Borderline View: Bnei Akiva - then & now

If the movement is to remain relevant, it must use its members' ideological fervor to meet the new social challenges of a rapidly changing society.

david newman 88 (photo credit: )
david newman 88
(photo credit: )
Last week the religious Zionist youth movement Bnei Akiva celebrated its 80th anniversary. This is an ambivalent celebration for me. On the one hand, there was a period in my life when this movement took up most of my time. As a teenager and then a university student, it took precedence above almost all else, and it played a significant part in my eventual decision to relocate from the UK to Israel, along with so many of my compatriots at that time. More recently, some of my now-adult children spent their formative years as active members of this movement, which presented them with challenges and made them into more caring and responsible citizens. But at the same time, I have watched as this movement, with all of its energy and commitment, has become one of the most right-wing political players in Israeli society. A movement which used to be characterized by religious moderation and an attempt to reach out beyond the religious-secular and Right-Left divide has transformed itself into a right-wing, Land of Israel, pro-settler movement. Many of its youthful adherents have also adopted more stringently Orthodox lifestyles which, were it not for the differences in outward appearance and dress codes, would place much of their daily behavior within the world of the haredi communities. BACK IN my teenage days, one of the major socialization activities of the Zionist youth movements was to send their members to Israel for a year of hachshara on a kibbutz (long before the concept of a "gap" year became part of the English language). Bnei Akiva members spent a formative year on a religious kibbutz, the English and Scandinavians at Kibbutz Lavi, the French at Kibbutz Ein Hanatziv and the Americans at Kibbutzim Sde Eliahu, Tirat Zvi, Yavne or Sa'ad. Bnei Akiva, like its sister youth movements such as Habonim Dror and Hanoar Hatzioni, was successful in persuading its members to come and live in Israel. Of the 50 Brits and Scandinavians with whom I shared a year on Kibbutz Lavi back in the mid-1970s, the majority reside in Israel today, replete with successful and diverse work experiences, adult children and not a few grandchildren. But that was then, and now is now. Many of the Zionist youth movements no longer exist. They failed to adapt their values in line with the changing social and cultural norms of Israeli society. Their ideas remained rooted back in the 1950s and '60s, some even in the prestate days, while society moved on from its own time warp and became transformed into a modern, post-industrial, post-cooperative and post-agricultural society, where the challenges facing its youth are significantly different from those of 30 and 40 years ago. Bnei Akiva - unlike its parent political movement, the National Religious Party (formerly the Mizrahi) - is one of the few movements which succeeded in surviving into the present era. Its messages have changed, but not - in the view of this writer - necessarily for the good. Within Israel it has spawned a system of educational institutions, notably the high school yeshivot (for boys) and the ulpanot (for girls) which, while remaining an integral part of the state educational system, also instill political and ideological values in the minds and hearts of their students which largely determines the right-wing political preferences of these people as they move into young adulthood. Their determination to show, unlike the haredi world, that one can integrate into almost every sphere of daily life while retaining their religious beliefs and rituals has not, unfortunately, created the bridge between the two worlds. Their increased segregation in their own exclusive residential neighborhoods and communities, their move toward a more Orthodox lifestyle and their focus on ultra-nationalist politics has located them at one end of the social and political spectrum. BNEI AKIVA has always lived with an inbuilt schizophrenia, not knowing which of its two shoulders to look over. It is a schizophrenia which is almost impossible to overcome. In the past it used to look over its left shoulder to ensure that it was given a kashrut certificate for being Zionist enough by the world of secular Zionism, while today it looks over its right shoulder at the Orthodox world for recognition that it is Orthodox enough. As its members have integrated into the wider society, the need for recognition from the world of secular Zionism is no longer relevant, not least because they view themselves as the inheritors of the pioneering mantle from those that they often arrogantly proclaim "have lost their former values." There are those who have rebelled against this religious and political extremism. Today one can find religious youth involved in a multitude of social welfare projects in poor neighborhoods and development towns, working alongside members of the many other youth and Scouts organizations who undertake difficult social, educational and welfare challenges in their own "gap" year between high school and army. Taking into account that these youths then go on to serve three or four years in the army, the choice to contribute an additional year to social projects is indeed remarkable. Other Bnei Akiva members are unhappy with the movement's increasing religiosity, while some challenge its increased right-wing politicization and the growing influence of religious leaders and rabbis as the people who lay down the social and political guidelines of the movement. At almost the same time that Bnei Akiva celebrates its 80th anniversary, Kibbutz Lavi in the Lower Galilee celebrates 60 years since its foundation. Lavi was founded by, among others, members of the Bachad movement which, in the UK, was a precursor of Bnei Akiva. Unlike the vast majority of kibbutzim which have undergone privatization and have completely shed their former collective organizational principles, Lavi remains a kibbutz in almost all areas of social, economic and cultural behavior. It retains a strong element of both religious and political moderation and internal diversity. It is a remaining jewel in the crown of the old style religious Zionism. It reminds us of the sort of challenges which the youth of Bnei Akiva have met in the past, and which they could still meet in contemporary social and economic contexts, if only they turned back from the path of political extremism. The commitment and enthusiasm of this and the other youth movements is unquestioned. But if Bnei Akiva is to remain relevant for another 80 years, it needs to move back from a partisan political cause and to use the ideological fervor of its members to meet the new social challenges of a rapidly changing society. The writer is professor of political geography at Ben-Gurion University and editor of the International Journal of Geopolitics.