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On Zionist Youth Movements



Plaut examines what the role of Zionist youth movements should be in encouraging aliyah.

I grew up in a Zionist youth movement. Like most of the members of all Zionist youth organizations, the movement itself played a central role in my childhood and teen-age years, and perhaps even today exercises a certain amount of influence upon me. For many years the movement was the center of gravity in social matters. I have many fond memories of those years; some of my closest friends today are old movement comrades.

The movements, of course, strive to be much more than social organizations. Each group has a specific agenda, with immigration to Israel playing a particularly important role. Each has a political self-definition and identity. Few other organizations could generate in teen-agers and college students the same feelings of importance, righteousness, and of serving the grand cause.

Today I am advancing reluctantly toward middle age. I am also an Israeli. I intend here to put aside nostalgia in order to engage in a critical analysis of Zionist youth movements from an adult perspective. I am sure many will not agree with it; perhaps it may serve as a catalyst for dialogue.

Zionist youth organizations are worth discussing for the simple reason that they are the future of and in many ways the most important bodies within organized Zionism in the Diaspora. To some extent they produce future Israelis, although this is not their sole function. At minimum they are extremely influential over their own membership.

The weaknesses of the Zionist youth movements are so obvious when viewed in retrospect through adult eyes that it seems hard to explain why they have been and remain so difficult to identify for those participating directly in those movements. I will discuss several of these shortcomings that are in my opinion the most harmful and disturbing.

I find the most problematic aspect of the Zionist movement in general and of the Zionist youth movements in particular to be their divisions and allegiances along the internal party lines of Israel. Each organization seems to see itself as the overseas appendage of a specific Israeli party, following that party's lead and line. Each organization believes its raison d'etre is to act as a Diaspora base, supplying personnel and political support for its Israeli counterpart.

This partisan politicization of the Zionist movement is in fact only a natural extension to the Diaspora of the extensive over-politicization of all aspects of life in Israel, upon which I have commented elsewhere. Indeed it extends beyond the Zionist movement proper and into the general Jewish (and occasionally non-Jewish) communities in the form of partisan support for Israeli political organizations, e.g. Peace Now, Gush Emunim, and so on.

Of all the problems that could and should be addressed by organized Zionism in the Diaspora, or as I prefer to think of it -the Zionist 'opposition" within Diaspora Jewry, can think of none that would be less relevant and less beneficial than the question of the "proper stance" vis-a-vis Israeli elections. After all, what importance or relation do these elections have to the issues facing Diapora Jewry, to the questions of individual and communal Jewish identity, Jewish education, assimilation, Anti-Semitism, or even aliyah?

The partisan mobilization consigns the Zionist movement to marginality because it focuses energy and attention on elections whose outcomes do not directly affect Diaspora Jews. The latter are by and large ignorant of what those elections are all about and the issues at play. In any case, election issues like monetary policy and urban planning are not exactly the stuff from which dramatic Zionist rallying cries are made.

Several Zionist youth organizations are associated with specific kibbutz associations in Israel. I can re"' call impassioned debates among American movement colleagues, sometimes running into the wee hours, over the advantages and disadvantages of these kibbutz associations. I would wager that not one Israeli kibbutz member in five can clearly explain or cares the least about the differences among these associations. (Perhaps the picture was different 30 years ago.) Among non-kibbutz Israelis virtually no one knows or cares. Yet in the United States the Zionist youth movements splintered and passionately "battled" one another over such irrelevant lines of distinction.

It is ironic to note that the Israeli parties themselves receive very little benefit from this Diaspora politicization. For example, the flow of American immigrants to kibbutzim is minuscule; many who join are not movement graduates, and some are not Jewish. Of movement graduates who join kibbutzim, many subsequently leave, and many also leave Israel. The net increment (inflow minus outflow) from all overseas youth movements to all kibbutzim together is at most a few score per year, and probably at times is negative. Financial support from the Diaspora organizations to their Israeli counterparts is also small, and in some cases it too is probably negative on net. Even the political support for specific Israeli parties generated in the Diaspora by Zionist and non-Zionist organizations is not of great value, given the natural (and usually justified) inclination of Israelis to dismiss as meddling attempts from abroad, including those from Zionist Jews, to preach to them about their political alternatives.

These anachronistic partisan loyalties condemn much of the Zionist youth movement to impotence and render it unable to exploit the scale economies and momentum that would accompany organizational amalgamation. Even religious distinctions would not stand in the way of amalgamation as party loyalties do. American Jews are generally much more tolerant of one another's religious (or non-religious) inclinations than are Israelis; the religious heterogeneity of most Diaspora Zionist organizations is a testament to the feasibility of amalgamation.

Another major problem of the Zionist movements is the role assigned to aliyah and the way in which the "aliyah issue" is represented. I say this not because I think aliyah is unimportant (I think it is important) nor because I think American Jews should not make aliyah (I think they should). The problem is that aliyah is a major life decision, something on the same order of magnitude as marriage or parenthood. In the youth movements, however, it has been reduced to a slogan.

People do not make life decisions -at least not successful ones- on the basis of slogans. Aliyah must stem from a careful examination of one's goals, ideology, religious outlook, world-view, etc. It is really not a one-shot "decision," but rather an ongoing chain of decisions that continues long after physical relocation to Israel.

Even serious and well-considered aliyah decisions often end in reverse migration within a few years. Frivolous aliyah decisions seldom succeed.

Part of the problem is that the Zionist youth movements, while excessively aliyah-centered, are insufficiently Jewish- and educationally-centered. Herzl once said that in order to get the Jews out of Egypt Moses first had to get Egypt out of the Jews. The Zionist organizations cannot hope to create an aliyah stream unless they first succeed in a campaign of serious Jewish education. Aliyah is a byproduct of deep J ewish commitment and consciousness. Because there is little Jewish consciousness, and weak Jewish identity, there is little aliyah. Interestingly, this is very poorly understood in Israel. Israel continues to pour significant amounts of money into the network of shlichim, whose function is supposed to be the encouragement of aliyah. A cabinet minister for absorption is also supposed to be working at encouraging aliyah.

Perhaps it is time to re-examine the effectiveness of the shaliach idea. In most cases, the shaliach supplies some technical information or expedites some bureaucratic chore involved in aliyah -but it is rare that he or she inspires the decision to make aliyah itself. To increase aliyah, fundamental Jewish identity issues must be addressed.

The 'sloganization" of aliyah in the youth movements has a number of negative repercussions. When aliyah is the central focus of youthful enthusiasm, many forget to ask the obvious next question, "After aliyah, what?" There are many movement graduates who optimistically made the immigration decision completely unprepared for life and career thereafter.

Zionist youth organizations are in many cases indifferent toward career preparation and in some cases downright hostile toward it. In the kibbutz-oriented movements career goals are often considered ideologically impure, or are at least relegated to secondary importance, since the future oleh is to dwell in an agricultural communal proletariat. Many seem to have been convinced that in kibbutz life skills, training, and education are expendable. Of course they are not. And in Israeli life outside the kibbutz confines, these things are certainly no less vital than they would be in America.

When aliyah is seen as the grand solution, other life problems may remain unaddressed. It is a truism among veteran olim that every single problem someone has before aliyah will remain with him after aliyah, with some new ones to boot. Life in Israel can be extremely rewarding, but no one claims that it is easy. It is probably impossible to really prepare someone for many of the tribulations of absorption. But to tackle absorption without some direction in terms of one's professional goals means that additional life crises and problems must be tackled at the same time.

There are countless stories about movement graduates who have immigrated to Israel, joined kibbutzim, and then -ten years down the line -leave the kibbutz only to find themselves unskilled, under-qualified, bereft of savings, and with a family to support. Under these circumstances it is not surprising that many leave Israel altogether. Given a choice between a fresh start in America vs. blue-collar or low-rung clerical work and salary in Israel, few breadwinners over 30 will choose the latter.

In some of the youth movements the urgency with which aliyah is stressed means in effect that immigration takes place by age 20 or so, or else it is "too late." This reminds me of how single women past a certain early age are relegated to spinsterhood in some societies.

To arrive in Israel armed with professional skills, or at least with a clear decision about career direction, is to win half the battle. It also makes aliyah a more rewarding experience. The youth movements do not seem to have digested the fact that Israel's swamps have been drained and its roads have been built. The pioneering challenges of today have changed. Israel of the 1980s is an advanced modern society full of problems. The modern pioneer, the immigrant who wishes to devote himself to attempts at resolving those problems, needs more than the fervor of his Zionist commitment. He needs skills, degrees, training and of course infinite patience and energy, to succeed.

Ninety-seven percent of Israelis have voted with their feet against kibbutz life. Kibbutzim are increasingly marginal to Israeli society in all senses. Small-town agricultural communal life is in many ways the most unnatural and the most difficult to adapt to for those raised in urban, individualist, Western society. The centrality of the kibbutz for so much of organized Zionism often backfires in that it steers many away from urban and suburban life-styles available in Israel, the ones chosen by the vast majority of the Israelis, the ones most amenable for a Western Jew. I am behind those who choose to live on kibbutzim. I am also behind those who choose to live in urban or suburban Israel. There is nothing morally superior about the former.

The aliyah issue is actually only one side of a more general problem, namely the role of "youth" and of the youth movement. This is particularly manifested in the attitudes of youth organizations and their members toward the relative importance of education vs. activism. The movements revel in the idea that education, or at least Zionist education, can and should be completed by the late teens, if not sooner. Thereafter the movement member becomes an educator and activist. The result is a population of teen-agers and those in their early twenties convinced that they already know all there is to know (at least all that is important to know) about Israel, Zionism, Judaism, politics, sociology, etc.

Such an attitude is of course a sure path to intellectual shallowness and closed-mindedness, and perhaps even anti-intellectualism. Somehow the idea gets conveyed in the youth movements that solutions and answers are possible without serious, long years of deep and difficult analysis and experience. For college-age movement members, Zionist activities often consist of campus activism and agitprop, but not serious education and learning. Many of them move to Israel thinking they have the answers to Israel's problems in their suitcase.

The feeling that answers are already known to movement seniors is reflected in other ways. Among the Zionist movements, several define themselves as Socialist, and at least one as Marxist. Members and individuals in other organizations also sometimes follow Leftish fads. Zionist youth movement graduates have always been active on the far Left of the political spectrum, both within Israel and on American campuses. For some, the transition from the Zionist Left to just plain campus Leftism (and anti-Zionism) comes easily -another symptom of the shallowness of movement education.

Marxism, of course, has taken on more of the trappings of a cult than of a serious social science and "Socialism" is no more than the slogan of the economically illiterate. The continuing romance with Socialist rhetoric of so much of the Zionist movement damages that movement in many ways. Though this is not the place to go into details, I believe the main source of Israel's economic difficulties is the continuing attempt by its political elite to run the economy along Socialist lines. The last thing Israel can use is more "Socialism," that is, more bureaucracy, regulation, government control of the economy, and taxation. Immigrants who come to Israel with Socialist banners become part of the economic problem, not the solution. Ironically, "Socialism" as a slogan and ideal is dead in Israel for virtually all those outside of the kibbutz, and perhaps even for many inside. Socialist preaching is a sure method for being dismissed as irrelevant or just ignored.

Within the Diaspora it also hinders the positive role the Zionist organizations can play. The bulk of the non-Orthodox community has replaced Jewish self-interest and survival with the American liberal agenda as their political identity, indeed as their religion. The role of Zionism should be to confront American Jewish assimilationism and present an alternative based on Jewish interests. By singing Socialist tunes the Zionist movement ends up playing the role of Left-wing opposition within the Jewish community, rather than Zionist opposition. "Zionists" are then no more than Jewish liberals in a hurry. In some extreme cases, movement graduates migrate into the Leftist anti-Zionist opposition groups within the Jewish community.

I have been speaking very critically, perhaps severely, of organized Zionist youth movements. I hope my intentions are not misconstrued. I think that in small doses the movements do some positive things, and there is potential for doing much better.

The way for organized Zionism to expand its role and its contribution is to amalgamate its various youth organizations into a very small number of broad and non-political organizations (preferably just one). Organized Zionism should divorce itself from Israeli electoral politics and from kibbutz associations. Its political stance, to the extent that it should have any, should be supporting the broad Israeli electorate on those matters for which consensus exists. Its role within the Diaspora should be first and foremost educational. Its activism within the Jewish community should be over issues of Jewish self-interest and not the American electoral questions of Right and Left. Israel should playa central role. Aliyah should be discussed, even encouraged, but its complexities and difficulties, too, should be addressed. The idea of spending at least part of one's life in Israel should be promoted, but not as a slogan, Education should be a serious, professional, continuing process. Finally, causes of the Left liberal political agenda mayor may not be justified on their own grounds. Regardless, they are not the causes of Jewish self-interest, the Zionist agenda. This should be made crystal clear to all by those in the Zionist movement; first and foremost, they must learn it themselves.

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