Israeli Youth Today, the Problem of Consensus

Categories: Israel
By Miriam G. Harel

Israeli Youth Today, the Problem of Consensus

By Miriam Grossman Harel

There are two and a half million young people and children in the state of Israel. This sector of the population, defined between ages 12-18, is living in a state of physical, psychological and political instability, as well as existential insecurity.

The state exists with insufficient consensus, without a clear picture of what the majority of people want civil society to look like. If Israel was a state in which there was a consensus about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and how to solve it, about the secular and religious divide and how to overcome it and about democracy and government control, perhaps the youth would be less subjected to the dilemmas it now faces.

But there is little consensus and youth is plagued by doubt and divisiveness, just as the adult society is facing the same issues. The difference may be that when one is in his or her formative years this chaos has a more detrimental effect on the very development and stabilization of a young person and their future.

I am very proud of the active and self determining way in which many young people take a clear stand. However I am concerned about the large percentage of the young people who have dropped out of civil society and become “at risk” to themselves and to their future, as well as to the society around them.  I am angry and disillusioned by the government which has not yet succeeded in reaching out to this portion of the young population and bring them back into the society around them.

In the previous government, former Minister of Education Yuli Tamir made serious attempts to deal with the situation. The current minister, Gideon Sa’ar, has not made visible efforts in this direction.

From speaking to educators and facilitators from Israel and around the world, I know that almost every thought out and serious investment in these young people can bring some degree of results. The Los Angeles Youth Leadership project, initiated in 2000 by Camino and Zelwin, and organized by the National Institute for  Statistics, has successfully created youth leadership in the heart of the inner city black ghetto amongst hard core “at risk” youth and reached tens of thousands in their schools. Notably the major Israeli project of Ashalim and similar projects conducted in Jewish and Arab communities have always worked, making young people accessible to civil society and turning them into leaders.

The priorities have to be carefully considered.  The Israeli government is spending huge sums of money for military and security concerns which is understandable, but creates neglect of children and young people and their needs. Thirty five percent of Israeli youth lives below the poverty line. This includes Ethiopian immigrants, Bedouins, the hard core veteran poor neighborhoods and cities like Ofakim, South Tel Aviv, Lod, and some villages and towns in the northern and southern peripheries which also include the Israeli Arab population.   In these areas the youth is the most neglected of the population. Most striking of all is the diversity and difference between the various sectors of youth and the great divide between them, particularly due to lack of educational investment by the government.

The following description of various NGO’s and social movements will elaborate and emphasize the various differences and potential strengths.

Organized proactive groups for peace and the advancement of civil society

This vibrant and well organized group comprises about ten percent of the total youth population.  At age eighteen most Jewish Israeli youth are conscripted, cutting off the normal developmental process of adolescence, which may be resumed after the army in many cases, extending the period of youth well into the twenties.  There are over eighty different peace movements and civil society improvement groups in Israel and youth are involved in almost all of them. Some of them have a political association but many do not.

Youth Movements

Youth movements are an extensive, organized phenomenon. Youth movements played an important role in the history of the Jewish people between the world wars. Their influence greatly exceeded their numerical importance in community organization, education, political participation and social consciousness. They were essential in building the country through the founding of the different kibbutzim. Their special inner strength became apparent as organizers of resistance during the Holocaust,

The movements, which for the most part were initiated in Europe, arrived in Israel and continued to flourish. Most of them still exist, although some of their goals have changed according to the needs of the times.

a)    Hatzofim, the Israel Scout movement, is comprised of 70,000 Jewish, Arab, Druze, Christian, Moslem scouts.  They focus on civic involvement, coexistence between the different sectors, scouting, nature and developing group skills.  They are active within the public school system and have founded several communes and kibbutzim.

b)    Hashomer Hatzair, the Young Guard movement, is a progressive Zionist movement which advocates peace and political solution and has founded 85 kibbutzim. Still thriving, this movement includes 30,000 members worldwide.

c)    Hanoar Haoved Vehalomed, the Working and Student Youth movement, reaches out to both working and learning youth.The movement fights to improve their social and economic conditions and includes 80,000 members.

d)    Bnei Akiva, a religious Zionist movement which established religious kibbutz settlements and villages throughout the country, has 70,000 members within Israel and 30,000 abroad.

e)    Beitar, the Revisionist Zionist Youth movement, is comprised of 15,000 members  within Israel.

f)     Habonim Dror, the Diaspora based sister movement of Hanoar Haoved Vehalomed, is a socialist Zionist movement and has 20,000 members today. The movement founded many kibbutzim and villages.

g)    The other remaining small youth movements comprise around14,000 members altogether.   This includes Reut-Sedakah, as significant group of Arab and Jewish youth who meet together and work in disadvantaged communities, for instance in Jaffa and Be’er Sheva.

h)   Hilltop Settlement Youth, an extremist right wing fundamentalist group of settlers in the West Bank who aim to establish illegal and unapproved  settlements. Their ongoing activities constitute a headache for the government and the Palestinian Authority. Today they include several hundred but their numbers may grow as the situation deteriorates.

i)      Ultra Orthodox fundamentalist sectarian anti-civil society youth whose numbers are great and growing, objecting to a secular civil society and any efforts to make peace with the Palestinians. They force the hand of the government to give in to the demands of their leaders to create a religious state based on the Torah.

Israel has a dilemma with fundamentalist education and there is a continuing debate on how it should be dealt with by the government. A considerable proportion of Jewish and Arab youth from the religious groups on both sides are subjected to a fundamentalist education. Whether we are speaking of young people within Israel who are educated according to fundamentalist Judaism or fundamentalist Islam, we find that they share many attributes. This includes:

  • A rejection of civil society based on consensus and an adherence to Halakhic     or Shariah law based on religious text.
  • A “hate curriculum” which preaches against all others, demonizes and delegitimizes anyone of a different faith..
  • Teaching a messianic vision of the Messiah and the coming of the days or an all Islamic world.
  • Teaching war as a solution to the problem.
  • Creating a basic distrust of the other, of difference and of civil society at large.
  • Splitting and teaching splitting. We are all good. They are all bad. Teaching projection of all evil onto the other and all goodness and purity belong to us.
  • Intolerance of ambiguity and change.

The growing number of religious schools and their curriculum, which challenges civil society and the state, poses a tremendous problem in all sectors of the population and throughout the world. In the name of freedom of expression and freedom of speech teachers are given permission to undermine student participation and by doing so, there is disregard of civil society and the state.  This state of affairs raises several questions for discussion. Should the government have the right to supervise the curriculum of private religious schools and what they teach?   Should a program that encourages disobedience and conflict be allowed to be part of the regular school curriculum?  Are children’s rights violated by educational values that attempt to brainwash, indoctrinate and permit teachings to turn the child against the society in which he lives?

What are the limits of interference in education?

The third and largest group are youth who are apolitical and are alienated or self alienated from the political majority.  They are two very distinct and unconnected groups coming from the two polarized extremes of the socioeconomic spectrum, youth in a “bubble”  describing trendy city youth and youth “at risk “, who are poor and alienated.

The concept of youth in a bubble is interesting and even a bit absurd in the fact that it sometimes defines your political affiliation depending on where you live, The study by Bar Tal et al. (2008), shows that the youth in kibbutzim are more tolerant than city  youth. They also engage more readily in pro-peace and pro-coexistence activities than the youth of the poor towns in the peripheries.

During the war in Gaza, MK  Dov Khenein, a Communist party leader and member of the municipality of Tel Aviv noted,  “There is a different culture in Tel Aviv. The ugly nationalistic mood is much weaker in Tel Aviv,” indicating that Tel Aviv youth, (out of harm’s way) felt insulated against everything and carried on with life as usual, refusing to be upset or involved. As one of them said when interviewed at a trendy café, “You can live in Tel Aviv and not even feel the war we just had. We are on a different vibe.  We just live our day out and have fun if we can. The politicians left, right, and center are ridiculous. We just get on with our lives. It’s a bubble.”

Although not representative of all Israeli youth, there is a growing resistance to the ongoing and endless political crises and military situation   A third of the youth of trendy north Tel Aviv manages to get out of conscription and get on with their lives creating all sorts of social questions. This is also true of other sectors of the population, including kibbutz youth, Druze and youth from other cities.

On the other hand there is a growing number of religious youth who conscript but refuse to follow orders and will not participate in the evacuation of people from the illegitimate settlements. Several rabbis have reinforced this trend.

They are not to be identified with the conscientious objectors, now numbering several hundred, with some who are sitting in prison at the time of this writing. They are conscripted youth who refuse to serve in Occupied Gaza and the West Bank for ideological reasons.

Youth at risk

The group of youth at risk includes around twenty percent of the Jewish and Arab population in Israel and consists of Ethiopian immigrants, the underprivileged sector of the Russian immigration, and members of  the Bedouin communities, of which 20% drop out of high school and 10% are unemployed. High risk youth is more involved in crime, violence and substance abuse. They are the product of neglect and any serious attempt at integration by Israeli society.

Although many new programs are being developed, there is a major problem with funding.   While the Israeli government has made some attempts to put trained community leaders in these poorer neighborhoods and villages, the results have been negligible. The department for the advancement of youth at the Ministry of Education has wonderful programs which would reengage these youth in studies and vocational training, but the government has rescinded its funding and there is not enough outreach programs. There is a great disconnect between the goals of this service and its ability to reach young people. The service may exist but either the youth don’t know about it, or feel it inadequate or just don’t care.

More and more community workers, working with youth in Israel, Jewish and Arab alike, are coming to the conclusion that the present level of outreach just doesn’t work with these hard core groups.  More so, the conclusion that they are reaching is that there must be a one on one, hands on approach which is part of an ongoing process of getting to know the community leaders and building trust. The leader must be involved with the community in the long term in order to see results.  The lack of trust and alienation are too deep to allow the connection between the youth leader and the youth to take place quickly.

This youth, who ideally should be the ones to put political pressure on the government to guarantee their educational and employment rights, do not practice their democratic right to vote. They are not part of civil society, not knowing or wanting to know what other possibilities are open to them.  Thirty percent of this sector have criminal records and been instigators or experienced hard core of violence.

There is a promising new one on one, hands on approach being developed by other Israeli youth, especially those who are living in the urban communes and work in the disadvantaged neighborhoods. From a political point of view, the youth in these neighborhoods are angry and have the potential for more extreme violent and macho fundamentalist ideologies. It is crucially important to reach out to these young people while there still opportunity for advancement, a situation that will promote safety and consensus of a sane civil society.

The majority of this youth is clearly not engaged in the peace process, nor are they involved in fighting to settle in the territories outside the green line.  Neither left nor right politically, 60 percent of the youth in Israel, who are considered non political, belonging to three basic categories, as mentioned above.

There has not been any noteworthy outreach to Israeli disadvantaged youth in any significant number in the past few years. Consequently, there is a growth in violence in this sector. Some of the violence is both an expression of rage and the way of attracting attention to themselves. It is a means of making themselves visible.

Therefore peace (the opposite of violence) may have a different meaning to some of them. It is not violence which frightens some of these youth, but the fear of being overlooked by society. They do not feel part of civil society and the models they tend to identify with are the Hollywood heroes and the rock singers they come into contact with. They have a different vantage point than the well to do kids from the city and are not accosted by local political leaders who could pull them into civic reform and social activism.

Feeling rejected and belittled by their societies, many look for a scapegoat. For some, the Palestinians fill this role. They turn some of the rage they feel from rejection on to those who can’t fight back. Peace tends to be viewed as the aspiration of the elite.

Indeed, more and more young people from this elite are exempting themselves from the fighting units, while the proportion of underprivileged kids in combat units is growing using the military as a “social melting” and one wonders if indeed the army fills this function in their lives. The future of peace in the Middle East may be strongly influenced by the direction in which these kids go.

Perhaps we should question how we can influence the Israeli government to pay more attention to the young people and their needs. Education and not military armament should be the top priority of both the Israeli government.   A civil society is not be a fundamentalist society but is a democratic one. This is the road to peaceful coexistence.

Miriam Grossman Harel is a psychotherapist and author.

Edited by Ruth Hiller

February 2010

About Miriam G. Harel

Miriam G. Harel, born in New York, is a senior psychotherapist, affiliated with Telem Clinic in Tel Aviv. She is a free lance lecturer and is currently presenting her work in Israel and abroad at major institutions of learning such as Tavistock in London and the University of Amsterdam, Schneider and Hillel Yaffefe Childrens' Hospitals, and has been doing this for several years. She has published a book, Patchwork , distributed by Karnac in London, relating to her experience with Israeli children and their families, in the process of therapy. A lifetime member of Hashomer Hatzair, she lives with her family on Kibbutz Haogen Emek in Hefer, Israel.
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