We Will Not Forget You, O Jerusalem, Nor Shall We Politicize Jewish Education: A Response to UJIA

UJIA - the prominent Anglo-Jewish umbrella charity which raises funds from British Jews to support Israel tours and youth movements in the UK has recently published a deeply unsettling policy paper.

Rabbi Naftali Schiff  (photo credit: Conference of European Rabbis/JTA)
Rabbi Naftali Schiff
(photo credit: Conference of European Rabbis/JTA)

The United Jewish Israel Appeal (UJIA), the prominent Anglo-Jewish umbrella charity which raises funds from British Jews to support Israel tours and youth movements in the UK for as long as we can remember, has recently published a deeply unsettling policy paper. The document states that as a “General Rule,” they would “not fund or support activities beyond the Green Line.” It further asserts that its activities “will not be undertaken in a manner which treats areas beyond the Green Line as being part of the State of Israel,” including Jerusalem, it seems. Any youth group wishing to venture to such areas would require “an explanation as to how it justifies an exception from the general rule” as well as permission from a guardian and UJIA. 

I am shocked by this disturbing disassociation and implied vilification of Israel, not least because the UJIA in its original form was created to assist with the establishment of the Jewish homeland and the return of the Jewish People to Zion. The UJIA supposedly serves to enable and increase both Jewish and Israel engagement for our younger generation and yet has now taken a political stance questioning sovereign Israel’s territorial rights. This is to the detriment of the formative experience that for decades has been proudly viewed as a rite of passage for young British Jews. 

I do not intend to respond to UJIA with a discourse on Israeli history or to issue an angry condemnation against this “General Rule.” Important though that would be, I will leave that to the pundits and politicos. As a rabbi and educator involved in schools, university campuses, and with young professionals across England, for me, the UJIA’s position compels an entirely different response, no less pressing but far less political: How, then, are we to connect our youth to Jewish life, if not with the call of the remarkable rebirth of our Jewish homeland, and with its epicenter Jerusalem, the jewel in the crown of millennial Jewish yearning, the Old City and the Western Wall? 

In an autobiographical reflection, the late Rabbi Lord Sacks describes how on the eve of the Six-Day War in 1967, as a student at Cambridge University, he and young Jewish adults grew in their connection to their religion and nation: 

“Throughout the university, Jews suddenly became visible... Students and dons who had never before publicly identified as Jews could be found praying in the synagogue... everyone wanted to express their solidarity, their identification with Israel’s fate... the same phenomenon was repeating itself throughout the world...” 

After Israel’s swift victory, Jewish pride swelled on campuses throughout the UK and America, and people began to wear kippot and Jewish symbols. An exciting movement of return to Judaism emerged in that wave of inspiration and national pride that swept throughout the world. 

Today, however, as the UJIA’s troubling announcement shows, many have developed an uneasy distance from the State of Israel. Several unfortunate factors are to blame. Our youngsters are consumers of Western media, often slanted against Israel. They are exposed to the latest fads in identity politics and, sadly, have largely been less communally engaged as children. Frighteningly, some have lost any appreciation and pride for the Jewish State. This has been replaced by a fixation on the different “nuances” and “narratives” of the Israeli-Palestine conflict. 

As an educator and rabbi, I am charged to ask, what can we do to repair this? Do we really want to irreparably damage the life-changing experience of touring Israel from a positive Jewish and pro-Israel identity-forming one to one of politics and critique? 

As an organizer of hundreds of Israel experience tours spanning decades, I have often been invited by the UJIA to assist in training madrichim and leaders for tours, and on occasion, to take part in discussions and debates on how best to build a wholesome Israel experience for young Jews. A few years ago, at one of these symposiums, I challenged the notion of turning our 16-year-olds into “critical friends of Israel” before they had even had the opportunity to become friends! Our community is battling to provide that crucial positive Jewish and Israel connection and engagement for our kids. Why jeopardize one of the few tried and tested compelling educational experiences we have by politicizing the basic idea of the return of People to Zion? Israel advocacy is needed now more than ever, and I applaud all those working in that field. 

By not funding or supporting activities beyond the Green Line, the UJIA has even attempted to reject the impact of the return to the Old City of Jerusalem and the Western Wall, the event that so glowingly affected Rabbi Sacks and millions of others the world over. On the contrary, in my practical experience, connecting young people with the 2,000-year-old dream of return and experiencing the vision actualized on the streets of the city of our yearning awakens a latent Jewish connection that perhaps resonates with the very same chord that inspired today’s leaders of the UJIA all but a generation ago. Today they choose to behave as “critical friends” of Israel. Perhaps they are allowed to do so as private individuals, but as Trustees and Leaders of UJIA, how can such be acceptable? I urge them: Do not deny the exciting Israel experience that formed you a generation ago by politicizing the experience today. 

To attract young Jews to authentic Jewish engagement, we must introduce them to a living, vibrant and thriving Judaism complete with the Land and State of Israel, to engage them in its rich, all-encompassing lifestyle and its ancient, intriguing literature, past, present and future. One of the proven tools in our pedagogical toolbox is a wholesome and positive experience in Israel, the birthplace of our nation, the stuff of living dreams. The connection can be formed in Tel Aviv, the Galil and the Negev. However, let not our transient political views of the moment deny our children Jerusalem the Golden. 

In my experience, our younger generation truly yearns for spirituality, authenticity, positivity and deep connection. To me, this cry out of the place and concept that is Yerushalayim is literally the place of our historic, religious and national connection. Furthermore, in an increasingly lonely, disconnected, and alienated world of virtual and augmented reality, arguably, the sphere of prayer, study, Jewish lifecycle, law and custom is precisely where a person can feel a depth of belonging, spirituality and purpose most closely. To provide such positive Jewish and Israel connection, we must leave politics, social media debates, and Western biases against Israel all at the door. The more proactive we are in providing a range of opportunities to explore genuine Jewish traditional practices and places, the more the warmth and richness of Jewish life can help recover and rejuvenate the Jewish passions of our wavering youth of today. 

For 30 years, Aish has been running successful educational tours to Israel, and has run six such programs during this summer alone. As a rule, we leave party and religious politics far away from these formative Jewish experiences. Furthermore, our educational outlook and modus operandi has always been focused on identifying positively with Israel and being Jewish, as opposed to building a Jewish identity around political protest or the centrality of antisemitism and Jew hatred. Let us continue to celebrate the milestones of millennial achievements for which our people dreamed. Living their manifestation involves embracing the reality of standing at the Western Wall, walking the hallowed, golden cobbled streets of the Old City, and being genuine all-weather friends of Israel. If we scale up such a proven approach of Jewish engagement for our 16-year-olds, then when they arrive on campus, Jewish pride and Israel advocacy can be reignited, like Rabbi Sack’s generation, across universities nationwide. To echo the words of the Prophet, wherever we and our children reside, we will not forget you, O Jerusalem. 

Rabbi Naftali Schiff is CEO of Aish, JRoots, Gift and the Family of Jewish Futures organizations. He is also a member of the Standing Committee of the Conference of European Rabbis (CER).