'Even now, I’m unpicking the indoctrination': Growing up in a Zionist youth movement

Vashti speaks to former Jewish youth leaders who have struggled to reconcile their values with their Zionist education.

'Even now, I’m unpicking the indoctrination': Growing up in a Zionist youth movement
Members of the international modern Orthodox youth movement Bnei Akiva wave Israeli flags while celebrating Shabbat in Hashmonaim, an Israeli settlement in the occupied West Bank. Credit: Adam Fagen

Katie* joined the modern Orthodox youth group Bnei Akiva (BA), which she now describes as “a militant Zionist youth group”, when she was six. Katie never felt completely at home in the group, but it was the only Jewish youth movement with a presence in her small Essex community. 

By the time it had come for Katie to go on Israel tour – a rite of passage common to British Jewish youth movements, in which sixteen-year-olds spend a month travelling around Israel – she was beginning to feel uneasy about BA’s ideological leanings, particularly its support for members moving to Israel and joining the IDF, and its strong opposition to Jews “marrying out”.

Tour was an alienating experience for her before it even started. As the coach full of teenagers arrived at Heathrow, Katie says she heard a chorus of boos directed at a sculpture of an Emirates aeroplane. “I remember another kid standing up and being like, ‘Guys, that's not cool,’ and then people calling him an ‘Arab-lover’,” she continued.  

Once in Israel, she recalls having to spend Shabbat at a Jewish settlement in the West Bank; being told off for hugging a boy in her tour group (as BA abides by Orthodox negiah rules that prohibit physical contact between people of different genders); and a callousness from members of her tour group towards Palestinians in Gaza, who at the time – as now – were suffering under Israeli bombardment. When she met Reform and Masorti tour groups, she remembers “everyone seemed to care a lot more about how sad and difficult the situation was, whereas at BA, everyone was just talking about, ‘When can we rebuild the Temple and take back the Temple Mount?’”

Katie’s tour, and the other tour groups she met, were all facilitated by the United Jewish Israel Appeal (UJIA), a UK-based charity that exists to foster connection between British Jewry and Israel. Almost every Jewish youth movement in the UK – conservative or progressive, religious or secular – relies heavily on UJIA funding.

My upbringing in the Masorti youth movement, Noam, was very different to Katie’s. There was no overt incitement to join the IDF (though IDF hoodies were common), and education about Israel at Noam, as at other more progressive youth movements, appeared to be more thoughtful and nuanced. 

“From a very young age, we were criticising not Zionism, but the state of Israel,” said Ari*, who was heavily involved with the Reform youth movement RSY-Netzer. “We’d apply our religious values to everything, including Zionism. Everyone is made in the image of God, so the Zionism that we believed in was one in which everyone who lives in Israel-Palestine has equal rights,” they said. At the time they believed that “if Israel exists, and therefore I have this right to return, my ultimate responsibility is to go there, to claim that right to return, to take part and to try and fix it.” They now describe this outlook as “so misguided”.

The movement’s liberal Zionism was underpinned by the belief that “Jews should be safe somewhere”, which presupposed that Jews can never truly be safe in the diaspora.

Encountering Holocaust denial, or being asked to answer for Israel’s actions, especially in childhood, can understandably reinforce feelings of precariousness among British Jews, but Holocaust education in Jewish spaces, including in youth movements, is often used to bolster the belief that Israel is essential for Jewish safety.

Josie Cohen (who is – full disclosure – my aunt) remembers a disturbing educational programme that mimicked how Jews were herded into gas chambers during the Holocaust. “The madrichim [leaders] put us in some dark room, and then let off a deodorant can, and everyone was losing their shit,” she said.

This was a particularly potent instance of fearmongering from her early years in Noam, which she joined as a child in the early nineties, and went on to lead a decade later. While Cohen is certain that no Jewish youth movement would run as extreme an activity nowadays, she noticed a pattern in what she was taught about Jewish history, and went on to teach others. “There was a lot of programming about how scary it is to be Jewish and scary things that have happened to Jewish people, and then Israel was always presented as the answer to that,” she said.

The propagation of this fear continued during my childhood in Noam in the 2010s. Though I remember more nuanced discussions taking place, the experience that stands out from my Zionist education is a game of capture the flag based on the Six Day War. The set-up for the game obscured the fact that Israel struck first, which reinforced the idea that Israel – and by extension Jews – are under constant threat from Arabs.

As a Noam leader, Cohen ran programmes about different parts of Jewish history, but the precariousness of the diaspora was always part of the narrative. “We were allowed to program whatever we wanted,” she said, “but I was a product of Noam, and Zionism is in the bones of the organisation, just as it’s in the bones of the adult Jewish community.”

Cohen and her now-wife moved to Israel in 2009, but quickly became disillusioned and returned to the UK less than a year later. “I thought that we could live there and be left-wing activists and that would be doing our bit, but it just wasn't the reality at all,” she said. “I became convinced that, if we stayed there for too long, then we would genuinely start to feel that a Jewish life is worth more than a non-Jewish life, because that underpins so much of what that country is based on.”

Sara Moon, who was part of the socialist Zionist youth group Habonim Dror, also latched onto her movement’s idealised vision of Israel as a teenager. “I found a lot of resonance with socialist Zionism and the idea of living collectively on the kibbutz, and working the land being a part of how we heal as Jewish people who have had a lot of disconnect and dispossession from land,” she said.

Connecting to the land has remained central to her Judaism, though Zionism has not. Moon went on to found Miknaf Ha’aretz, a diasporist Jewish community that promotes land justice in the UK and beyond.

She also discovered that, despite never learning about it as a child, land-based socialist Judaism has a history in the diaspora, including in her native Manchester. Moon takes particular inspiration from the activist Benny Rothman, whose organising focused on workers’ access to the countryside: “He was just an amazing activist, who loved the outdoors and who was arrested and beaten up by the police,” she said. “How did I grow up in Manchester and not learn about Benny Rothman as a Jewish icon?”

The focus on the Holocaust and on Jewish suffering when learning about the diaspora also means that youth movements' historical education is generally Ashkenormative. Ezra*, a former leader within RSY, has both Ashkenazi and Iraqi Jewish heritage. They started to question how little the movement had taught them about Mizrahi and Sephardi Jewish history when their Iraqi grandmother died. “Despite the amount of time that I’ve spent in this Jewish educational setting, I'd actually never learned very much at all about the history of families like my family, or people from that region in general, beyond the fact that there are Mizrahim in Israel and they aren’t always treated the best,” they said.

They started reading about the Jewish history of Iraq, and learned that the mass emigration of Jews in the 1950s was not a simple narrative in which Israel saved the day. Rather, Israel’s founding precipitated a wave of violence against Iraq’s largely non-Zionist Jewish population. Ezra was shocked to learn that Israel negotiated the migration of Iraqi Jews, in large part to facilitate a never-realised deportation of Palestinians to Iraq.

“None of it neatly conforms to the Ashkenazi history of antisemitism,” said Ezra. “My breaking point with Zionism was, I think, accelerated by that process.”

Jewish youth movements, and British Jewish life more broadly, foster suspicion of Arab Jewish histories that do not neatly fit with familiar narratives. As Katie was moving away from Zionism, she began to take an interest in North African Jewish history, and decided to take Arabic classes at university. “The reaction from my friends and my community was like, ‘You’re just taking Arabic to piss us off; you’re just taking Arabic to be pro-Palestinian’,” she said. “I didn't learn Palestinian Arabic. I learnt Moroccan Arabic, which is very different. And I was interested in Moroccan Jewish culture.”

Moon was likewise met with hostility when she started to challenge Zionist ideas. “When I got to university and I started to meet Palestinian refugee students, I didn't understand how to bring what I was learning from Habonim into what I was learning from people who were telling me about their own family histories in Palestine,” she said. “I brought those questions to the youth movement, where I was met with disdain, as if those weren’t real questions we could grapple with.”

Many of the people I spoke to have complicated feelings about their involvement in Zionist youth movements, viewing them as spaces where they formed identities, in particular queer identities, and learned skills they would go on to use as activists, but equally grappling with shame and confusion over the narratives they were fed. “Even now, I’m unpicking the indoctrination. It still hurts,” said Cohen.

Ari struggles with the realisation that they were “passing on this indoctrination to young kids”, having believed at the time they were teaching “critical judgement”. “I can only hope that for any of the young people who I led, whom I cared for, eventually those values click into place,” they said.

Today, alternatives to Zionist youth movements are starting to emerge. “Lefty Jewish spaces have talked about the need for a diaspora Jewish youth movement space for a long time, but it’s taken a little while to take root,” says Moon, who started Camp Beenu, a diasporist summer camp for teens and families, in 2022. Running the camp without institutional funding is a challenge, but Moon says she is used to it, being on the left.

“What we're trying to do is build a really safe container where [participants] can learn about radical Jewish resistance from across the diaspora, and learn how to be an amazing activist and build a movement for social change,” she said. She also wants Camp Beenu to be a space for parents to “heal and repair their youth movement experiences”, and for children and teens to “have a safe space to really explore and ask questions and without any kind of dogmatic framework.”

Cracks are even forming in some traditionally Zionist youth movements as the next generation of movement leaders push boundaries. In 2018, an RSY movement leader was barred from leading Israel tour after attending an event held outside Parliament where British Jews said kaddish for Palestinians who had recently been killed by the IDF while protesting the blockade on Gaza as part of the Great March of Return.

After this, one source shared that “the UJIA developed a new set of guidelines for the youth movement, which basically set out what permitted speech was and wasn’t around Israel: what actions would be crossing a line in terms of having UJIA funding and support.” The rules, they say, effectively banned movement leaders from joining anti-occupation group Na’amod. Leaders in subsequent years were warned that participating in pro-Palestine activism could harm RSY’s reputation. Neither the UJIA nor RSY responded to a request for comment.

Losing UJIA financial support would be a serious blow to any of the groups that rely on them for funding, but, as democratic youth movements, they are theoretically free to take the harder road and break free of top-down Zionist propaganda. Though this remains a remote possibility, Jewish young adults and teens who grew up in UJIA-funded movements are increasingly questioning Zionist dogma.

“I do think that it's important that [Jewish] youth movements can exist,” said Ezra, who has observed that they can be a springboard into leftist organising.

Ari believes it is important for Jews like them, who have worked to undo the Zionist indoctrination of their childhoods, to speak up. “To not tell those stories out of shame only serves to cement the destiny and ideology of those educated within Zionist institutions", they said. "More and more of us are committing to unlearning and taking action, and we must continue to make visible and welcoming space for Jews with that backstory to make radical changes to their outlooks”.▼

Sasha Baker is an editor at Vashti. They are also an investigative journalist and a podcast producer.