Across the country, Jewish kids are counting down the days to the end of school, and the start of camp and its summertime pleasure of swimming, dancing and color wars.
But even as families begin packing, the Conservative movement’s Camp Ramah has refused to allow a left-wing Jewish advocacy group that opposes the Israeli occupation to join its educational efforts.
Ramah’s director said the camps will not give IfNotNow members a platform because of the group’s strident criticism of the Jewish state.
“Ramah will not partner with any organization that is not unequivocally pro-Israel,” Rabbi Mitchell Cohen said in an email to supporters and Jewish communal leaders. “Zionism is one of our core educational pillars, and always will be.”
IfNotNow, which counts many alumni of Camp Ramah as its members, is furious that their efforts to increase education about the Palestinian experience at the camps has been publicly and strongly rebuffed after what they thought was positive engagement with Ramah.
It’s the latest example of young organizers critical of Israeli policies speaking out against the Jewish institutions that helped raise them — which they say they do out of love.
“It feels like a discrediting of all of us…the work that I do at IfNotNow is the same reason I was at Ramah for so long: it’s the belief that our Jewish community can be better,” Aviva Schwartz, a camp alumna and IfNotNow activist, told the Forward. “The values I was taught at Ramah are in line with my work at IfNotNow.”
IfNotNow was particularly angered by a passage in the email proclaiming that their camps wouldn’t allow “anti-Israel, anti-Zionist or anti-Semitic” education.
IfNotNow says that “impl[ies] that our effort…is anti-Semitic,” although it could be read as a statement’s of the camp’s general guidelines about its education efforts.
“As someone who went as a camper to three different Ramahs, who worked as a counselor for seven years, to say that I’m an anti-Semite, it hurts,” Schwartz said.
There are 15 Ramah camps across the United States, Canada and Israel, where more than 10,000 Jewish youth and teens gather to grow and goof around — and of course, learn about Judaism.
Ramah says that Israel education is a key component of its programming. Camp Ramah in Wisconsin, for example, has had reenactments of the waves of Jewish immigration to Israel and of the country’s pro- and anti-settlement activism, discussions about Israel’s religious “status quo” preventing same-sex marriage and recognition of non-Orthodox conversions, and mock Israeli army “boot camps.”
Cohen, who did not respond to a request for comment for this article, has repeatedly and publicly stated that Ramah camps are committed to developing a connection to Israel among campers.
“First we teach a love for Israel,” he told JTA last month. “Then we teach the nuances and the conflict.”
And both Ramah and IfNotNow acknowledge that a large majority of counselors and educators support its pro-Israel stance. But members of IfNotNow say that the camps did not sufficiently educate them about the Palestinian perspective or about the negative ramifications of Israeli policies.
Ramah is “where I learned these values of social justice, complexities in Israel –- gender dynamics in a religious country, refugee issues — I felt like I was getting a picture. And then I learned later in life that that wasn’t true,” Schwartz said. “I wasn’t taught about the occupation, that the Palestinians are people with a rich culture. That’s the kind of thing that makes you look back on the army nights that were seemingly so fun, and make you go, ‘Oh, why do I glorify the army?’”
IfNotNow has been kept at distance by the prominent institutions it protests, in part because, as IfNotNow says on its website, it does not explicitly support Zionism and does not oppose the BDS movement.
IfNotNow has been protesting Ramah since last November, when around 20 people protested outside of the camps’ national headquarters in New York.
IfNotNow itself originally refused to meet with Cohen in November, but 15 Ramah alums met with Cohen in March. IfNotNow says that Ramah pledged to “reevaluate” its Israel programming; Cohen told The Jerusalem Post on June 1 that he would “make sure that we are open to presenting the Israel-Palestinian conflict from a variety of perspectives,” and would work with local camps to make sure everyone could express their opinions as individuals.
But Cohen also said that he told them that Ramah “won’t allow people to teach particular opinions at camp…if they are considered to be anti-Israel or anti-Zionist.”
Monday’s email reiterated that point when recounting the meeting: “After listening to their views, we made it clear to them that while liberal pro-Israel views on the conflict can be voiced and taught at camp, we do not allow any anti-Israel, anti-Semitic or anti-Zionist education at Ramah.”
IfNotNow members say that the inclusion of “anti-Semitic” in the Monday letter implies that they themselves are anti-Semitic.
“The message is clear: We actually don’t care about these people, these alumni, so much so that we’re willing to throw them in the bucket,” Schwartz said.
The email was likely precipitated after Schwartz helped organize an IfNotNow training session on May 27 for roughly a dozen camp counselors, including several from Ramah, about how to discuss the Palestinian issue with campers. The training was covered by JTA and other Jewish outlets.
The following week, Cohen and other Ramah leaders released a statement, claiming that “recent articles in the Jewish press have mischaracterized our educational mission, leading some to believe that our 70-year history of strong pro-Israel ideology has changed. It has not.”
“Our older teens and staff members represent a range of opinions on many contemporary issues, and a wide variety of positions supporting Israel can be voiced and discussed,” the statement continued. “We do not, however, permit the sharing of anti-Israel educational messages at camp.”
Local camps echoed the national message on their Facebook pages. “We have made no changes in our approaches to Israel education from previous summers and remain firmly committed to fostering camp communities that promote strong, positive ties to the State of Israel,” the leadership of Ramah Wisconsin declared.
Schwartz finds the lack of change baffling.
“The Ramah that I went to, the message was, we grow every summer, we’re always reevaluating who we are and our programming…it just felt dishonest,” she said. “The point of camp is that it’s always dynamic, it’s never static. And that’s why it’s been so successful for so many years.”
The Ramah Commission’s earlier statement did not directly mention IfNotNow, but the email on Monday did. It denied that it had ever partnered with IfNotNow, and said that it would not do so with “any organization that was not unequivocally pro-Israel….Zionism is one of our core educational pillars, and always will be.”
Jimmy Taber, who works for a progressive Israeli organization and whose daughter will be attending a Ramah camp for the first time this summer, told the Forward that he was dismayed by Ramah’s responses. He said that he had had hesitations about sending her to Ramah — he had heard that their Israel education was “superficial, at worst jingoistic” — but was reassured after hearing about the seemingly positive March meeting. Now, though, he’s disappointed and looking for an explanation.
“I don’t understand where they got the idea that working to create a more open educational structure around Israel would somehow invite anti-Semitism or anti-Israel sentiment,” he said. “It reinforces the dichotomy of you’re pro-Israel or you’re anti-Israel – I don’t think that’s helpful, I don’t think that’s accurate…that kind of position is exactly what drives people away from those institutions.
“We desperately want to be part of these institutions — we go to a Conservative shul and Hebrew school… we want to feel welcome in those spaces, we don’t want to feel like there’s a line drawn in the sand.”
The movement to change Ramah’s Israel curriculum is, at the moment, quite small. According to Schwartz, only a dozen people participated in IfNotNow’s training, and around 50 joined a follow-up phone call — not of all of them Ramahniks, and in any event a number dwarfed by the movement’s hundreds of counselors at camps around the country (Schwartz says that many more people have expressed support in private).
And many in the Ramah community support Ramah’s Israel stance and oppose IfNotNow’s efforts, praising the camps on their Facebook pages.
Former Ramah camper Noah Phillips told the Forward that he supported teaching “a more inclusive perspective” about Israel, but took issue with IfNotNow’s tactics and its role.
IfNotNow “doesn’t explicitly support the state of Israel, they’re not against BDS. It’s contrary to Ramah’s founding principles,” he said.
“If you want to present the Palestinian perspective, that’s important, but IfNotNow has portrayed Israel as a imperialist state and an aggressor,” he added. “It’s not true.”
IfNotNow has created what it calls a “Liberation Syllabus” of resources for creating what they see as better Israel programs. It includes books and poetry by Palestinian and left-wing Israeli authors, Oscar-nominated documentaries about the conflict like “The Gatekeepers” and “5 Broken Cameras,” and links to regional organizations like Breaking the Silence and Visualizing Palestine.
IfNotNow wants such resources to be used at other camps besides Ramah, such as the Reform movement’s camps and youth groups. Dozens of alumni of that movement’s youth program signed a letter last week asking the movement to condemn Israeli soldiers’ killing of 60 Palestinians on the Gaza border.
Schwartz says that if Ramah doesn’t change, she doesn’t know if she’d be able to send her future kids there.
“I don’t want my kids to feel the same pain that I am right now,” she said. “God forbid my kids would then be called anti-Semites by their Jewish home.”
Aiden Pink is the Deputy News Editor for the Forward.