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Achvat Amim and the Strong-Arming of Leftwing Jews

Mira Sucharov
October 12, 2017

by Mira Sucharov

THERE’S A NEW ROUND of political bullying in our midst. But this time, the organizations issuing the threats have the ear of Israel’s government.

It all started when participants from the Israeli coexistence volunteering program Achvat Amim (Hebrew for “Solidarity of Nations”) decided to visit -- on their free time -- a Palestinian nonviolent resistance site in the West Bank. Then a rightwing group called Ad Kan got wind of the excursion and launched a hostile media campaign. The result? None other than the Jewish Agency, through its Masa Israel Journey wing, stepped in to demand the ouster of the program’s founders and leaders, Daniel Roth and Karen Isaacs, or else Masa would cease funding. When Roth and Isaacs’s boss at the Hashomer Hatzair Zionist youth movement responded to the ultimatum by telling Masa (Hebrew for “journey”) to, um, take a hike, Masa turned off the financial tap.

Achvat Amim is a twice-annual program that brings up to a dozen young adults age 21-30 to Jerusalem for five months of communal living and volunteering. And while the program is open to anyone, Masa’s $3,000 stipend (which helps defray the $8,500 in program fees) is available only to Jews. (More on this, below.)

According to its website, Achvat Amim’s volunteering projects — conducted in partnership with a variety of organizations — “aim to end racism, violence and inequality.” Underscoring all of this is the principle that “all people have the right to self-determination in the place they call home,” as Roth and Isaacs put it.

The nonviolent resistance site in question — the one where some participants went on their time off — is known as Sumud Freedom Camp, a civil disobedience effort bringing together Palestinians with Israelis and an array of international activists to rebuild an unrecognized Palestinian village named Sarura in the South Hebron Hills of the West Bank. While the Sumud (meaning “steadfastness” in Arabic) effort is ongoing, the initial, intensive phase lasted for around six weeks starting last May.

In its ultimatum to Achvat Amim’s parent organization, Hashomer Hatzair, Masa cited safety concerns. But Isaacs told me this is pure politics. And consider that Masa already sponsors programs that are fully based in the West Bank — programs like Ariel University-Atzil or Yeshivat Har Etzion. It’s hard to believe that this was really about the participants’ personal security.

Sara Eisen, Global Chief Communications Officer of Masa, confirmed as much when she told me by email that in their view, Achvat Amim had “crossed a line” into “an area beyond what a ‘mamlachti’ [which Eisen then defined as “consensus” -- MS] organization such as Masa can countenance.”

Mamlachti -- a Hebrew adjective used to describe national, state-based politics the likes of which David Ben-Gurion popularized in his centralized governance style during the early years of the state -- doesn’t technically translate to consensus. But that’s how Eisen defined it. And therein she tipped her hand.

BY DEFINITION, consensus politics, when practiced at the national level, favors the powerful. In democratic polities, consensus politics delimits acceptable speech and activity to the space inhabited by major parties, thus pushing dissent to the margins. When we look to Israel, we have to ask: who benefits from the consensus, and who loses? Who benefits from the euphemism of calling the state of affairs with the Palestinians ha-matzav (“the situation”)? Who loses when asylum seekers are “consensually” thought of as not deserving of the basic rights afforded to those seeking refuge under the terms of the UN Refugee Convention? Who benefits from Israel’s consensus-approved collective closures of the West Bank and Gaza and who loses when the IDF (Israel Defense Forces) destroys unrecognized villages?

Certainly, the Palestinians are not winners in the consensus-politics calculus. And it’s clear where anti-occupation activists, in their attempt to overturn systems of power and oppression, are situated. Masa’s move, in other words, is politics of the most fundamental kind.

Not only is this an outrage for Daniel Roth and Karen Isaacs, two young enterprising Canadians who moved to Israel together, founded Achvat Amim through Hashomer Hatzair, the youth movement they grew up in, and have now had their good names besmirched. And not only is this unfair to the participants who have had their promised scholarships pulled while already on the program. Masa’s tactics are an outrage for all of us: They are, after all, part of a larger and intensifying trend of strong-arming liberal and leftwing Jews.

It’s a short line between Masa’s demands and the bullying we’ve been seeing elsewhere across Israel and the U.S. Jewish community. It’s reminiscent of the case of the organizations currently exerting ugly pressure on the Center for Jewish History to fire their new CEO, renowned historian David N. Myers. It’s the same dynamic we’re seeing just this week with the American Jewish Historical Society (a partner organization in CJH) cancelling Dan Fishback’s play, Rubble, Rubble, apparently due to donor pressure over Fishback’s political leanings. And it’s the same dynamic we’ve seen in the incitement campaign by the Israeli NGO Im Tirtzu against Israeli civil rights and human rights organizations. It’s a dynamic that, in short, creates a chill.

As for the Sumud experience, Roth describes his own personal visit there — outside the auspices of Achvat Amim — in glowing terms: “One of the central and beautiful elements of the Sumud project which among other things reclaimed cave dwellings for dispossessed Palestinians,” he says, was that it “brought together Palestinians and Jews from around the world.…” Roth says that that example of coexistence work “is one of the central reasons why I’m here. It’s one of the driving forces of my Jewish identity.”

THERE MAY BE a silver lining to Masa’s draconian move. While Isaacs admits that it’s too soon to say, I wonder whether Roth and Isaacs will feel freer to consider new programmatic elements, now that Achvat Amim is no longer bound to Masa. Maybe this will give them license to extend the program’s mission of coexistence. Maybe they can provide more anti-occupation action opportunities to their participants, opportunities that Masa may not have seen as being part of the so-called “consensus.”

And maybe this will even force Roth and Isaacs to seek out new sources of funding— sources that don’t discriminate based on ethno-religious identity.

When it comes to Israel engagement, justice-seeking activities and coexistence work, there are some admitted contradictions that keep rearing their head. There is the contradiction that in order to engage in social justice work, program leaders and participants are being told by the Israel establishment that they must reject anything outside the “consensus.” On Achvat Amim’s part, I can imagine that keeping a link to the establishment was admittedly attractive: there was Masa’s significant financial support for participants and there was the legitimacy conferred by being associated with the Israeli governing establishment via the Jewish Agency. Yet social justice activism means challenging systems of power. And to challenge these systems sometimes means breaking with the very establishment that defines the consensus at any given point in history.

And then there is the contradiction between inclusive, action-oriented coalitions, and the parochialism that defines so many donor initiatives in the Diaspora Jewish world. Specifically, I’m thinking about the recurring trend of donors allocating money only to participants who are Jewish: cue the “eligibility” criterion that Achvat Amim participants — and participants on scores of other Masa-funded programs — must meet to receive Masa stipends. (Birthright, the free, ten-day trip to Israel only for Jews, is another prime example.) Yet, advancing social justice can best be done in coalitions that aren’t identity monoliths. And coexistence work is, by its nature, about crossing and transcending ethno-national lines.

The upshot is that system shocks like this one might unwittingly shine a light on these contradictions, contradictions that might finally get resolved.

Mira Sucharov is Associate Professor of Political Science in Ottawa, Canada