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Youth Movements in Israel


Glorious Past, Uncertain Future

Whereas the diaspora movements were built on hopes and dreams, the members who actually moved to Eretz Israel set about actively trying to bring those hopes to fruition.
Songs around the campfire, nature trips and exercises in good citizenship form the foundations of scores of youth movements around the world. Millions of children and teenagers in a hundred countries attend regular meetings, pledge allegiance to their groups and learn the values passed on to them by their leaders.
In Israel, youth movements have played a role that is unparalleled anywhere else in the world. The Zionist youth movements have far exceeded the scope and depth of groups in other countries. Their proudest achievement is not expressed in the multitude of leaders in the spheres of government, academia and business although there are plenty -but rather, their greatest glory is the State of Israel itself.
No other country attributes a large part in its establishment to the concerted efforts of thousands of young people acting through the framework of an active network of ideologically-based youth movements.
Ever since general youth movements were founded in 19th century Germany, the overwhelming majority of them have emphasized such universal values as good citizenship and patriotism, while group activities have always included hikes, nature trips and the like.
The early German youth movements were a response to the industrial revolution which brought millions of people to the cities. Yearning for the countryside, they sought every opportunity to visit rural areas. In time, youth movements were established which sponsored frequent out-of-town trips. Afternoon meetings quickly became an important part of the participants' lives, as the groups engaged in lengthy discussions about politics and other relevant issues of the day.
Youth movements were an idea whose time had come. In the early 1900's, Lord Baden Powell established the British Scout Movement with the backing of the royal family. He built an apolitical movement based on good deeds, equality, openness to all and the brotherhood of man.
The idea caught on, in Britain and around the world. Sitting around the campfire, scout leaders would teach their young charges values of universal importance. It didn't take long, however, for people to realize that the same youth group framework was ideally suited to ideologically-motivated educational experiences.
The Zionist movements were among those that seized the opportunity to build ideological youth organizations. Seeking a means to build successive generations of activists, the early Zionists embraced the youth group framework, creating programs that combined fun and games, social interaction, lessons in good civics and the ideological tenets of the sponsoring movement.
Most of the Zionist youth movements trace their roots to the Diaspora. In Central and Eastern Europe, when a Jewish state was still little more than a dream, young people who shared similar ideological visions of that state banded together in groups such as Shomer Hatzair and Betar. As their members began arriving in Palestine, the Old World frameworks were adapted to local reality.
Whereas the Diaspora movements were built on hopes and dreams, the members who actually moved to Eretz Israel set about actively trying to bring those hopes to fruition. While lengthy discussions about Zionism remained an important part of each movement, often keeping young members awake late into the night, physical labor aimed at settling the land -took center stage.
It wasn't an easy transition for most of the new pioneers. Life in Eastern European villages had not prepared these Jews for the extreme physical labor and constant hardships that awaited them in the promised land. Many immigrants failed in their quests to build new lives, and not all of the youth movements successfully planted roots in Palestine.
Nevertheless, every political stream had its youth movement, ranging from Shomer Hatzair and Noar Oved VeLomed on the left to Betar on the right. While children of the yishuv (the pre-state Jewish community in Palestine) might have chosen a particular movement because it happened to be the most popular group in the neighborhood, once they belonged they would fervently advocate their movement's political perspective.
Zionist youth movements in the pre-state period were built around the central principle of hagshama, or fulfillment. Specifically, hagshama referred to settling the land. The ultimate goal of every Zionist youth movement member was to join a garin, or settlement nucleus, and help to build a kibbutz. (Their Diaspora predecessors had shared the vision of hagshama: the first step in their fulfillment was to make aliya -emigrate to Eretz Israel.)
The Scouts, or Tsofim, which reached Israel from Britain in the 1920's, bucked the local trend toward politically affiliated youth movements. It began as and remains to this day -unaligned politically. Rather than espousing the values and principles of a specific political stream, the movement teaches good citizenship and encourages its members to give all they can to society.
To this day, Israeli youth group activists grow up in their movements. It is not at all uncommon to find adults who have been friends since preschool. After playing informally in the neighborhood, most Israeli children join a youth movement, attend at least two activities per week and build strong social ties that extend far beyond the confines of formal programming.
The ideological connections do not end with graduation from high school. In a sense, graduation is only the beginning. Many activists join special army units in the Nahal corps. "Nahal" is the Hebrew acronym for Fighting Pioneer Youth. Young adults who join Nahal divide their army service between training for elite combat duty and building a new settlement somewhere in the country.
Scores of kibbutzim, in every corner of Israel, were founded by Nahal units comprised of graduates of one or another of the youth movements. The Scouts, for example, have established 22 kibbutzim around the country, and they continue to send garinim to existing kibbutzim and new settlements every year.
In the years preceding independence in 1948, the youth movements played a central role in the battle for a Jewish state. Most members of the Palmah, the fighting arm of the Haganah (the pre-state army), came from youth movements, the most prominent of which were Noar Oved, Shomer Hatzair, Mahanot Olim and Scouts.
As Shaul Biber's personal recollections (see box) illustrate, young people occupied positions at the vanguard of the struggle for independence. Peer pressure played an important role in fostering activism, but that pressure stemmed from a deep commitment to the shared goal of establishing a Jewish state. From a very young age, children gathered at meeting houses for frequent movement activities. These included in-depth ideological discussions that focused on the role each child could play in building the state. Issues such as school often took second priority to the greater good.
When the State of Israel was established in 1948, the need to conduct activities clandestinely disappeared. At the same time, the Israel Defense Force was established, and a full-fledged army took responsibility for defending the state.
In the 1950's, however, new challenges replaced the old ones. Hundreds of thousands of new immigrants poured into a newborn state which was hard-pressed to absorb them. With little more to offer than its human resources, the country drew heavily on this reserve. The same young people who had risen to the challenge of settling the land and paving the way toward independence responded to the needs of the masses of new Israelis who arrived here with little more than the clothes on their backs.
Coming as they did from allover Europe, the Middle East and beyond, the immigrants brought with them cultural baggage and traditions of dazzling variety. Many did not know how to read or write in any language, let alone Hebrew, and young sabras accepted the challenge of helping to integrate their brothers into Israeli society.
Mahanot Olim, which was established JY young Israeli scouts who wanted to reach out to their newly-arrived peers, took root in Tel Aviv, Haifa and other areas where large concentrations of immigrants were located. This helping hand provided the boost needed by many olim to merge into society, and Mahanot Olim became an important pioneering force. The first kibbutz established by Mahanot Olim members, Beit Hashita, thrives to his day.
Much of the credit for many of the rapid advances which have transformed Israel in 40 years -from a poor, backward country into a strong, modern land belongs to the pioneering young people who fought for independence and helped absorb the land's new residents. Their contributions cannot be minimized. At the same time, the very success which brings them honor also paved the way for today's reality in which pioneering values are harder to maintain.
Thus, while the Israel Hebrew Scouts Association remains the largest youth movement in the country, with 50,000 members (another 25,000 non-Jewish Scouts boost the total figure), the number of members who opt for Nahal service has fallen from 800 per year to just 35-400 currently.
Bnei Akiva, the Orthodox youth group which enjoys the second largest following of all youth movements, identifies closely with the tenets of religious settlement. The pioneering spirit has fared more successfully among these camps than elsewhere in Israeli society, and the numbers of Bnei Akiva youth who join new communities bears this out.
Israel Roses of the Scouts Association attributes the drop in youth movement membership to the diminishing emphasis on pioneering values throughout Israeli society, the development of a more materialistic culture and the particular problems encountered by the kibbutz movements in recent years. "Nahal has become less attractive to young people," he says, "because the image of the kibbutz has fallen in the public's eyes. Also, fewer scout leaders come from the kibbutzim, so today's scouts often lack the positive kibbutz role models that previous groups enjoyed."
Nobody would deny that Israel's youth movements have changed since their glorious heyday, just as Israeli youth -and every aspect of life in the country -have changed. However, Roses doesn't view the change negatively.
"The Scouts in Israel is first and foremost a pioneering movement," he says. Roses' direct interest is his own organization, but his comments apply to all of the country's Zionist youth movements. "We have, and always will have, a high ideological content."
The greatest challenge facing the country's youth movements today is the task of instilling a passionate belief in the importance of the Jewish homeland in their followers. With that achieved, the youth movements will be able to sustain their historic role and continue to enhance the quality of life in Israel.

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