Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Reprint - Zionist Youth Movements

Back to the future?

The following article came out in Midstream magazine, a North American
Zionist magazine, in 1988. It was actually written in 1987, making it
a quarter century old. I had by that time made aliya to Israel,
completely adjusted, and even was married with a baby at the time. I
will not reveal to you how many years older I am now, a quarter
century later.

Anyway, Midstream at the time was not on line, and few other things
were. I do not think this piece was fully published on line until
recently, but I stumbled across it on the educational resources page
of the World Zionist Organization. (Many years back I may have posted
a draft of it on my list and blog.)

I was hoping you would find it of interest:

On Zionist Youth Movements
About: This article is brought to you by the Hagshama Department
Author: Steven Plaut Originally published as: Published May 1988
Midstream, Subscription Dept. 633 3rd Avenue - 21st Floor New York, NY

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

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 said THAT in
1988!! -- SP). 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

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. Affter 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 recall 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 50 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

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

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

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

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 Jewish 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 (emissaries), 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 really to 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. (And that was BEFORE
most kibbutzim in Israel went bankrupt - SP)

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 by 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 play a 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, the causes of the
Left liberal political agenda may or 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

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