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June 13, 2018 8:20 pm

After Pressure From ‘Anti-Occupation’ Group, Camp Ramah Affirms Opposition to ‘Any Anti-Israel, Antisemitic, Anti-Zionist Education’

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IfNotNow protesters outside the 2017 AIPAC conference in Washington, DC. Photo: IfNotNow via Wikimedia Commons.

A summer camp network affiliated with Conservative Judaism has pledged not to engage with an activist group that has criticized its approach to Israel education.

Leaders of Camp Ramah — whose programs annually include more than 11,000 children and staff members in the US and Israel — distributed a letter on Monday to institutional partners following criticism by the Jewish group IfNotNow, which accuses Ramah of failing to recognize Palestinian narratives when teaching its campers about Israel.

Ramah camps have not engaged — and will not engage — in any way with If Not Now as an organization,” members of the National Ramah Commission (NRC), led by director Rabbi Mitchell Cohen, asserted. “Ramah will not partner with any organization that is not unequivocally pro-Israel.”

The letter acknowledged that while National Ramah staff met in March with 15 camp alumni affiliated with IfNotNow, “we made it very clear to them that while liberal pro-Israel views on the conflict can be voiced and taught at camp, we do not allow any anti-Israel, anti-Semitic or anti-Zionist education at Ramah.”

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IfNotNow bills itself as a movement spearheaded by young American Jews, and seeks to pressure Jewish communal institutions to publicly oppose Israel’s “occupation of the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, and East Jerusalem.” It does not take an official stance on Zionism, “the question of statehood,” or the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel.

The group — which has compiled a “liberation syllabus” with resources like novels, articles, and poems on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, many by Palestinian and left-wing Israeli authors — first held a protest outside Ramah offices last November, calling on its leadership to commit to including education about “the occupation.”

It continued its campaign with a training session on May 27, organized to help camp counselors share the Palestinian narrative with their charges. That session was attended by about a dozen counselors from Conservative, Reform, and liberal Zionist camps, and those who were unable to attend could also join a follow-up call held on June 4.

On June 6, following news coverage of the trainings, the NRC released a statement claiming that “some recent articles in the Jewish press have mischaracterized our educational mission, leading some to believe that our 70-year history of strong pro-Israel ideology has changed.”

“We, the leadership of Ramah, are proud that Zionism is a central part of our core mission, as we nurture within our campers and staff members a deep and enduring love for Israel,” they wrote.

A group of Ramah alumni who are members of IfNotNow condemned both of the NRC’s letters on Tuesday, indicating they did not reflect the tone Ramah leaders adopted at their March meeting, when Cohen “committed to prioritizing change around Israel education at camp.”

“We left with a verbal commitment from Rabbi Cohen that, this summer, more of the painful stories of Occupation would be included in the curriculum,” the alumni wrote. “As he put it, ‘Palestinian narratives… what you would call ‘the harshness of the Occupation,’… is language for real human suffering. It exists and it’s horrible and it’s sad and [it] needs to be part of what we teach kids when they learn about Israel.’”

The group also challenged the NRC’s claim that activists were told that “anti-Israel, anti-Semitic, or anti-Zionist messages may not be taught at camp.”

“At no point did we ask Ramah’s leadership to endorse anti-Israel, anti-Zionist, or anti-Semitic educational content,” they observed. “It goes without saying that IfNotNow, a group of deeply committed young Jews, is not an anti-Semitic organization, and it is cowardly and offensive of Ramah’s leadership to imply otherwise.”

“We will continue to stand by Ramah staff, whether or not the National Ramah leadership has the moral courage to do so.”

The NRC did not respond to a request for comment by press time.

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