A unique image of Israel

Tours to Israel need depth and context. They need real stories and real people. We in Israel have nothing to hide. Everything should be on the table.

JNFUK (photo credit: JNF UK)
(photo credit: JNF UK)
When planning a trip to Israel, although it is a small country, one must think carefully which sites you want to visit within the wide range of possibilities. There are sites that go beyond being just a tourist attraction. Some can touch the soul deeply. There can be a moment or place in this tiny country that will accompany one forever. In a sense, Israel is like a photo album. People the world over can search and find their own personal picture. For one, it can be a 3,000-year-old stone, for another, a blooming desert. It may be a view possessing a wide biblical history or one showing a promising future. A lack of these pictures can contribute to the identity crisis that Diaspora Jews undergo both in terms of their Judaism and their relation to the State of Israel. It can impede their ability to find the courage and tools to fight the BDS movement. They can’t find their right picture in the album anymore.
It was this thinking that brought the Jewish National Fund of the United Kingdom (JNF UK) to sponsor a trip of more than 100 Jewish children to tour the central Jewish and Zionist heritage sites in Israel. I write about this not because a tour to Israel is something out of the ordinary, but rather because this group of 13- and 14-year-olds, were taken to sites that present a broad and challenging view of Israel. The sites selected for this tour broke the glass ceiling of what Diaspora Jews typically see when they come. Masada and the Western Wall are important, but they don’t give the complete picture of modern Israel, neither geographically nor geopolitically. Therefore, when a Jewish student is faced with BDS and his only understanding of Israel is based on sites and geography and not on the social and economic realities of the country, he will not have much material with which to fight back.
As an example, the children on this tour met their peers of the same age who live on the Gaza border, which enabled them to develop a broader and better understanding of the challenges of living in the area. They traveled to Judea and Samaria, where they helped in the preservation of fields of agriculture. They toured a Peace Center where Jewish and Arab children with disabilities receive treatment together. Another meeting was held with an Israeli advocate who explained Israel’s point of view on various issues. They met with representatives of Hashomer Hachadash, the New Guard. This organization, mostly manned by volunteers, takes it upon itself to protect agriculture land in the north and south of Israel. As in the time of the second and third aliyot and choma and migdal, these young Israelis are filled with idealism and love for the land of Israel. They guard fields from theft, vandalism and even terrorism aimed at destroying as much Jewish owned land as possible.
There is no doubt about the power of programs such as Birthright. However, my fear is that if the tours to Israel don’t go beyond the theory and only tell the story of a glorious past and not the challenges of the future, Diaspora Jews will remain disconnected from everyday life in Israel and the real challenges that Israelis constantly face. Those who visit need exactly what this JNF tour offers. They need depth and context. They need real stories and real people . We in Israel have nothing to hide. Everything should be on the table: settlements, Palestinians, the definition of Judaism, and more.
These teens will return to the UK, a country in which the BDS movement is gaining strength daily. The leader of the opposition, Jeremy Corbyn, a serious candidate to lead her Majesty’s government, is blatantly anti-Israel and recently attended a ceremony commemorating the terrorists who carried out the 1972 Munich Massacre. I have no doubt that these children will face the war, and it is a war, against BDS with the proper ammunition – an understanding of a complex reality. They have seen the pictures that contain the emotions and connections of the past but also the challenges and ideas of the future. The Israeli and Jewish photo album is a diverse one and each person should find his or her image in it. Without that, we may just find Diaspora Jews out of the picture completely.
The writer is a student at the Shalem Center and co-founder of Speak-Up, a public speaking and political consulting firm.