In the past week, a Jewish summer camp in the Pacific Northwest, Camp Solomon Schechter, committed a ‘heinous offense’ against Israel and everything holy. Its director invited the interfaith NGO, Kids for Peace, to bring Israeli Jewish, Palestinian and Christian children to Schechter. There they hosted a series of educational workshops and discussions about their lives in Israel-Palestine. One part of the program involved the Israeli children raising the flags of Israel, the U.S. and other countries before a camp audience. Apparently, the Palestinian children saw everyone else’s flag and asked if they could raise the flag of Palestine.
Though the camp director, Sam Perlin, is an ardent Zionist, even a fan of StandWithUs, he agreed and raised the flag. That was just the beginning of one of the most depressing episodes of pro-Israel histrionics I’ve seen in many a year. The news of the flag-raising spread like wildfire throughout the American Jewish community. Articles and social media flooded the internet with diatribes against the ‘traitorous act’ by Schechter’s leadership. There were geschreis of Palestinians are Nazis, they’d like to put us in the ovens, etc. It was ugly.
The camp, about to commence a capital building campaign, backtracked and e-mailed a profuse apology to parents of campers and the local Jewish community. The apology was posted for a time on Schechter’s Facebook page. That’s when the vitriol really took off like wildfire. The Palestinian flag was compared to the Nazi flag. Perlin was called a kapo, a collaborator with the Nazis.
Very few of the worst shreyers live here in the Northwest and even less have ever had anything to do with the camp. But that didn’t stop them from shooting off their mouths.
In the interest of full disclosure, my daughter attended the camp this summer (she was not there at the time of the flag-raising) and had a wonderful experience. She plans to return in the future. My older son also attended Schechter and, for whatever reason, he didn’t like it and now attends a different Jewish camp.
Ever since Sam posted a glowing account of an Israel tour he took with StandWithUs, he and I have not been especially fond of each other. Politically, he stands for much of what I think is wrong with the Jewish community. But that has little to do with whether he runs a camp that does good for Jewish kids. Clearly, he does. And I say this in spite of my own strong views about Israel, which contradict his.
I’ve examined the Kids for Peace. Here is the statement it released after the controversy ensued. While the group generally has laudable goals, this portion of the statement struck me as either naïve or downright pandering to normalization:
During the visit, the camp raised the Palestinian flag alongside the American and Israeli flags, as a gesture of welcome to all of our visiting youth. Since then, many have loudly criticized that decision, while others have supported it as a step toward peace.
To some, the Palestinian flag evokes the failure of past negotiations, continued hostility toward Israel, and a feeling that there is no partner for peace. At the same time, the Palestinian youth who came to camp are precisely those peace leaders who are reaching out to work with Israelis, to counter incitement, and build a new future on a foundation of mutual respect and understanding.
It’s a plain vanilla NGO which seeks to acquaint Palestinians with Jews and Zionism so that they won’t have a poisoned view of it. There are a number of such programs both involving children and adults. Personally, I don’t think such groups do much good at denting the real issues that divide Muslims and Jews, Israelis and Palestinians. They are a liberal-Zionist band-aid on a tumor that requires long-term treatment, instead of feel-good fixes.
All that being said, both Kids for Peace and Perlin’s gesture toward the Palestinian children were well-meaning and sincere. They should not be condemned. And certainly the level of toxin injected into the body politic by this program tells us much more about the closing of the American Jewish mind around Israel-Palestine, than it does about the allegedly perfidious acts of those who sponsored this event.
In a comment I posted at the Camp Facebook page before it was closed due to the poisonous nature of some of the comments, I reminded the naysayers that current U.S. policy supports a two-state solution. Nominally, the Israeli government does as well. In fact, Israel’s Prime Minister Netanyahu has been photographed with the Palestinian Pres. Mahmoud Abbas in front of both Israeli and Palestinian flags. If Bibi can do it why can’t Camp Schechter?
I was born and raised in a Conservative Jewish shul. I was educated at a Conservative summer camp, Ramah. I attended a Conservative seminary, Jewish Theological Seminary. My family belongs to a Conservative Seattle shul. Solomon Schechter is a camp affiliated with the Conservative movement.
If the Conservative movement shrinks from even the mildest embrace of a two-state solution. If it threatens the careers of an educator for such a program. If it capitulates to the darkest impulses in our community, then perhaps it doesn’t deserve to survive. I don’t say this as someone who relishes the prospect. But political and religious movements must fulfill a need. They must represent a constituency. The Conservative movement increasingly represents a narrower and narrower slice of the American Jewry. Precisely for reasons like this.
This apology published by Perlin and the camp’s board president left me even more depressed:
“Camp Solomon Schechter regrets raising the Palestinian flag alongside US, Canadian and Israeli flags on Thursday and Friday mornings and it is a long standing CSS custom to lower flags for Shabbat and raise them again Sunday morning,” the statement said. “We neglected to foresee in such actions the serious political implications and for that lapse in judgment, we are deeply sorry.”
And the problem doesn’t lie with Conservative Judaism alone. The entire American Jewish community has been set adrift on questions of Israel and Palestine. We’ve allowed the bellicose shouters of StandWithUs, the Israel Project, and Zionist Organization of America to monopolize the discourse. This in turn, has driven away our young people. They see hate like this and they turn away from it instinctively: if this is what it means to be Jewish today in America, they don’t want any part of it. At least as far as Israel is concerned.
Does anyone really believe that this spew and hatred will take the place of a real Jewish identity? Does anyone believe that Sheldon Adelson’s $100-million will permit Birthright to replace a real Jewish identity? These posit a Jewish identity monopolized not just by Israel, but by a narrow, intolerant vision of Israel. Is this what we want? A Judaism impoverished? Restricted to a Zionist shtetl like the Diaspora Jews whom Israeli Zionists used to despise?
This may cheer you up: West Wing actor, Joshua Malina, wrote this account of his recent trip to Israel-Palestine with Encounter and commented on the Schechter incident.