Defunding Achvat Amim Will Drive Young American Jews Away from Israel

Hailey Levien Image
Hailey Levien
on October 19, 2017

When Masa Israel defunded Achvat Amim I was unsurprised. It’s a familiar pattern: A progressive program loses support from a mainstream Jewish organization because of their politics. This is my story, but it’s also the story of progressive diaspora Jews fighting for peace and dignity for Israelis and Palestinians alike.

My Jewish identity was ambiguous until I went to Israel on a Birthright trip. Being there and exploring my Jewishness ultimately helped me realize my deep connection to the land. Loving the physical place came as a surprise to me, a secular Jew from California.

On the last night of the trip, we were in Tel Aviv. There was a shooting in a nearby shuk, where nine people tragically died. A young man in my group reacted strongly saying, “This is why we should kill all of the Muslims.” There was no consequence for his violent words and no conversation amongst the group debriefing what had happened.

My newly formed Jewish identity, inherently connected to Israel, felt violated. What I had begun to see as central to my Jewishness, the Jewish-democratic state of Israel, stood starkly opposed to the sentiment my fellow Birthright-er was sharing. It became a priority at that point for me to reestablish my Jewish identity in a way that promoted equality, human rights and tikkun olam. I realized that my Jewish identity is rooted in Israel, which is why I intend to spend time on the ground there fighting for a two-state solution and the country’s moral core.  

Since then, I have twice been prevented from spending time in Israel with an organized program that caters toward American Jews. When I applied for an Onward Israel program this past summer, I was rejected. The official rationale given was that I did not have a clear “direction” to be placed in a suitable internship. Actually, my intention in the application was crystal clear: I wanted to engage with pro-Israel, anti-occupation work. When I went back to the Onward Israel organizers to try and contest my judgement, I was met with more obfuscation. I began to suspect that my “lack of focus” was coded language for my political opinions.

It was another serious blow to my Jewish identity and left me feeling shut out from my community and Israel.

When looking for other ways to get back to Israel affordably, I found another Masa program: Achvat Amim – Solidarity of Nations. It’s a program that aims to create long-lasting relationships between Jews and Palestinians in order to support coexistence and political action. Up until last month, it was highly subsidized by Masa, who, according to their website, is funded by the Government of Israel, the Jewish Agency for Israel, the Jewish Federations of North America, and is supported by Keren Hayesod-United Israel Appeal (UIA). Achvat Amim was, until last month, a reasonable program for me to go on financially.

Now that the scholarship funding has been pulled, I may not have the resources get to return to Israel as I’d hoped.

The defunding of Achvat Amim sends a clear message that my voice, and the voices of other outspoken, progressive, pro-Israel Jews are threatening and are not welcome on Israel programs.

Defunding programs like Achvat Amim points to a larger, scarier trend. Critical voices are less and less welcome in Israel with each passing year. Take, for example, the travel ban on boycott supporters and the Im Tirzu campaign against human rights advocates.

Furthermore, without critical voices, who will stand up for democracy and human rights in Israel? Who will share the hard truths – that Israel’s status quo is unsustainable, and that the occupation is putting Israel’s Jewish and democratic future at risk and compromising Jewish values of social justice, human rights, equality, tikkun olam? Shutting out progressive Jewish voices not only hurts those of us who would otherwise have a thriving, healthily critical relationship with Israel, it also threatens Israel’s survival.

Despite efforts to push my voice out of Israel, I will continue to pursue Achvat Amim and I will not remain silent. It is worth it for me to try my hardest to get back to Israel – where I first began to connect with my Jewish identity. But now that this program has been defunded and Israel continues moving down this frightening path, I have to ask: How many more young Jews will Israel attempt to shut out before it loses us all?

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