Youth tours dodge Israels problems

It is shortly before the onset of Shabbat and we have some unexpected guests. My daughter turns up with two girls of her own age, part of a group of American teenagers spending their summer in Israel. During their six-week stay, they spend some of the weekends in a home hospitality program with Israelis.

It brings back memories. We, the parents, were participants in these tours 20 and more years ago, in some cases returning as youth leaders, all the more experienced (so we believed) for actually having participated in a tour the previous year.

For many of us, the tours, often organized through the Zionist or Jewish youth movements we attended, became a critical part of the socialization process we underwent as impressionable teenagers. They led to some of us returning to Israel for a full year or two immediately after graduating high school. And that, in turn, played a major part in our decision to leave what were, so we were told, the fleshpots of the West, to make our homes and future lives in Israel.

The conditions have improved since we were participants, although at a current price of $5,000 per participant that is to be expected. While we once traveled on the backs of open trucks, they now enjoy the benefits of air-conditioned buses. While we had to stay in rundown youth centers and hostels, their level of accommodation has greatly improved with modernized hostels and mid-level hotels.

But it is the educational program that particularly interests me. The actual detail may have changed and is probably presented in a more sophisticated fashion, but the overall message has remained the same. It can be summed up as follows:

Impress upon these youth the wonders of Israel, the Jewish state.

Persuade them that everything is good and just in the Jewish homeland, as compared with the dangers and evils awaiting those who remain in the diaspora.

Despite the major changes that Israeli society has experienced in the past 20 years, the message for these youth groups remains the same. The struggle for independence is relived, while the security threat remains a constant theme. The real problems facing contemporary Israel are brushed aside: There are no internal Sephardi-Ashkenazi rifts, no problems between religious and secular, there is no occupation of the West Bank and a disintegrating peace process. The tours are the last bastion of the Zionist information enterprise.

Intensive tours of this nature are pressure-cookers for socialization. They tend to bypass the daily lives of most Israelis. The groups live in their own detached world of tourist and religious sites, meeting each other at symposiums and ideological seminars. They are as unaware of 5 million Israeli Jews going on with their daily lives around them as Israelis are unaware of the existence of these groups — unless you just happen to meet up with one of them at Yad Vashem, the Western Wall or a pizza joint in Jerusalem.

It is not only diaspora youth who are affected by these intensive forms of ideological socialization. Take the tours of Eastern Europe and the concentration camps that have now become common for Israeli children. Without doubt, they are powerful trips and the participants are usually prepared well in advance. But in addition to the educational experience, the trips have become a sort of last-resort attempt by a failed educational system to instill a sense of Israeli identity and pride in Israeli youth.

Having, for the most part, failed to explain to cynical Israeli teenagers what Israel is all about and why they should want to be part of this continuing process of state-building, the opening up of Eastern Europe has presented a new option.

Show the kids how weak the Jewish people were, what happened to them at the hands of the Other. If nothing else, impress upon them that Israel is a lowest common denominator for some form of artificial national unity.

Fifty years into statehood and it is the same old message. It is not about how to build and interact in a heterogeneous society. It is not about how to overcome cultural and religious gaps as we strive for the same type of egalitarianism and equality that many of these youngsters enjoy in their home societies.

No, it is still about being threatened and weak, the dangers of living in a world where everyone hates us.

Is that the only message we should be sending to the teenagers of the new millennium? Is it going to persuade them to eventually leave their homes and join us permanently? Perhaps a more realistic outlook on Israeli life, including an attempt to come to grips with the very real problems facing this society, Jewish and Arab, religious and secular, would stand a better chance of succeeding in this globalized satellite world where everyone knows what is taking place everywhere.

It's time to change the tune, time to see Israel as it really is rather than focusing solely on past stories of heroism and tragedy.