Sowing the seeds of Israel-hatred at summer camp

By Deborah Gastfreund Schuss

Parents, your long list of worries over sending your kids to summer camp has expanded in unexpected ways. This season, at least some counselors will be working Jewish campgrounds with the insidious mission of grooming your children to become anti-Israel ambassadors.  

IfNotNow, a group formed in 2014, held a counselor-training program Sunday in Boston to “learn how to teach about the occupation.”  Publicized on social media and aimed at counselors across the U.S., the effort was described as “bigger than one camp or one counselor changing one summer’s curriculum — if we want to see real transformation in our community, we need to build a movement.”

To understand the true nature of this offensive, one needs to look no further than the organization’s stated principles. Among them: “We do not take a unified stance on BDS, Zionism or the question of statehood.” 
BDS is the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement.

By not committing to a position on those very basic issues, there is no doubt IfNotNow most definitely is taking a stand, and we are not for a moment fooled into thinking it is anything but an effort to delegitimize Israel. 

As a result, youngsters sent to what should be a Jewish safe space punctuated by color war and campfires could become pawns in an elaborate indoctrination scheme that chips away at parents’ work to build kids’ self-esteem as Jews and pride in the Jewish state. 

Parents should be particularly concerned about how this narrative will play out, given that IfNotNow encourages its members to act with autonomy, according to its principles: “If 3 or more of us are convinced that an action will serve the goals of the movement, we proceed without the need for invitation or approval.” 
An attempt to conduct a telephone interview with a spokesperson for IfNotNow was unsuccessful. The organization instead asked for an email with prepared questions and did not respond to the list that was sent.
Calls requesting comment from Jeremy Fingerman, chief executive officer of the New-York based Foundation for Jewish Camp, were not returned. 

Fifteen members of IfNotNow who had been campers at Ramah—the Conservative movement’s camping arm—met this winter with Rabbi Mitch Cohen, executive director of the National Ramah Commission.

 “Basically, what they were looking for is an openness of Ramah to be able to be critical of Israeli government policy when it comes to the Palestinians,” Rabbi Cohen said. “What I said was we will certainly look at all of our materials and make sure that we are open to presenting the Israel-Palestinian conflict from a variety of perspectives.”  

He said he also told them, “I will speak with our camp directors and our camp educators to make sure that if someone is left of center at camp, they’re not censured and they’re able to give their opinions or educate on an age-appropriate basis.” 

Rabbi Cohen noted that he attached two conditions: Other opinions representing the “full spectrum” of views at Ramah also would be voiced, and “we won’t allow people to teach particular opinions at camp…if they are considered to be anti-Israel or anti-Zionist, and sometimes it’s hard to draw that line, but that’s the line that every one of our camp directors and educators ought to watch out for.” 

I asked Rabbi Cohen how the Ramah camps, whose oldest campers are age 16, would vet for this. “Our directors and I have spoken extensively about this topic and everybody is going to speak with their staff members about this,” he said. “The fact that many of our alumni are part of IfNotNow is just fact, and if they’re passionate about their cause and if they’re still pro-Israel, then they’re still welcome in our camps.” 

Pressed about how IfNotNow could be considered ‘pro-Israel’ given the group’s refusal to take a position on BDS, Zionism or even the question of statehood, Rabbi Cohen said, “I can’t answer that because I haven’t gotten into that question with them. I did not ask them specifically. What I said to them was that you need to be pro-Israel, you need to be pro-Zionist, not anti-Zionist.” 

Parents, former and current campers, and others who became aware of IfNotNow’s counselor-training session and its stated positions expressed concern, even outrage, that youngsters under 18 might be plied with the group’s ideology. They are especially worried such influences could seep into informal camp settings, like mealtimes, where values are typically interjected and counselors’ outsized rock-star status looms large.

“I certainly don’t want counselors to bring their own ideological baggage and promote that to my kids under their influence,” said Massachusetts resident Andrew Warren, a director of e-commerce whose four children range in age from 15 to 21. “We send our kids to camp to strengthen their Jewish identity—and certainly part of that is pride in Israel, in the broader Jewish people—and for a group to hijack their role as a counselor to promote their own political opinion on our time and on our dime and on our kids’ fun summer experiences is terrible.” 

Warren believes camps should have standard position papers on how the subject of Israel is broached at various age levels, including answers to issues kids themselves might raise—and who will be charged with those discussions—details that should be communicated clearly to parents and staff as part of a code of conduct. That way, parents can make informed choices. 

Warren’s call for transparency with parents was a recurrent theme running though several other conversations I had related to expectations for camp, coupled with an “uncomplicated,” positive view of Judaism and the Jewish state. 

It’s the kind of nurturing experience that Madeline Uretzky recalls while attending camp in New Hampshire for seven seasons.  Coverage of Israel “was completely positive,” said Uretzky, who last month received her undergraduate degree in neuroscience from Simmons College in Boston and identifies as a Reform Jew. 

“Especially in a camp, we need for the campers to feel like they have a place and included and that their religion is valid, and being a historically marginalized group, that they can be safe there and feel safe that their fellow peers and counselors won’t attack their views,” she said. “I think that potentially bringing a group like this in would hinder that.” 

Elana Adler, a rising high-school senior in suburban Chicago who has attended Jewish summer camp affiliated with the Reform movement for 10 years, is similarly troubled by the prospect of programming critical of Israel. “It’s kind of like polarization,” said Adler, age 17. “It’s like you’re trying to brainwash these kids into thinking some way—especially if they have no opinion either way—you’re automatically giving them a negative image that they shouldn’t have a country.”
Anyone doubtful or dismissive of the agenda that IfNotNow brings to the table should ask Dr. Stephen Gerzof, who attended a day-long orientation training the group held for those interested in “leadership in the movement.” 
“It was a very biased, non-contextual presentation of the entire Arab-Israeli issue,” said Gerzof, a retired professor of radiology at Tufts Medical School. “It’s just pared down to what they want these kids to know, that everything is Israel’s fault.”
He said he raised questions regarding historical context but was rebuffed with, “We don’t have time for that now.” 
The trainers explained that the group’s strategy was to “polarize our community,” Gerzof told me, and in addition, they said “the goal is to make it impossible for them to be neutral” on the question of  “are you on the side of freedom and dignity or not.”
Trainees were asked to name the “supporting pillars of the occupation.” Listed along with IDF, Hillel, synagogues, Holocaust remembrance groups, Jewish newspapers and federations—just a few of virtually every Jewish communal organization identified—was Jewish summer camps, Gerzof said. 
“Well, I thought that was ludicrous, but they put it down and I wrote it down,” Gerzof recalled, “and when recently I saw this invitation to train summer camp counselors how to 'teach about the occupation,’ immediately I realized that they are trying to get their trainees to insert themselves between camp directors and the kids’ parents to try to indoctrinate summer campers in the bunk when nobody knows they’ve been indoctrinated.”
That’s when Gerzof took it upon himself to alert representatives of Jewish camps.  

Among them was Jonathan Cohen, president of Cohen Camps, which includes Pembroke in Massachusetts and New Hampshire-based Tel Noar and Tevya. The camps are transdenominational, and “the complexities” of having a Jewish homeland are discussed with oldest campers, Cohen noted. 

“We would be uncomfortable with whatever IfNotNow’s training is going to be,” said Cohen. “We’re going to have to monitor it and keep our ears open. There’s no perfect way of doing that, and certainly I think we will probably address it during staff orientation week.”

Rabbi Clifford Librach, a retired Reform rabbi who served as a camp mentor, calls IfNotNow’s agenda “subversive,” because it actually shuts down dialogue instead of promoting it.

“You plant little seeds of ‘Maybe I don’t know what I’m talking about. Maybe I should keep quiet and not take sides on this,’ ” said Rabbi Librach, now living in Massachusetts. “I think our kids are intimidated. It’s because their Israel education is very weak. I think they’re intimidated on campus, and I think they’re intimidated at camp, and training counselors to sound like they’re taking a neutral stand or an inquisitive stand on such outrages as BDS, it simply acknowledges the vulnerability of the target population. 

“We need to support and undergird a vulnerable American Jewish population that is ideationally weak, and we need to give them tools and a stance to say ‘No, I know what I am talking about.’” 

Rabbi Librach takes issue with camps and other Jewish institutions that don’t voice unequivocal support for the Jewish state and instead reflexively qualify that backing with “an asterisk.” 
“There has to be a ‘but,’ there has to be some other tag on it, and I consider that not just not helpful, not constructive, I consider it a form of self-denial and indicative of a very serious problem in the American Jewish community,” he said.

“We’re hemorrhaging, and this is one of the reasons why,” he continued. “I think that it’s dangerous because we are witnessing a massive drift away from positive Jewish identity among young American Jews. On many college campuses today, the mere assertion of Jewish identity, the very concept of an Am Yisrael [nation of Israel], is being perceived today as an act of racism by significant numbers of ourselves. 

“We need to train camp counselors to constantly whisper a positive spin in every conversation that concerns the security and integrity and virtue of the greatest miracle ever to be experienced by the Jewish people since the exodus from Egypt. That is our task, and anything less than that means we’re not doing our job as a people dedicated to our own continuity.”

As the campground becomes the latest battleground for the Jewish soul—with camps and other Jewish institutions expanding their tents in a misguided quest to accommodate the proliferation of “asterisks”—let the buyer beware. Parents, don’t let yourselves be blindsided. Hyper-vigilance is essential regarding influences that could be lurking as you entrust your kids to the judgment of others. Nothing less than the future of your children, and our peoplehood, is at stake.