The Zen Rabbi, reviewed
On Chanukah

What our travels teach us

In general, I don't expect to post often about Israel here; it's not my focus. I'm more interested in questions of ritual and liturgy. And soon the round of holidays picks up again, with the relatively minor (but still interesting) festival of Chanukah, which I hope to post about next week. Meanwhile, though, I've had this Israel-travel-related post on my mind for a while, and I decided it was time to dust it off and send it out into the world.

When my siblings were teenagers, they each spent a summer in Israel with a Jewish youth group. They visited places of religious and historical import, and had the experience of immersing in Hebrew and in a place where Jews are the majority (which I realize is true in some limited enclaves in the States, but certainly wasn't true where we grew up). I knew a lot of kids who did the same thing.

For a variety of reasons, I didn't visit Israel until I was in my mid-twenties. I went with my mother and fifteen or so other folks from my hometown, on a UJA/Federation "Community Mission." (I never could get the trip-leader to explain that name to me. We had no explicit "mission" there -- we weren't going to do any kind of volunteer work, and we certainly weren't missionaries -- so why not just call it a trip?)

I'm being a little disingenuous, because I do know what our "mission" was: to build and strengthen our ties to Israel. It's a "mission" many American Jews undertake. Many American Jews travel to Israel at least once in their lifetimes. Often more than once, if they're lucky or wealthy or make it a priority.

Travel expands the horizons; visiting a faraway place makes it feel real (and, if your eyes are open, more multifaceted than it might appear from a distance or in the news); so it stands to reason that travel to Israel is a good way for American Jews (adults and teens alike) to build connections with Israel, and to get a realistic picture of what's happening there. That's the theory, anyway. In reality...well, given my experience, I'm pretty sure that the trips do a good job of building connections between American Jews and Israel, but I'm not at all sure that the standard trips provide anything like a realistic or multifaceted picture.

My "community mission" itinerary didn't include a single non-Jewish site. Our tour guide explained, apologetically, that this was official UJA trip policy. (He was willing to take us to non-Jewish places, but they were extra-curricular, not an official part of the trip.) The implicit one-sidedness didn't stop there: although we had a fascinating visit to an IDF (army) base near the Lebanese border, there was no interaction with groups working towards peace. I suspect that the teen trips have similar biases.

Travel can be broadening, but it isn't automatically so. If one's trip is orchestrated in a way that doesn't facilitate eye-opening, and one doesn't have the time or the inclination or the wherewithal to step outside the tour bus, one could easily visit Israel without ever having one's assumptions challenged or leaving one's comfort zone. As it turned out, my mother and I opted to spend Shabbat, our day off, visiting non-Jewish sites in Jerusalem. Our tour guide took us to visit the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and we went on our own to see the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa mosque...but our fellow travelers who didn't join us that day missed out.

I like the theory that American Jews (adults and teens alike) can come away from their Israel trips with a nuanced picture of the Middle East -- with a sense of real human connection with the people on both sides of the story -- but I'm not convinced that that's what happens. My cynical side believes that the standard trips foster an over-sentimentalized sense of connection that can only flourish if the grey areas are ignored in favor of simple black and white. I believe that oversimplifying our view of Israel does a disservice to Israel, which deserves to be seen in all its real and complicated glory -- and it does a disservice to the American Jews who travel there, too.

In my more radical moments, I wonder whether the tradition of sending American Jewish teens to Israel (often their first, or only, overseas venture) fosters an overly Israel-centric view of the world. I understand that the purpose of the trips is to create and strengthen connections, but it's possible that the tradition encourages American Jewish teens to see the world in terms only of America and Israel: arguably a limited perspective. Also, the connections may arise anyway; many American Jewish kids develop a connection with Israel automatically. Many of us grow up in households and congregations and communities where support for Israel, and connection with Israel, is taken-for-granted. Given that, why not send our teenagers somewhere else -- someplace they wouldn't necessarily connect with otherwise?

Imagine a global teen exchange program in which all teenagers spend a month living somewhere completely foreign. The summer each kid turned eighteen, they'd get paired up: one kid would spend a month with a host family somewhere, and then the host family's kid would do a month-long homestay back with the first kid's family. American kids would develop understanding of, and empathy for, kids in Uzbekistan and Mali and Vietnam! Iraqi kids would identify with their Australian counterparts! Oh, the places we'd go...

...but even if this idea gathers steam and becomes an international phenomenon, I suspect it's unlikely to displace the coming-of-age Israel trip most American Jewish families plan for their kids. I know that most families can't afford to send, or take, their teenagers on multiple trips overseas. And that, in light of limited budget, Israel will likely win out for American Jewish families. (If parents had formative experiences on teen trips to Israel, it makes sense that they want to give their kids that same kind of experience. The tradition reinforces itself.)

Given that, I wonder how to ensure that American teenagers (and adults) get a multifaceted experience in Israel. Can we lobby the organizations who create the trips, and ask them to include non-Jewish sites on their itineraries? Can we encourage them to match visits to IDF bases with visits to organizations (like Bat Shalom) which work to foster dialogue and common ground between Israelis and Palestinians? In addition to planting trees in Israel, can we also plant olive trees for peace? Can we pair Israel trips with Jordan trips -- and if not, can we at least make sure that American kids spend time with a variety of other teenagers there: Israeli Jewish kids, Israeli Arab kids, Palestinian kids?

When we send teens to Israel, we're implicitly teaching them lessons about Israel and the relationship they should have with it. We can't afford to ignore those lessons: they're shaping the next generation of American Jews. Indeed, when we travel there as adults, we're internalizing lessons about the place and our relationship to it, too. If our trips exclude non-Jewish sites, what does that teach us? If our trips valorize soldiers but not peace workers, what does that teach us? Many Americans who visit Israel in this way probably don't realize that their Israel experiences are constructed and constrained. Why don't we question the organized Israel-trip-machine which decides what people do and don't see?

I loved my visit to Israel, and I'd like to return some day. But I was frustrated by the limitations of the UJA trip, and when I return, I won't go that route. I know that not everyone would be comfortable designing their own trip to Israel, though. So how can we create organized trips which are designed to be eye-opening, instead of designed to reinforce what we think we already know?

A first trip to Israel can have a lot of impact, on a kid or on an adult. What can we do to make that first trip as complicated, difficult, and beautiful as the land and its peoples deserve? How can we ensure that American Jews visiting Israel come away with as full a picture as possible? How can we learn, as a culture, to trade the easy comfort zone of black-and-white for the difficult and rewarding perspective that encompasses grey areas?