“More than the Jews have kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jews.”
These are the words written by one of the greatest early Zionist leaders, Asher Ginsberg, known better by his pen name - Ahad Ha’am. He wrote this at a very different time for the Jewish people, compared to today, when our ancestors in Europe clung to their traditions and mitzvot to keep them unified in a world filled with persecution and turmoil. To the diverse group of Jewish UCT students that attended the trip to Israel it seems, that in 2016, a new paradigm has emerged. As we walked past Ahad Ha’ams towering grave in the historic Trumpeldor cemetery in central Tel Aviv you can’t help but think that today we are privileged to not only have Shabbat as a unifying factor for the Jewish people but also to say that 70 years after the creation of the State more than the Jews now keep Israel, it is Israel that is keeping the Jews.
Eighty nine years after his death, the Jewish people have achieved what Ahad Ha’am had only dreamed of, our own state, in our ancestral homeland, after 2000 years of wandering and yearning. The State of Israel, as the group began to learn through their tour of old Tel Aviv has become a central pillar of modern Jewish identity in addition to the ritualistic elements that bound us together in the shtetls of old.
Given the current hostilities towards the Jewish people and the Jewish state globally, particularly on university campuses it is more important than ever to protect this pillar of unity and allow for young Jews to be able to articulate their Zionism and connection to Israel. At the same time the growing belligerence in South Africa towards the Jewish people’s right to self-determination is having worrying effects on the resilience and confidence of young Jews. It is harder than ever for them to identify openly as proudly Jewish and Zionist. If this trend is left unfettered and our young people are not properly prepared to respond, the onslaught will become devastating.
After noticing this very real existential threat to our community during the diabolical hate-fest that is “Israel Apartheid Week”; The Israel Centre and GenerationNext began to develop what has become the programme. The initiative consists of three parts, the first of which was a course of educational workshops developed in partnership with Makom - the Israel Education think-tank of the Jewish Agency. The sessions were attended by an incredibly diverse group of young Jews in our community and provided them with a chance to engage with Israel to express and explore together their connection to Israel in a healthy and constructive manner.
So after completing the six session course, where the participants were guided through intensive conversations, exploring pressing issues facing Israel today the group was ready to take what they learnt and solidify it. The trip mentioned in the beginning of this article forms the second section of the programme as anyone invested in Israel knows that it is one thing to learn about Israel in theory, but a whole other thing to experience it in reality.
Israel today is a complex place of multiple and often competing ideals. Different ethnic and religious groups; strands of Zionism; and Jewish denominations all come together in the magnificent cholent pot that is modern Israel. Every one of these groups makes up part of the intricate mosaic of life in Israel. Whether it’s our cousins in Ra’anana, the Haredim in Mea Shearim, the Druze in the Galilee or the Bedouins in the Negev this beautiful, tiny strip of land, truly exemplifies the challenges and possibilities of real diversity whilst remaining committed to its foundation as a Jewish and democratic state.
Exposing the group to this arguably unique reality, immersing them in the culture, the history, the beliefs and the people was a core aim of the trip; to see this incredible land in 4D. Participants observed the daily lives of Israelis as they explored the bustling streets of Machane Yehuda and chatted over Shabbat dinner to young olim from all over the world about their decision to make Israel their permanent home. Participant Cara Davidson, a UCT final year student said “this experience of meeting real Israelis in an immersive manner profoundly enriched my Zionism as I came to appreciate the country’s often unacknowledged diversity as a beautiful tapestry of people.”
Of course with such complexity in such a tiny piece of land divisions will naturally arise. The trip aimed to present these tensions through the powerful work of both grassroots and national organisations that are working to overcome these issues. We had many meetings with community dialogue projects in the South African Partnership2Gether region of Beit Shemesh/ Mate Yehuda and heard from amazing organisations like My Truth that through highlighting the ethical dilemmas Israeli soldiers face showcase the high calibre of morality that the IDF holds itself to. We met with Acharai – a national movement to uplift and develop leadership within disadvantaged Israeli youth by providing them with pre-army training to help integrate them into Israeli society. Each experience gave us hope and laid testament to the growth and development of this remarkable nation.
Participants were also exposed to some of the tensions that are yet unresolved. The ones that left them emotionally distressed. Seeing the flare in the sky after an Israeli mother was murdered by a terrorist in front of her children. Being chased off the Temple Mount for not being Muslim, seeing how Jewish history on the Mount is being eroded by the Islamic Waqf and the aggressive chants by Muslim women towards openly Jewish visitors to our holiest site. All of these things were heart-breaking to watch but important for our participants to experience.
Nine days may not ever be enough to properly do this country justice but it was a profound and powerful experience for this eager young group. Third year UCT student Danielle Dinur said of her experience; “For me, Zionism is common sense in the same way anti- discrimination is. This trip gave me the insight, skills and confidence to go back to South Africa and try to put that message across.” It is clear that our participants have returned to Cape Town with a real sense of empowerment and the skills and knowledge they need to run - with conviction - the third and final part of the programme: constructive engagement workshops about connecting to and understanding Israel for their own peers.
The noteworthy success of this project is this exact take home: that by exposing young Jews to the complexity of Israel and providing them with the tools to explore what this “real Israel” means to their identity in 2016, we are able to ensure that Israel stays within the hearts of the next generation of South African Jews. It is clear that Ahad Ha’am in all his wisdom foresaw this moment when he said: “What is national freedom if not a people’s inner freedom to cultivate its abilities along the beaten path of its history?”
The trip to Israel was coordinated by the WUJS Trips Department. If you would like to organise a unique, tailor made student trip to Israel, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Check out amazing blogs and op-eds here by Jewish student leaders from all over the world.