This winter, 11th grader Noa Possek took part in the Israel Journey, a weeklong educational program operated by Mibereshit, a movement set up by Rabbi Moti Elon and cosponsored by a private foundation and the Education Ministry. She found it to be strange.
"Whenever the group would stop to have a discussion, the religiously observant guide would play a tape with the song "I Have No Other Country" in various cover versions. It was playing constantly, but I didn't pay it much attention. When, on the third day, my classmates started humming the tune on their own, it became a little weird," she recalled.
Ronit, a teacher from a high school in the Sharon who went on the journey with her students some weeks ago, put it more bluntly.
She told Haaretz that the six days of the trip consist of "incessant indoctrination driving home the message that Judaism is more important than democracy. In fact, democracy, minority rights and Arabs were hardly mentioned.
The principles of 'our right over the land' and the importance of Judaism are repeated constantly, often through emotional manipulation of the teens."
The program of the Israel Journey was coauthored by society and youth department staff from the Education Ministry. Mibereshit, whose name plays on the first book of the Bible, from Genesis (Bereshit ), began operating the program five years ago, and to date more than 60,000 11th graders, mostly from state schools, have taken part.
The program's declared purpose - "touching the roots of our identity as sons of the Jewish people in the Land of Israel," to quote program director Uri Cohen - matched the policy of Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar, who aims at using schools to strengthen Jewish and Zionist values. Sa'ar took a liking to the program, last year going as far as doubling his ministry's share in Israel Journey's funding, aiming to bring the number of participants to 20,000 students a year.
Technical issues eventually cut this number to 15,000, but another expansion is slated for next year.
The journey lasts six days, from Sunday night to Saturday night. It begins with an overnight journey to one of several starting points, where the students arrive at dawn.
There, the guides begin discussions focusing on "Myself and I", expanding it over the next few days to "The Community and I," "The Nation in the Country and I," "The State and I," and "Judaism and I."
Israel Journey's last two days take place in Jerusalem, with the journey book stressing "the capital of Israel in the past and present," including a visit to the settler-operated City of David site.
Some of those on the trip said the relentless stressing of Judaism and Zionism felt like preaching. The students visited Mount Herzl and walked among the graves of the soldiers in the military cemetery. "The guide started talking about how the Gentiles hate us, and how we have no other country," said Possek." Me and a few kids just started laughing. There just seemed to be no possible response to this."
Although civics studies in state schools stress Israel being both Jewish and democratic, Ronit said the program "implies that Israel is Jewish first and foremost."
She said, "It doesn't deal with the complexity of life here or about living with other communities. In other words, the program is trying to strengthen Jewish identity and give it a political power as the right of the Jewish people over that land."
Mibereshit offers the tours at very low cost, thanks to powerful financial backing not only from the state, but also from the private Canadian foundation run by Evangelical billionaire Jim Pattison. Pattison, whom a prominent Canadian businessman described as interested in having Israeli children learn more about the Bible, gave Mibereshit NIS 10.6 million this year. Rabbi Elon no longer holds an official position with the program.
'Not all students felt that way'
Israel Journey's official position is that the program is not missionary, and not all students felt they were being preached to.
"They just talked about the importance of religion, and there was something pure about welcoming the Shabbat that changed my thinking," one student said.
Mibereshit's director (then deputy-director ) Yaki Mendelsson gave an interview in the past to a religious student who wrote an academic work about the project, telling him that the program does anticipate the new Temple and the Messiah, but until these arrive, wants to give instruments "for each person to become something more than what he is today. We want to take any Jew, at whatever definition they use for themselves, and up them by 5 percent." Mendelssohn told Haaretz in response that the interview in question was not relevant to the movement's activities. "We are just ambassadors identifying the desire of Israeli society for value-based education for our legacy and Zionism. Israeli society needs it very much."
Israel Journey director Uri Cohen said that the program allows different opinions and does not preach or compel any approach.
It does not deal with minorities living in Israel, he said, but also leaves out many other issues, and noted that although the link between the people of Israel and the land is present in the program, the question of the right over the land, which is nearly political, is left out. He noted the program was highly praised by students, parents and teachers.
The Education Ministry said the program is supervised by one of its officials, and that no parent had made a complaint about its content.
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