Israeli Youth Making Their Voices Heard

On August 2, I went to Abie Nathan's Forest*, situated at the edge of Neve Shalom/Wahat al-Salam, a joint Palestinian-Jewish community in the hills southeast of Jerusalem. Usually only a cool summer breeze and some hikers pass through the forest, on Thursday it was bustling with over 80 young people aged 13 to 20. They were all there for the 3rd consecutive Alternative Summer Camp for Youth, organized and led by a group of committed young Israeli social and political activists. The youth attended workshops and lectures, went on educational tours and did role-playing games, all related to ending the occupation, promoting human rights and bringing about political and social change. These summer camps have become a very powerful tool for empowering young people to become effective and intelligent activists — and a place where a growing community of young activists is slowly forming. I was invited to the camp to lead a workshop on how activists can learn to support one another effectively in their work. I actually started my political activism as a five-year-old boy, going with my father to demonstrations outside the prison where Abie Nathan was being held for meeting with representatives of the PLO — still considered a punishable crime in the late 1980s. I also remember accompanying my mother to the Acre (Akko) police station, where she regularly applied for permits to hold the Women in Black demonstrations, of which she was an organizer. These early experiences have instilled in me an understanding of how powerful human beings can be when they set their minds to a cause worth fighting for. I remembered this when I refused to serve in the Israeli military in 1999 and decided to wage a campaign to make public the principles behind my act. Deciding to take a public, principled stand, understanding that your words and deeds are of consequence, was one of the main topics of my workshop. Young people rarely get a chance to make their voices and opinions heard. As a result, most young people have given up on making a difference, and many have abandoned even the idea of holding their own opinions. This makes it easier for young people, and for the rest of us as we get older, to go silent when we see injustice done, and feel numb and hopeless about being able to end injustices. Consequently, when young people decide to take a principled, public stand and voice their opinions, they must also take a stand against the feelings in their own mind constantly telling them they have no power, second-guessing their thoughts and actions. This is partially why criticism and blame, even from people in your own camp, can be so crushing — because they reinforce these confusing voices in our heads, and make it easier to give up on our goals. Another important element is the understanding that in being supportive of one another as we work towards our goals, we can be much more powerful. We get to listen to each other talk about our fears of, and difficulties with, the challenges we have decided to take upon ourselves, and support one another to move forward, no matter how small we may feel ourselves to be. I have seen this principle in action many times, such as when I supported the Shministim (12th graders), the movement of young Israeli conscientious objectors who refused to serve in the occupied territories. Formed in 2000, it has grown into a most impressive tool for young people to take powerful public stands to end the occupation, and has become one of the largest and most powerful young people's movements in Israel. I see great hope in this new growing movement of young Israeli activists, for whom the summer camp is a meaningful tool for organization and inspiration. *Abie Nathan was the founder of the offshore radio station "Voice of Peace" and one of the first Israelis to meet Yassir Arafat and other PLO figures.