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Celebrating the gift of a year without Israel tour

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This year the selection will not be made.

The chosen and the damned, the drowning and the saved, the sheep and the goats – all will be as one.

Because this year Israel tour will not take place. For one precious year, our 16 year olds will not face the culling of regular years. For the cohort of British Jewish 16 year olds in summer 2020, there will be no distinction between ‘tour friends’ and school friends. Those who were driven round the promised land, like so much hyper-sociable cattle, will not be able to taunt their wretched tour-less contemporaries with their shiny new social lives.

And maybe, just maybe, we now have a chance to rethink our community’s reckless decision to stake the future of the Jewish people on the willingness of young people to be herded around in buses. 

*** 

Of course Israel educators and their funders will wring their hands. So central is tour to British Jewish life that a year without it seems like a disaster. How will we compensate for the precious moments of engagement with the land lost to these unfortunate youths? But those who work in Israel education are usually part of the minority of Jews who never really understood what Israel tour was about at the time and have carried their delusions over into adulthood.

Tour is not about engaging with Israel. It’s about socialising, sneakily-smoked cigarettes, stolen snogs and maybe even full-blown sex. Tour is an exercise in doublethink. Organisers, funders and (some) parents want to ensure the future of the Jewish people and stoke a love for Israel. So they shovel 16 year olds onto a bus and tell them not to fuck. They create the perfect conditions for teenage hypersociality and tell them that this is really about something else. They are lured with promises of freedom and nights out on Ben Yehuda street, but God forbid they should smoke a joint. And yes, tour does engender a love of Israel, but it is a love of Israel refracted through the gauzy lenses of late nights, permanent exhaustion and overwrought crushes. 

But it’s what happens after tour that is the real point of the exercise. The pride that Jewish 16 year olds feel in their newly-minted social lives rarely extends to incorporating their tour-less contemporaries into their brave new worlds. To not go on tour is to go off the derech, to be forced off the path along the yellow brick road towards Jewish adulthood. 

There are precious few routes into adult membership of British Jewry that don’t involve tour. Systematically and brutally, the community has culled the alternatives that were available. The drop-in youth clubs like Oxford and St Georges and Kinnor are long dead. The youth movements holding out against tour have been reeled in – JLGB now runs a tour – or been driven out of business. Havens for the nerdier end of the Jewish social spectrum like Unity, AJ6 and Jewish Youth Study Groups are extinct. 

Those who didn’t go on tour will forever be reminded of that fact, assuming they wish to stay Jewishly involved. Look at the leaders of most Jewish organisations and you’ll find those who were shoved down the royal path leading from tour, to Shnat to UJS, to board member. Attend Limmud and the spectre of tour taunts you from the bar. 

Why put yourself through that? Much better for the tour-less to leave Jewish community behind. After all, the message they were given throughout their teenage years was that without tour they were nothing. Only the stubborn, the stupid and those who have a genuine interest in Judaism have enough belligerence enough to refuse that message.
And this is where it ends: the Jewish people’s millenia-old story collapses into a decision about whether or not to be part of the bovine mass who pretend that jabbering on the coach to Ein Gedi constitutes freedom. A Jewish institution intended to ensure the Jewish future ironically forces a pitiful reduction of the staggering diversity and richness of Jewish life into a simple matter of whether one gets on with a bunch of teenagers on a bus. 

***

But this year is different. The sledghehammer that tour applies to Jewish youth will not fall. The cleavage between tour and tour-less will not have been forced apart. The fateful decision that Jewish teenagers are forced to make will not hang over their heads. 

Maybe they will be free of the inane association between Judaism and ’social life’. Maybe this cohort will be the ones who will be forced to discover Jewish existence for themselves. Maybe, for this one year, Jewish community will not be synonymous with exclusion. Maybe Jewish organisations will be forced to find ways of making Jewishness attractive by means other than the promise of simultaneously encouraged and discouraged sex.

And among this cohort there will also be some who would have attended tour but will now be spared the trauma. For amongst those who go on tour every year, there are those who experiences are never spoken of; the nameless ones we know exist but never hear from: Those who felt lonely, those who could not gel with the group, those who are ashamed that the whole thing left them cold (but engaged nonetheless in the celebratory discourse out of shame), those who were bewildered by the fuck-don’t-fuck ethos and left themselves open to sexual exploitation. They will be spared the obligation to endlessly pretend that tour was the greatest thing ever.

***

PS: Jewish supporters of the Palestinians shouldn’t get too excited. The reason Jews won’t engage with the reality of Israel isn’t due to tour. Because tour was never about Israel in the first place. Frankly, you could take a bunch of 16 year olds on a tour round villages destroyed in the naqba, and it wouldn’t make any difference. After all, most teenage pilgrimages to Auschwitz also go by in a blur of frenzied flirtation and competitive lachrimosity.

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Joel Conn
Joel Conn
3 months ago

I feel sorry for the writer. There are so many chips on his or her shoulder from some Summer Tour-related teenage trauma that it raised my cholesterol just reading it. I agreed with the headline and nothing else.

This seems to represent the writer’s perceived distorting effect of Summer Tour in their community. Was it in London? To smaller communities, the prospect of teenagers meeting other teenagers from other communities has its own positives and negatives but the idea of it then creating a barrier between your “tour friends” and “school friends” seems bizarre. Does that really happen anywhere?

What is the solution proposed? That there should be non-Israel based summer programmes for British Jewish youth? There always has been: it’s called being a leader at a summer camp.

Perhaps what the writer proposes is non-Israel based summer programmes for unengaged youth. Well how are they to be engaged onto such a programme? The carnal attractions of sun, sea, and (strictly monitored) fun of Summer Tour is an attractor. I am sure the writer’s dream of, say, four weeks of Arthur Miller plays and Woody Allen films, social justice campaigning for Palestine, and fundraising for a Jewish nursing home in Belarus would be worthy but probably won’t attract as many 16 year olds. If there is a Zionist plot here to promote Summer Tour and starve other ideas, perhaps the other ideas still aren’t as good as Summer Tour.

Where will the alternative Summer programme of the writer’s imagining be? How would it provide the infrastructure, Jewish interest, and social/fun activities that are currently offered by an Israel Summer Tour? A European Jewish summer tour, ranging from place to place of Jewish interest (and frequent Jewish destruction), sounds like a splendid idea. Price it for us, please Anonymous. Work out how long 16 year old they will be on the bus each day so as to take in Budapest, Prague, and Amsterdam. But while you are doing it, please also give us your inevitable thoughtpiece on why it is so negative to take 16 year olds to sites of former Jewish communities and not concentrating on current living Jews or social justice issues, because the politics of such a tour are just as complicated.

Finally, who is the “community” that has shut down youth groups and youth movements? Might they have faltered due to lack of attendees rather than a shadowy Zionist funding decision? The experience in Glasgow was that Sunday night – the traditional youth group evening – was deemed too sacred for revision and homework by the last generation of parents who were unwilling to send children to the once thriving youth movements lest they fail to get straight As. I hope myself and my generation will be different. I have a few years until I find out if I am.

If there used to be 40 children in your area that went semi-regularly to a weekly youth group and 30 who went on Summer Tour, and now none go to weekly youth groups but 40 go on Summer Tour (entirely made up numbers but welcome the author doing some actual research), it wasn’t Summer Tour that is to blame. Summer Tour is all that is left standing because it has an institutional framework.

Don’t whine about Summer Tour. Book out a hall this Sunday, find three smart 17 year olds and ten 14 year olds, and start a local youth movement chapter or found a brand new one of your devising.

For the record, I never went on Summer Tour. Nonetheless I remained active in my youth movement as a leader (at Summer and other camps) for years after. I married Jewish to someone who did go on Summer Tour, but from a different continent. I remain involved in many aspects of my small community which community I never left. My experience is unique to me. The writer’s experience, whatever it was, is probably unique to the writer.

There is a reason the Jesuits never said: “give me a pampered middle class Jewish boy at 16 for four weeks in Israel, and I will show you the man”. I think the writer misconceives who the enemy is here. Summer Tour is just a Summer Tour. Jewish life is what else that happens before and after.

Anonymous
Anonymous
3 months ago

I take on board all of the things said in this comment here and, in some ways, I don’t disagree with them. It’s true that I don’t have a fully worked out solution. It’s true that tour is something that still has the capacity to trigger me in adulthood. 

But what’s the problem? This is neither a considered policy document not a piece that makes any pretence at distance and objectivity. Rather, it’s a polemic, based on my experience – nothing more and nothing less.

An excess of personal polemics can be a problem in some areas. But tour is something that is barely written about in the UK in other than celebratory terms. Perhaps my piece can kickstart more engagement with the subject. And that includes people for whom tour was not a thing worth celebrating finally speaking out publicly. 

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