Jewish Youth

Habonim Dror Cultivates A Sophisticated Take on Jewish Identity

Pablo D. Flores / Wikimedia

Amidst all the hand-wringing brought about by the Pew Study on Jewish Americans, a new study released this week reveals that fostering a progressive, critical-thinking culture among North American Jewish youth about Israel actually works to instill commitment to the Jewish homeland.

In “Building Progressive Zionist Activists: Exploring the Impact of Habonim Dror,” Steven M. Cohen and Steven Fink find that fostering a critical wrestling with Israel apparently serves not to alienate Jewish youth from Israel, but rather to shore up their attachments. Habonim Dror North America is a progressive, Labor Zionist youth movement whose guiding principles include “[building up] the State of Israel as a progressive, egalitarian, cooperative society, at peace with its neighbors; actively involved in a Peace Process with the Palestinian people with the common goal of a just and lasting peace; and as the physical and spiritual center of the Jewish people.”

The movement retains some quaint principles in this hyper-capitalist age, principles including a declared commitment to, dare they say it—socialism—as well as to related conceptions of social justice. But rather than alienate its youth from what has become the “start-up” nation of high-tech Israel, which is seeing a growing class divide, Habonim’s youth evidently retain a commitment to wanting to devote their lives or parts of their lives, anyway, to the future of Israel. Those who do land in Israel often seek out collective living experiences—whether in yesterday’s communal kibbutzim, or in today’s “irbutzim”—urban-based experiments in communal living.

A whopping 23 percent of the survey respondents have made aliyah (half of which have returned to North America); fully 97 percent have been to Israel, and 85 percent have been there twice or more. A comparison sample of New York Jews who had been to summer camps other than Habonim Dror (Haredim and those who attend synagogue more than weekly were excluded) reveal that only 48 percent have been to Israel, with only 8 percent ever having lived in Israel. Of those living in North America, 56 percent of the Habonim Dror sample feel “very attached to Israel” compared to 47 percent of the other sample.

Of the roughly half who identify with a political party in Israel, the vast majority identify with parties on the left, including Labor and Meretz. They tend to favour a settlement freeze, disapprove of Netanyahu’s performance, and are equally critical of Israel and the PA’s intentions.

Neither do these political stances preclude a general sense of Jewish engagement, with Habonim Dror alumni more likely to display a variety of attachments and adherence to practices, including lighting Shabbat candles, having mostly Jewish friends, belonging to a Jewish organization other than a synagogue or JCC, and feeling that being part of a Jewish community is very important. And while the study’s authors are careful to suggest that this is likely due to family and upbringing influences independent of the Habonim Dror experience, I would add that this also suggests that critical engagement with Israel can and does coexist with overall Jewish attachment and affiliation. Jewish doves on Israel are therefore not the fifth column of the community that the North American Jewish establishment sometimes tries to make them out to be.

I spoke with Kali Silverman, the National Director of Habonim Dror North America. Unlike a lot of what passes for teaching the next generation to advocate for Israel at every turn, Habonim-Dror’s approach is different. “It’s not how do you defend Israel, but how do you open up a constructive conversation?” Silverman says.

For those in the movement, this means cultivating an attachment to Israel while fostering critical thinking. Silverman adds, “It’s not the kind of criticism where you throw your hands up in the air and give up.”

For those who have had even a passing association with Habonim Dror (full disclosure: I worked for one summer as a counsellor in Habonim’s West-Coast Canadian summer camp), little of this is surprising. Neither is it surprising that, when reflecting on Nelson Mandela’s death, The Forward journalist J.J. Goldberg thought back to his days in Habonim (the movement amalgamated with Dror in 1982), about their inculcated attachment to Israel just as they immersed themselves in civil rights struggles all over the world and closer to home, including the struggle for freedom in South Africa, the protest of an unjust war in Vietnam, and the fight for dignity in Mississippi.

For Habonim Dror alumni, the question of tribalism versus universalism—the dichotomy that has become tired and overused within the Jewish lexicon as various segments of the community seek to display their Jewish and Zionist stripes—has ultimately proven a false one.