There is currently a storm sweeping the World Bnei Akiva community, and you should pay attention - whether you’re a member or not - as it symbolizes a need for change in the leadership and direction of Religious Zionism in Israel.
World Bnei Akiva is possibly the largest Zionist Youth Movement in the World, and the recent call for violent revenge on Palestinians by the secretary general, Rabbi Noam Perel, have angered and upset hundreds, if not thousands, of members. A petition I launched calling for his immediate dismissal since his call for revenge garnered over 400 signatures within the first 48 hours. The tragic murder of the three, Bnei Akiva affiliated, Israeli teenagers was the catalyst for Perel to express his radical opinions, but by no means the root of the ideology behind his words.
In recent years we have witnessed a worrying trend of a growing racism and extremism among the Religious Zionist community, especially among the youth. This extremism and lack of respect for democratic values can be seen in the results of Maagar Mochot’s 2010 study “The Youth of Today: The Future Face of Israel.” The study polled over 500 Jewish and Arab 15 to 18 year olds, and found a major disparity between religious and secular youth in Israel. When asked if they would be willing to have an Arab friend of their age and sex, 21 percent of secular teenagers responded that they would not, compared with 81 percent of religious teenagers who would not. Similarly, when asked if they believed it was necessary for Israeli Arabs to receive rights equal to Israeli Jews, 82 percent of religious teenagers said that it was not necessary compared to only 39 percent of the secular.
This anti-democratic and ultra-nationalist sentiment percolates down from the highest level. Israel’s Education Ministry recently undertook to integrate 500 Arab teachers in Jewish schools, a first step in curing the deep separation of Israel’s Jewish and Arab citizens from an early age. Unfortunately, the religious school system has stood on its hind legs to prevent this being implemented. The Abraham Fund has successfully integrated Arab teachers into religious elementary schools in Jerusalem, and far from being a harmful experience, the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. And yet, at a recent meeting of the Knesset’s Education Committee that I attended, MK Yoni Chetboun of Habayit Hayehudi sat back and allowed MK Nissim Zeev of Shas to explain that this decision was based on “ideological” reasons. “That ideology has a name” quickly responded MK Merav Michaeli of the Labor Party, “it’s called racism.”
World Bnei Akiva has the natural role of being a moderate, positive force within the Religious Zionist community. For decades, it has represented the Orthodox Jewish youth from around the world who express their Jewish identity in such rich and diverse ways, religiously, culturally and politically. World Bnei Akiva always distanced itself from the radicalized religiosity and overt politicization of the Israeli branch of the movement. By remaining politically non-partisan, World Bnei Akiva did not stifle opinions but freed them. In my tenure as a member of the secretariat of World Bnei Akiva (2002-2010), we organized months-long volunteering projects that included working in mixed Arab-Jewish institutions in the city of Lod; founded a project working with Sudanese refugees in south Tel Aviv; and organized an international Zionist Youth Movement appeal for Israeli medical aid to Haiti following the natural disaster. These programs were highly influential in framing the Jewish identity of the hundreds of post-high school youth who took part in them; and an important voice in the Israeli and global arena of Religious Zionist identity.
However, there was always a tension within the movement as many influential committee members and senior leadership pulled the agenda to a less nuanced space with more one-sided views. This tension was healthy for as long as it was counter-balanced, but, with the loss of more moderate staff, that balance vanished and the ground is now fertile for Rabbi Perel to express dangerous sentiments that threaten the fragility of our society, and lead predisposed individuals to radical behavior.
The Religious Zionist community in Israel has suffered many knocks to its now-tarnished image, all stemming from allowing extremists to set the agenda of the day, with mainstream silence signaling tacit support. In the much-hyped talk of national unity around the tragic events of the last three weeks, there has been a total misdirection of what the unifying factor should be. With too great an ease, the Jewish People reverts to victimhood, isolation and “chosenness” as unifying factors. In the hands of radicals these factors can easily be twisted into tools of harm.
We should now be focusing on partnering to rid of societies of extremists, and following the awe-inspiring leadership of the Fraenkel family, who, only hours after losing a son in the most brutal of ways, announced “there is no difference between [Arab] blood and [Jewish] blood. A murder is a murder.”
It is for these reasons that World Bnei Akiva must dismiss Rabbi Perel, engage in a process of soul-searching and an overhaul of leadership. If it does, the movement must be applauded as a gatekeeper of Israeli society. If it does not, it must be shunned.
Anton Goodman grew up in Bnei Akiva U.K. After immigrating to Israel he worked at World Bnei Akiva, and founded the Leadership Institute. From 2010 to 2013, Anton was the senior Jewish Agency Shaliach in Washington D.C. Today he directs international development at The Abraham Fund, an Arab-Jewish NGO dedicated to creating equality and shared society in Israel.
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