Diaspora Jewish students discover the real Yitzhar

Many in the group felt nervous about meeting 'Jewish terrorists' - but soon found a very different reality to what they expected.

Avi Yellin ,

LAVI students in Samaria
LAVI students in Samaria

Off the beaten track: The Jewish town of Yitzhar in Samaria isn't usually on the itinerary of Diaspora Jewish summer trips to Israel.

A religious-Zionist community close to the Biblical city of Shechem, Yitzhar is often portrayed as "extemist" - but usually by people who have never even visited it.

In part seeking to break down those misconceptions, the LAVI movement brought over a dozen Diaspora Jewish students to the community in northern Samaria over the weekend, where they met with community activists and volunteered in a local vineyard.

The students met with local Yitzhar activists Ayelet and Akiva HaKohen, as well as former community spokesman Ezri Tubi, Yehuda Shimon from nearby Havat Gilad and representatives of the “Hilltop Youth” from surrounding mountains.

LAVI, an educational movement working to inspire young adults to find their roles in Jewish history, brought the students to Yitzhar as part of the movement’s ATID experiential leadership program.

ATID attracts politically minded post-high school students learning in Israel for a year before university who are unsatisfied with the mainstream pro-Israel organizations and are at risk of drifting towards anti-Israel movements. The selectively chosen participants are generally critical thinkers seeking a more sophisticated approach to Israel advocacy and the conflict.

“Most of the students who enroll in the ATID program could very easily have ended up in J Street,” said peace activist Rabbi Yehuda HaKohen, one of the educators on ATID. “These are some of the brightest and most passionate Jewish young adults and they’re looking for something deeper and more powerful than what the mainstream Israel advocacy groups offer.

“On the surface, J Street U appears to provide a space for nuance and intellectual depth but everyone there is expected to blindly support a two-state solution that won’t ever happen. So LAVI created a space for actual intellectual discussion about Jewish national issues and it’s attracting many students that the mainstream pro-Israel community gave up on.”

The decision to bring carefully selected students – less than half of this year’s over 40 ATID participants – to Yitzhar was based on the fact that the village is arguably the most maligned Jewish community in the world. Yitzhar residents are known to occasionally clash with local Arabs and even with Israeli security forces while resisting house demolitions or arrests. They are regular targets of journalists hostile to a Jewish presence in Judea and Samaria.

Some of the ATID students initially had misgivings about coming to Yitzhar but came away with a much more positive experience than they expected.

“When I researched the community, buzzwords like ‘violent’ and ‘extremist’ immediately put me on edge,” said Serena Schneier, who plans to begin Columbia University in the fall. “I thought we would be spending Shabbat with Jewish terrorists. But once meeting with the residents and asking them my questions about their chosen path, I was inspired by their dedication to Israel and their commitment to Jewish history.”

“I thought we were going to be meeting lunatics,” echoed another participant who asked to remain anonymous. “But what I found were principled men and women willing to sacrifice anything for a land everyone is trying to tear them away from.”

“At first the students seemed very judgmental,” admitted HaKohen. “Especially when they heard violent stories from the villagers.

“They were seeing them within the context of the westernized Jewish communities they grew up in.

“But then we instructed the students to pretend for a moment that they were visiting a small village somewhere in Latin America and that they were meeting indigenous locals locked in an ethnic conflict with other tribes and constantly being victimized by house demolitions and state violence because their government is economically subservient to the United States and because Washington’s regional agenda demands that these people be expelled from their own ancestral lands – the cradle of their entire civilization.

“Once we shifted that paradigm, participants became much more receptive to what they were hearing and far more appreciative of the strength and resolve displayed by the Yitzhar villagers.”

In addition to the ATID program and a growing network on North American college campuses, LAVI created the Alliance for New Zionist Vision (ANZV) that successfully forced the most recent World Zionist Congress to declare the Jewish people indigenous to the Land of Israel despite hardline opposition from J Street and its allies.

“LAVI encourages students to aspire to become the next major characters of their people’s story,” said Avi Krupman, a conflict resolution and global affairs student at IDC who represented the ANZV at the congress and organized the ATID trip to Yitzhar. “Young adults are challenged to identify where we are on the map of Jewish history, what national aspirations have yet to be achieved and how they can become the heroes who achieve these goals.”

“Our program satisfies something other leadership programs cannot,” added HaKohen. “Teaching students to appreciate the validity of multiple narratives while increasing their commitment to Eretz Yisrael and to the historic aspirations of the Jewish people. ATID participants emerge from the program with not only a richer understanding of their own people’s story but also with the ability to communicate that story to groups outside their traditional comfort zone, especially those most passionately involved with political issues on campus.”

A major component of LAVI’s educational agenda is something the group calls “decolonizing Jewish identity” – teaching Diaspora Jewish students to self-identify as members of a proud ancient people indigenous to the Middle East and to engage other activists on their campuses from that perspective. Spending a few days with the Jews of Yitzhar might have helped crystalize an indigenous Jewish image in the minds of ATID participants.

“As difficult as this might be for some people to understand,” Krupman suggested, “LAVI is the only Jewish movement on North American campuses that’s successfully engaging the revolutionary left and it’s simultaneously the only Jewish movement on campuses principally opposed to the division of our homeland.

“If we really are an indigenous people resisting imperialist attempts to separate us from our land, the connection between the two is obvious.”