Planting US Jewish activism over the Green Line

US college students plant a vineyard near Har Brac (photo credit: Abe Selig)
US college students plant a vineyard near Har Brac
(photo credit: Abe Selig)

When most American college students decide to spend a summer connecting with Israel, they climb Masada, float in the Dead Sea or spend a night out indulging in Tel Aviv's abundant nightlife.

US college students plant a...
US college students plant a...

US college students plant a vineyard near Har Bracha this week. Photo: Abe Selig

But for participants in a small new volunteer program initiated by the Zionist Freedom Alliance - a "revolutionary" group that promotes Zionism on US campuses as an indigenous, not biblical or political movement - connecting with Israel means defying international pressure that all construction east of the Green Line come to a halt, and heading deep into the West Bank to show solidarity with the Jewish communities there.

"We are working to strengthen Israel's hold on this land because the Jewish people has every legal, moral and historic right to this land," Zionist Freedom Alliance head Yehuda HaKohen said on Tuesday, as he supervised about a dozen program participants planting a vineyard on a hilltop near the Har Bracha settlement, just outside Nablus.

"For us the main issue is justice. When we come here to build and plant and support local residents, we are not simply taking a political stance on Israeli policy. We are resisting an historic crime from being perpetrated against our nation."

But for the Zionist Freedom Alliance, the experience is also meant to instill the sense of an active role in Jewish history - not unlike Taglit-birthright or other summer programs that bring young American Jews to Israel in search of a genuine connection with the country. The alliance just takes it a step further. By day, participants labor with their hands, and at night, they learn how to better defend Israel on campus back home.

"We educate our activists to view themselves as participants in history - as characters in the story of the Jewish people," HaKohen said. "It's not enough to merely learn about past heroes like Herzl and Trumpeldor, we should aspire to be those heroes in this generation. We want our students to see themselves as the future Zionist heroes that young people will learn about in their history class 30 years from now."

As such, the alliance sent out e-mails and Facebook messages last week, inviting young people to "volunteer for six days on a hilltop in the Shomron," and "help build a new Jewish community in Israel's heartland."

With the cooperation of the Shomron Liason Office, headed by David Ha'ivri, who made aliya with his family from the US at age 11, the group was given access to places like Yitzhar, Shalhevet Yam, Kfar Tapuach and Shavei Shomron - ground zero for the current round of international pressure on Israeli settlement policy, and according to the Zionist Freedom Alliance, prime locations to allow the volunteers the kind of experience they are looking for.

The majority of participants had already been in the country for a number of reasons - some finishing other programs, others trying to find things to do - and during a break from their work on Tuesday, many of them told The Jerusalem Post that their experience "in the field" had already beaten Taglit-birthright by a long shot.

"When I was a kid, my grandfather bought me a tree in Israel," said recent University of Miami graduate Mitchell Blickman, as he stood over a row of fledgling grapevines, surveying his work.

"But I've never seen that tree," he continued. "What I have seen, is the maybe 100 grapevines I've planted today, and we're only halfway done."The volunteers, from a variety of political and religious affiliations, said they were well aware of the mounting international pressure to halt Jewish construction in the West Bank. In fact, it was why the experience was so important to them.

"We're here to strengthen the connection to this land," said Binyamin Rubin, who made aliya a month ago, after being a Zionist Freedom Alliance activist at the University of Pennsylvania.

"But this land specifically, because it is under so much pressure right now from foreign powers that want to take it away from us. It's a statement that says, we're building something, we're planting something, that we will be here in the future to enjoy."

HaKohen said the alliance doesn't consider itself a right- or left-wing organization, and that many participants hadn't come from traditional right-wing backgrounds.

"Many of these students voted for Obama hoping for change, but what they feel they got is a continuation of the previous administration's imperialist approach to the Middle East," he said.

"Obama and Clinton are continuing Bush and Rice's efforts to shrink the State of Israel and ethnically cleanse our people from the heart of our land. These students here have transformed their disappointment with Obama into the power to defy him, by coming here and volunteering in the very communities that he is trying to destroy."

"And we're planting something, we're building things," said Abbey Weiss, a volunteer from the New York area. "The grapes we're planting today, someone will make kiddush over them down the line. That, for me, is really being involved," she said.

Zionist Freedom Alliance hopes to expand and hold the volunteer program year-round.