'Anti-Semitic, anti-Zionist': Palestinian Issue Shakes Up Most Famous U.S. Jewish Camp

Camp Ramah is a staple of American Jewish life. But now its alumni from IfNotNow are fighting its 'one-sided' pro-Israel narrative

Song leaders join campers and counselors in celebrating Havdalah around the campfire at URJ Camp Harlam, in Kunkeltown, Penn.
Courtesy of Foundation for Jewish Camp

Elana Kravitz spent six summers in the woods along the lake at Camp Ramah in Wisconsin as a camper, and four years as a counselor. It’s a place – and a movement – she feels deeply connected to.

Now 26 and a social worker in New York, she looks back and resents what she describes as the “one-sided” message she received that Israel was a place to champion but whose policies weren’t hers to question.

Kravitz is now one of a group of Ramah alumni from around the United States who are members of the Jewish anti-occupation organization IfNotNow. They want Ramah to broaden the perspectives presented at its Conservative-movement summer camps to include Palestinian narratives and information on the occupation.

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In May, IfNotNow held a weekend seminar in Boston for counselors, several of whom work at Ramah camps, to help develop programming introducing Palestinian narratives and what Kravitz terms “the moral costs of occupation.”

On Facebook, IfNotNow wrote, “We will continue to support each and every counselor that wants to change the Israel education at their camp this summer – not just at Ramah, but at Union for Reform Judaism camps, at Young Judaea camps, and many more.”

But Kravitz and other Ramah alumni say these goals look less likely now that Ramah has released a statement they say implies that their work is anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist.

They say they were stung by Ramah’s statement this week saying the camp movement will not engage with IfNotNow. It came as a shock, the alumni said, because it contrasted with the goodwill and progress they thought had been made in a meeting with Ramah officials in March on teaching about the occupation and Palestinian perspectives.

In its statement, Ramah referred to that meeting and said, “After listening to their views we made it very clear to them that while liberal pro-Israel views on the conflict can be voiced and taught at camp, we will not allow any anti-Israel, anti-Semitic, or anti-Zionist education at Ramah.”

The statement also cited news reports that “erroneously stated Ramah was partnering with IfNotNow. We are not. Ramah will not partner with any organization that is not unequivocally pro-Israel.” Ramah reaffirmed that Zionism will always be central to its educational mission.

Participants at IfNotNow's inaugural camp counselor training, in Boston in May 2018.
Clara Rotter Laitman

As Kravitz wrote in an email to Haaretz: “It was so hurtful to me to see these statements from Ramah because I have really deep relationships with individuals at camp and have discussed IfNotNow’s goals and principles with them at length. I had been feeling really hopeful that they were serious about reflecting on the responsibility we all have in addressing harmful parts of Israel education at camp. Instead, they’ve doubled down on the status quo.”

The episode is a window into the larger debate in the American Jewish community – an often acrid and painful one – about how to relate to criticism of Israel, especially its actions regarding the Palestinians, and how and if to educate Jewish youth about the Palestinian perspective on the conflict.

Kravitz says Ramah’s statement is in part the fallout of articles in Jewish media outlets that she says have mischaracterized IfNotNow’s work and have thus exacerbated “a deep sense of fear in some camp donors and parents who, I assume, have been putting real pressure on Ramah leadership.”

From Portman to Chabon

The debate is further inflamed by an often caustic social-media landscape where responses come quickly and emotionally, observers say.

Recent high-profile examples have come from the celebrity world, with Israeli-American actress Natalie Portman taking flak after she refused to come to Israel to pick up an award that would have put her on the same stage as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. There was also American-Jewish author Michael Chabon’s criticism of the occupation at the graduation ceremony for Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles. An organization called Stop Antisemitism is now circulating a petition calling on the college to “apologize for promoting anti-Israel propaganda.”

Steven M. Cohen is a research professor of Jewish social policy at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion specializing in the American Jewish community. He says both that community and the wider American society have become more polarized.

“This means people in different poles look at the other as alien and immoral. For American Jewry the dimensions of polarization come along religious lines, political lines and Israel lines, and they overlap so that we have religious conservative hawks against secular or less religious liberal doves,” says Cohen, also the director of the Berman Jewish Policy Archive at Stanford.

“In this the right sees the left as disloyal and destructive and the left sees the right as immoral and dangerous. And so anybody from the right’s point of view sees anybody who questions the policies of the Israeli government as either morally or strategically problematic comes across as allied with Israel’s enemies,” he told Haaretz.

There’s also the clash between outlooks like IfNotNow’s and the more conservative line typically adhered to by Jewish donors who support institutions like Ramah.

“Typically Jewish educators, rabbis and heads of community have to maneuver between the needs of education and needs of philanthropic leadership, so in order to remain functioning and effective they have to make compromises between two opposing needs,” Cohen says. “So I fully understand how leaders of an institution have to shape rhetoric that cannot fully satisfy all constituencies at the same time.”

Arie Dubnov, a historian of 20th-century Jewish and Israeli history at George Washington University, says he is dismayed by the “battleground” terminology applied to the climate around the Israel debate on American college campuses.

“It’s amazing to me how people run to take sides. This is something very alarming, part of the age we live in,” he says, citing a rush to take courses on explaining the Israeli narrative instead of taking courses on the country’s history, politics and sociology.

Scholars of the Middle East like himself, he says, are attacked from both sides of the Jewish community when they teach, for example, about the 1947-49 war that Israelis celebrate as the War of Independence and Palestinians mourn as the Nakba, Arabic for catastrophe.

“When I teach 1948 I call it both triumph and tragedy and I get fire from both sides. The left says, ‘There was no balance of power and you are creating illusion of symmetry when things were asymmetrical,’ and from the right I am hearing ‘how dare to use the word Nakba?” Dubnov says.

Campers at Camp Ramah in the Poconos, in Lakewood, Penn., celebrate Israel Day through singing, dancing and playing games.
Courtesy of Foundation for Jewish Camp

“Part of these hysterical reactions towards attempts to understand and empathize with the other side has to with a collapse of understanding as to why we want to empathize with the other side. There is a feeling that one would forgo the merits of their own identity, which to me seems infantile. Reading what students read I’m not surprised they feel they are fed an anachronistic, idealistic version of Israel.”

As an Israeli who is an Israeli studies professor, Dubnov says he is often taken aback by criticism in his classes of critical texts by Israeli novelists and poets that in Israel have been taught as fairly mainstream works.

‘Dangerous path’

Kravitz, the Camp Ramah alum who is in IfNotNow, says she perceives a generational divide.

“The conversation about Israel/Palestine is changing as our generation takes on leadership and the occupation is more deeply entrenched by the Israeli and U.S. governments. Jewish communal institutions are being forced to reckon with ways they themselves are responsible directly or indirectly, with upholding the occupation, which harms Palestinians and Israelis in the long run,” she wrote.

“Ramah had an opportunity to show the American Jewish community that you can care about what is happening to Israelis while also teaching the truth about the realities of Palestinian suffering under occupation. And instead of doing that, they chose the dangerous path of equating criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism.”

Adina Alpert, 29, is a Los Angeles native now living in Brooklyn, an alumni of Camp Ramah in Calfornia, and an IfNotNow activist. She says joining the group enabled her to reconcile her Zionism and her criticism of Israel.

“I was surprised to find that it was a place where I was able to be a Zionist who was also vocally critical of the occupation. It was truly one of the first Jewish places where I experienced nuanced and compassionate conversations about the conflict and the American Jewish community’s relationship to it,” she wrote in an email.

“The Jewish community is finding more and more ways right now to talk honestly about the occupation and its costs. That is the direction I believe our community is headed.”

Rabbi Mitchell Cohen, director of Camp Ramah, wrote to Haaretz that he and his staff are proud of the strong Zionist program at every Ramah camp.

“Ramah is a place where our campers and staff can safely express their opinions and disagreements within a respectful and open-minded setting. However, there is a very important difference between views that are pro-Israel yet critical of specific Israeli governmental policies, and criticism that calls into question Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state. Criticism of Israel that calls into question Israel’s right to exist will not be taught or allowed at Ramah,” he wrote.

“Recently, a number of Ramah alumni affiliated with IfNotNow have urged us to change the way we teach the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We acknowledge the sincerity of many of these alumni. At the same time, we are deeply concerned about anti-Israel sentiment expressed by some involved in [IfNotNow]. One of Ramah’s highest goals is instilling in our campers and staff a deep and enduring love for Israel, and that will never change.”

IfNotNow’s statement on Facebook spoke to the future of Israel education in defiant terms. “It is clear that, because of pressure, the leadership of Ramah is siding against both its future – the Ramah alumni who may choose to send their kids to camp – and present – the current counselors at seven Ramah camps who want to make room for Israel education this summer that reflects the realities of Israel/Palestine,” IfNotNow wrote.

“Following the violence in Gaza and controversial Embassy move to Jerusalem, this issue is even more pressing and we are disappointed that without institutional support, counselors who want to make space for this education, will be ill-equipped to educate about the realities on the ground.”