Young U.S. Jews Want to Know Why No One Told Them About the Israeli Occupation

IfNotNow launches 'You Never Told Me' campaign, calling on Jewish educational groups to inform students about Israel's policies and to include the Palestinian narrative

Members of the anti-occupation group IfNotNow, protesting outside the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, Tuesday November 7, 2017.
Adina Cooper

NEW YORK – About 20 protesters from the U.S. anti-occupation group IfNotNow held a rally outside the Jewish Theological Seminary on Tuesday night, standing in the rain to demand that the Conservative movement’s Camp Ramah start talking about the Israeli occupation.

It was the first demonstration in the mainly millennial group’s “You Never Told Me” campaign, which calls on Jewish educational groups to include information about the occupation in their teachings about Israel.

The campaign’s official website says it came out of “realizations that the Israel education we received during our youth was one-sided and incomplete,” calling on the institutions to “include an honest understanding of the occupation and Palestinian narratives.”

The website quotes dozens of alumni of various Jewish schools, camps and youth groups with writers saying they feel mislead by their education.

Rabbi Mitch Cohen, director of the National Ramah Commission, says his organization has been teaching about the occupation, albeit emphasizing Palestinian suffering less than IfNotNow members might like.

“We don’t differ on the importance of teaching our teens and staff about the difficulties of the occupation,” he told Haaretz. “We do differ on the amount of focus it should get.”

Dozens of Israeli counselors at each camp share their experiences with campers in age-appropriate ways, he added. Counselors “come with their own personal narrative. Left, right and center, religious and nonreligious. We don’t censor them and we ask them to share their real stories,” said Cohen.

At a time when Birthright Israel has instructed its trip providers to cancel meetings between participants and Arab Israelis, IfNotNow spokesman Yonah Lieberman said the protest was especially important because of Ramah’s reach – and because the criticism comes from alumni who love the camp.

Rabbi Mitch Cohen, director of the National Ramah Commission.
Mitchell Cohen/National Ramah Commission

Ramah is a network of nine overnight camps and four North American day camps, hosting more than 11,000 campers and young staff members every summer. That makes it one of the largest Jewish educational systems in North America. Cohen said there are between 150,000 and 200,000 Ramah alumni. It is perhaps unique among liberal, religious Jewish camps in its focus on Jewish texts, Hebrew language and Israel.

Ramah camps also bring over some 250 young Israeli staff members each summer to work as counselors.

Communication between IfNotNow and Ramah started at the end of October, when an activist emailed Cohen, writing, “We demand that Ramah programs start telling the truth: Include the Israeli occupation in your Israel programming.”

“We offered to meet with them to learn more about their concerns, but were disappointed when that offer was rejected in favor of social media campaigns and public protest. Our offer stands,” Cohen wrote in a November 7 statement.

As IfNotNow protesters stood Tuesday outside the doors of the fortress-like JTS (where Ramah is based), they hoped Cohen would emerge and engage with them, said the campaign’s organizer, Eliana Fishman. Cohen told Haaretz that neither he nor any other Ramah staffer would be there.

Cohen told Haaretz, “We invite open dialogue and debate, and look forward to hearing more from them. These are good, well-meaning alumni and we share the same values.”

Campers at Camp Ramah in the Poconos, Lakewood, Pennsylvania, celebrating Israel Day, July 2017.
Courtesy of Foundation for Jewis

Fishman, 29, alleged that this isn’t always true. She is a graduate student at Columbia University who attended Ramah camps in Nyack, N.Y. and the Berkshires for 10 summers. Ramah camps work with right-leaning groups like Stand With Us, she charged, running activities that promote militarism and the settlements.

Cohen said he was inundated by close to 300 emails after IfNotNow began its campaign. But what surprised him most, he said, was “the level of vitriol on the other side,” in notes sent to him supporting the way Ramah presents the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

IfNotNow has “caused a great deal of anger among millennials I’m hearing from that they do not represent Ramah alumni – that they are not appreciative of what Ramah has given them,” Cohen said.

Richard Rosengarten, 29, spent 12 years as a Ramah camper and counselor in Georgia. He was one of several alumni to post critical comments on IfNotNow’s Facebook page. “I don’t think Ramah hid anything from me,” Rosengarten told Haaretz. He described himself as “a left-leaning centrist.”

In his Facebook post he wrote, “I don’t think they neglected to teach us about the occupation. I remember programs on the settlements, Israeli counselors on either side of the Gaza pull-out. And when we went to Israel programming included a day of unstructured hanging out with Israeli Arabs and lectures by Palestinians, who definitely spoke about the occupation. I remember an Israeli counselor storming out. Ramah for me played an overwhelmingly positive, formative role” in his perspective on the issues, he wrote.

The IfNotNow protest ended with participants clasping hands and singing “Rad Hayom,” to the tune of “Taps,” which concludes each day at Ramah camps.

Fishman said her organization hopes to have further talks with Ramah. “Tonight’s event shows how many Ramah alumni want their camp to reflect their values. I hope this is the first of many conversations,” she said.