allow youth from abroad to understand the Israel army's role in society and meet their Israeli peers, who are all conscripted at 18 due to the existential threat that Israel faces."
Describing Marva, Freeman said: "Participants teach English in schools, volunteer in hospitals, work with Magen David Adom - in some cases working on the Gaza border with Palestinians, work in old age homes and other places.
"FZY is committed to an ideology based on Zionism and our belief in the rights of the Jewish people to self-determination. Our education takes place in a political and religious pluralist framework; our members come with views from all sides of the political spectrum," he added.
Contesting Holehouse's statistics, Freeman said: "Large numbers come from public schools in Manchester and North London. Over 35 percent need some form of financial assistance - although this current year it is in excess of 50 percent - and over 65 percent go to state schools."
FZY is also considering legal action, Freeman said. In the article, Holehouse calls FZY "one of the largest and most hard-line organizers" of post-high school programs, and quoting their Web site, which says that "FZY feels that you cannot truly understand Israel and the people living there if you do not understand the army," he says, "And that, for many Jews, must be rather depressing."
Holehouse adds that Marva "demonstrates how some Zionists have inadvertently come to mimic their opponents in defining Israel solely by its militarism."
In his response, Freeman said: "For FZY to be described as 'hard-line' in an article that talks of suicide bombers and Islamic Jihad is outrageous. In light of this, FZY is currently taking advice and considering its legal position."
In response to discussions on the New Statesman Web site, Holehouse said, "The article makes it quite clear that the Israeli army does not intend to use its Marva recruits as soldiers and does not regard them as such ... My understanding of it is ... that this is a case of teenagers 'playing at soldiers' and that Marva aims to give people a 'fun taste' of the IDF."
He continues, "Given the statistics available on injuries and deaths sustained by children as a result of suicide bombings and IDF operations ... I think I can be forgiven for finding such a 'summer camp' a rather depressing and inglorious project."