What happens when teaching diaspora Jews about occupation gets ‘too political’

An item on Israel’s top news program falsely accused a volunteer program that allows young diaspora Jews to directly engage with the occupation, of sending its members to clash with IDF soldiers, causing it to lose its main source of funding. Now one of ‘Achvat Amim’s organizers is speaking out: ‘I hadn’t experienced being lied about and mischaracterized in public in such an extreme way before.’

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)

Karen Isaacs was on her way to her sister’s wedding in Toronto when Israel’s most-watched news program ran a primetime item accusing her and her partner Daniel of sending diaspora Jews into violent confrontations with IDF soldiers in the West Bank. Channel 2 openly based the segment almost entirely on information provided to it by radical right-wing group Ad Kan, which had put Isaacs’ organization, Achvat Amim, in its crosshairs.

According to the report, Achvat Amim participants took part in “violent clashes” with Israeli soldiers at Sumud Freedom Camp in the South Hebron Hills. Sumud was a nonviolent direct action by diaspora Jews, Palestinians and Israelis meant to allow the Palestinian residents of Sarura to to return to their homes, decades after being displaced. Ad Kan, which has a history of “infiltrating” left-wing organizations and recording their every move with hidden cameras, this time relied on videos and materials that were openly published by the activists themselves.

Channel 2 ran their report without any comment from Isaacs or Roth, perhaps because they were out of the country at the time. Meanwhile, the item focused squarely on Achvat Amim’s funding, which largely comes from Masa Israel Journey, a Jewish Agency-funded organization which offers young Jews study, internship, and volunteer opportunities in Israel. Weeks after it aired, Masa decided to pull its funding from the organization. Since then, Achvat Amim has launched a crowdfunding campaign to ensure its program can continue running.

Achvat Amim (“Solidarity of Nations”) is a five-month volunteer program in Jerusalem that allows young diaspora Jews to directly engage with the reality of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through human rights work and critical education. Based on the core value of self-determination for all peoples, the program brings young adults from North America to work alongside organizations that seek to end the occupation. It began as the brainchild of Isaacs and her partner, Daniel Roth, two Canadian-Israelis who moved to Israel in November 2011, both of whom grew up in Hashomer Hatzair, a global left-wing Zionist youth movement that places a strong emphasis on social justice. The first Achvat Amim cohort arrived in the spring of 2014.

A Palestinian and diaspora Jewish activist set up wooden pole to build the Sumud Freedom Camp’s main tent, Sarura, West Bank, May 19, 2017. (Ahmad al-Bazz/Activestills.org)
A Palestinian and diaspora Jewish activist set up wooden pole to build the Sumud Freedom Camp’s main tent, Sarura, West Bank, May 19, 2017. (Ahmad al-Bazz/Activestills.org)

“We started the program after asking ourselves what are we able to contribute to the movement for peace and justice here,” Issacs says. As experienced educators and community organizers, she and Roth say they believe Achvat Amim allows young diaspora Jews to wrestle with one of the most pressing challenges facing Israel while directly contributing and connecting with Israelis and Palestinians working for a brighter future.

The program budget is tuition-based, meaning that each participant is responsible for fundraising their own tuition. Masa, which is funded by Jewish Agency, provides grants and scholarships to some participants. “We started the program in a scrappy, grassroots way without any funding,” Isaacs notes. “We saw that there was a need and we jumped into creating this framework as volunteers.” [Full disclosure: I received funding from Masa in order to participate in a five-month intensive Arabic semester several years ago.]

Eventually, Isaacs and Roth were able to get Achvat Amim recognized by Masa as a new program under the auspices of Hashomer Hatzair. “We have always been transparent with them about the content of the program. Until now it was an initiative that Masa had found to be valuable and important,” she says.

What was your reaction to the Channel 2 report?

I was surprised and angry that the mainstream media would air a story handed to them by an extreme right-wing NGO without asking questions or doing any basic research. I understood just how easy it is to spread misinformation. There was also a sense of anxiety. I hadn’t experienced being lied about and mischaracterized in public, or really at all, in such an extreme way before.

The Israeli media labeled what happened at Sumud Freedom Camp as “violent clashes” between soldiers and activists. What actually happened there?

The residents and guests of Sarura were completely nonviolent. There were, however, a number of times that the IDF came and raided the camp, behaving violently toward residents and guests and without presenting any official orders. The people at the camp nonviolently resisted the soldiers’ attempts to confiscate their belongings, which the Israeli media referred to as “clashes.” Soldiers arrived in the dark while we were finishing up a barbecue and preparing for a film screening. They came with other armed men not in uniform who refused to explain who they were, and began pushing us, ripping down tents, stealing supplies and belongings.

International Jewish activists chant in front of an Israeli soldier during a night raid on the Sumud Freedom Camp, Sarura, West Bank, May 20, 2017. (Ahmad al-Bazz/Activestills.org)
International Jewish activists chant in front of an Israeli soldier
during a night raid on the Sumud Freedom Camp, Sarura, West Bank, May 20, 2017. (Ahmad al-Bazz/Activestills.org)

The Sumud camp in Sarura brought together Israelis, Palestinians, and Jews from around the world to take part in entirely legal activities — clearing, cleaning, and making livable the area of the cave home of a local Palestinian family who were working to bring life back to the land they had left two decades ago. Contrary to what has been reported in the Israeli media, there was nothing illegal about this, nor was the area ever declared a closed military zone. Achvat Amim participants who took part did so independently in time that was not organized by the program, and were not present for anything that could be construed as civil disobedience or disobeying authorities, as is consistent with our policy and commitment to the safety and security of our participants.

Furthermore, as an educator, and as someone running a program and responsible for the participants on every level from physical to emotional safety, I certainly do not encourage or allow any of the participants to break the law in any way.

Over the past few years we have seen the Israeli government clamping down on human rights activism and thought. Is this part of the same trend?

I believe it is part of the same worrying trend. Ad Kan’s report, as well as subsequent reports in the media, were an attempt to push Ad Kan’s right-wing agenda of delegitimizing any criticism of the occupation. Unfortunately Masa, which until now had found what we do to be valuable and even worthy of being highlighted as one of their more unique programs, is giving in to pressure from the extreme right wing and personally targeting us. Masa, sadly, is also conflating our personal stances and actions with the program we run and the participants who join it.

Did you expect something like this to happen at some point?

Given the increasing delegitimization of critical thought and the concept of human rights in Israeli society, and the rise of extreme right-wing organizations like Ad Kan, which have become known for targeting left-wing groups committed to human rights, I can’t say I am completely shocked. Unfortunately, in this case they have given in to outside pressure and have chosen to pull support from a program that deals honestly with both the beauty and the hardships of this place, while allowing participants to build solid and long-lasting connections rooted in genuine experience.

Sara Eisen, Masa’s spokeswoman, said that your organization’s programming veered into “outright political activity,” and thus crossed a line. Masa also supports yeshivas that send their volunteers to the West Bank, yet does not consider this “outright political activity.” Why do you think they are specifically targeting Achvat Amim?

I think they are targeting us because they’re under a lot of pressure from the right wing in Israel and in Jewish communities abroad to fall in line with mainstream thought. That is, things are only considered “political” when they have to do with supporting human or political rights for Palestinians, and that being “political” is considered a bad thing.

Of course there are many Masa programs that are quite political, or whose directors are activists for many causes, including the settlement movement. Masa and major Jewish institutions are both responding to, and shaping, the Jewish world. If the growing movement of diaspora Jews who are unwilling to continue accepting simple answers about Israel stands up for real, open, and meaningful educational institutions, they will shift.

Masa is making a choice here, and that choice is to draw the line at political activity that involves actually taking action and supporting something that should be really basic – the human rights of people living under occupation, and the idea of self-determination for all peoples, not only the Jewish people.