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.