The ‘Jewish tent’ just became even smaller

The defunding of an Israel program with a progressive, human rights framework is an affront to all progressive Jews around the world.

By Rebecca Arian

Palestinian, Israelis and diaspora Jews at the Sumud Freedom Camp, Surara, West Bank, May 19, 2017. (Gili Getz)
Palestinian, Israelis and diaspora Jews at the Sumud Freedom Camp, Surara, West Bank, May 19, 2017. (Gili Getz)

Last week, the Jewish Agency announced it would be cutting funding to Achvat Amim (“Solidarity of Nations”), a program offering participants the opportunity to live in Israel and volunteer with organizations dedicated to fostering human rights and coexistence. The Jewish Agency’s decision resulted from participants’ protest activity in Palestinian areas in the West Bank earlier this year. This move is just one of countless examples of mainstream Jewish institutions setting the parameters of the Jewish tent, marking opposition to Israel’s military occupation as its boundary.

The Jewish Agency cited safety concerns as its reason for defunding the program, but Sara Eisen, Masa’s spokeswoman, also claimed that the program’s leaders acted irresponsibly. She stated that once program activity “…veers into outright political activity, it crosses a line.” Masa runs programs and activities that take place in Israeli settlements, yet their decision to defund a program whose participants voluntarily visited a Palestinian area suggests they have no issue with either the safety of participants who visit the West Bank or political activity––as long as that political activity fits within a right-wing framework.

I was the very lucky recent recipient of both the Dorot Fellowship in Israel and the NIF/ Shatil Social Justice Fellowship, but before I was accepted into these programs, I aggressively pursued opportunities to live in Israel and engage in human rights work. As an American Jew, countless opportunities were available to me through Masa, yet before Achvat Amim, there weren’t any programs that would have connected me to the human rights work I sought to engage in. More importantly, I didn’t feel comfortable participating in Masa programs as a Jew who openly opposes Israel’s occupation and military policy.

When Achvat Amim was founded, I felt grateful. With the support of Masa, young Jews like myself, with viewpoints critical of the Israeli government, had an opportunity to engage in the social justice work and personal development. So last week when I learned that the Jewish Agency has decided to cut funding to the program, I couldn’t help but feel that the recently-expanded Jewish tent had closed me and others like me out of its boundaries once again.

The loss of funding to Achvat Amim will have ramifications echoing throughout the Israeli NGO sector and Israeli society at large. When I was a Dorot and Shatil fellow, I contributed to society by building the capacity of Israeli Human Rights NGO Physicians for Human Rights – Israel. In fact, many Israeli human rights NGOs have progressive diaspora Jews on their staff who got their start with the support of fellowships. Cutting funding to Achvat Amim has ramifications on the Israeli social change makers whose work progressive diaspora Jews often come specifically to support.

Achvat Amim leader Karen Isaacs speaks at a Combatants for Peace event in Beit Jala, West Bank. (Rami Ben-Ari)
Achvat Amim leader Karen Isaacs speaks at a Combatants for Peace event in Beit Jala, West Bank. (Rami Ben-Ari)

The defunding of Achvat Amim is also a huge loss to young, progressive diaspora Jews. As a fellow in Israel, I explored my Jewish identity and grew on a deeply personal level. I learned Hebrew, participated in seminars on Jewish history and Israeli life, met Israelis and Palestinians, and gained exposure to the diversity of perspective that exists in Israel and the occupied territories. This helped me to answer questions about my religion, culture, and background, further solidifying my understanding of what it means to be Jewish.

I am the spouse of a Jewish Israeli, and my future Jewish-American-Israeli children will be fourth generation Holocaust survivors. While I once feared the conversations I will have with them one day about undoubtedly complicated Jewish identities, after having engaged in my own identity exploration, I feel equipped to guide them thoughtfully and responsibly. I would never have had this personal growth if I wasn’t selected to be a fellow in these programs, and now future opportunities for progressive diaspora Jews to grow in this way have only been further limited.

The Jewish Agency’s decision to defund Achvat Amim sends a clear message to other progressive diaspora Jews that such personal exploration is possible, but only within specific, right-wing parameters. The boundaries of the Jewish tent have been redrawn yet again.

Rebecca Arian is a New York City-based attorney and past recipient of the Dorot Fellowship and NIF / Shatil Social Justice Fellowship. She tweets at @SaintBecca.