Bnei Akiva's US branch struggles to stay neutral

Members taught dangers of hatred as both branches split on issue of disengagement.

Bnei Akiva of North America and Bnei Akiva Israel appear to be split on the issue of disengagement at least formally. The Israeli chapter is officially opposed to the disengagement. Bnei Akiva of the US and Canada, on the other hand, does not have an official political stance and, formally, only seeks to educate its members on different views revolving around the issue. Steve Frankel, director of Mach Hach BaAretz, a Bnei Akiva trip in which 16-year-old North American teens tour Israel by bus, said Bnei Akiva of the United States and Canada is not an "Israeli organization, therefore we do not take a political stance." Speaking about members of Bnei Akiva Israel, Frankel said "they know that their opinions affect their own lives. They could be soldiers in Gush Katif or live there and have to deal with consequences of their own decisions. It's not like that for Bnei Akiva of North America." Frankel noted that although "is no secret that most Orthodox Jews are against disengagement," Bnei Akiva of North America still was not taking an official stance on the pullout. Eitan Mor-Yosef, secretary-general of Bnei Akiva Israel which boasts about 75,000 members and 300 chapters, is outspoken and active when it comes to disengagement. "Bnei Akiva educates the kids against disengagement and tells them that we have to democratically protest to stop disengagement," Mor-Yosef said. The group has organized youths to hand out ribbons to drivers at intersections. They have talked to Israelis and published flyers to explain their contention that disengagement will negatively affect the country. One counselor on a trip in Jerusalem told The Jerusalem Post that his campers had been taken to anti-disengagement events. Mor-Yosef also said that Bnei Akiva members are taught they "should unite [with all Israelis] because we are separated in our own little country, and that we should all get together and not hate each other." Although the North American Bnei Akiva is officially staying out of the debate, some factors indicate an ideological proximity to its Israeli counterpart. Ely Cole, a counselor on Mach Hach BaAretz, said "Steve Frankel told us there is no formal educational process on disengagement but that we should tell the kids how we feel. The result is that mostly all of the counselors, especially the Israelis, are anti-disengagement." Camper Dorothy Abrams, 16, said that all of her counselors, her main source of information about disengagement, "are wearing orange bracelets." Abrams was quick to add "but they're not extremists." Still, Frankel said that Bnei Akiva did try to give both viewpoints on disengagement. "When the kids are meeting with speakers, one of the guidelines we discussed is that two speakers are needed, from two different viewpoints." The campers rarely make contact with the world outside their program, but Abrams did spend a weekend with an Israeli family on Moshav Tzufin on a trip. She said politics did not come up in conversation too often, but the family's oldest son was spending his last Shabbat in a yeshiva in Gush Katif. Once Shabbat ended, Abrams said that the children in the moshav were handing out orange ribbons and anti-disengagement stickers to the visiting Mach Hach BaAretz campers. Other campers said they spent a similar weekend in Alon Shvut in Gush Etzion. Cole said his bus was taken to Elkana. Tzufin and Elkana both lie in Samaria east of Kalkilya, not far from the four northern Shomron communities that are going to be evacuated. One area where Bnei Akiva of the United States and Canada and Bnei Akiva are solidly in step is on the issue of Diaspora Jewry's responsibility when related to events in Israel. "Our answer to everything is to make aliya," Frankel said. Then he added: "If the campers want to know what they can do to fight disengagement, they can make aliya."