Karen Isaacs on her Journey to Achvat Amim (Solidarity of Nations)

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The Fall 2017 cohort of Achvat Amim (Solidarity of Nations)
As we’ve observed in our interviews with Diaspora Jews of a diversity of ages, while there were a significant number of progressive North American Jews who moved to Israel during the 1960s and 70s, today very few make the same move. Karen Isaacs, a young Jewish anti-occupation activist from Toronto, Canada, defies this trend. After working as an activist in Canada and New York City, she chose to move to Israel in 2011 and become a citizen in order to make change from within. As the co-founder and director of Achvat Amim (Solidarity of Nations), a five-month volunteer and educational program in Jerusalem, she facilitates learning about the conflict and the occupation for other young Jews, and provides opportunities for them to engage with local initiatives that support Palestinian rights.

The roots of Achvat Amim are deep in the Socialist Zionist youth movement that Isaacs grew up in, Hashomer Hatzair. Over the course of two interviews with the American Jewish Peace Archive in Jerusalem (in June and October, 2017 respectively), Isaacs explained that the youth movement was fundamental in instilling in her a sense of responsibility for what happens in Israel, as well as providing her with practical leadership skills and a commitment to youth leadership. She explained that because of both the historical and present day connections between the Hashomer movement abroad and within Israel, she spent a lot of time in Israel as a young person connecting with Israelis “who in some ways felt like partners or an extension of [her] own community.” Moreover, the Hashomer movement was unique in its youth education in that it did not shy away from the challenges of addressing the occupation head on. “As long as I remember being a part of Hashomer, I remember knowing about the occupation,” she explained.

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Hillel Ben Sasson on Progressive Leadership and Jewish Identity in Israel and the Diaspora

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Grace Gleason and Hillel Ben Sasson in Jerusalem on June 1, 2017.
In the past several months, the US has seen a wave of progressive victories in local elections from New York to Jackson, Mississippi. At a time when many people are for the first time pouring their energy into building local electoral power in the US, Dr. Hillel Ben Sasson is devoting himself to a similar model of building a progressive political base from the ground up in Israel through the Academy for Liberal Israel, a leadership institute he founded in 2016. Ben Sasson has also dedicated much of his recent academic research to the relationship between Israel, the Diaspora and Jewish identity, and currently serves as a visiting professor in Israel Studies at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. In his June 1, 2017 interview with AJPA in Jerusalem, Ben Sasson spoke about the misconceptions and identity politics that impact the ability of progressive Israeli and Diaspora Jews to effectively collaborate in their activism.

To frame this problem of a lack of progressive alliances between the two groups, Ben Sasson expressed frustration about the power that many American Jews wield in Israel without being connected to efforts on the ground. He emphasized how American Jews “construct an image of Israel” that we can fit into our own identity, neglecting to interact with Israelis, politics, or truths that don’t match our image. He personally believes that there is a tendency of both rightwing and leftwing American Jews to see Israel not as a polity but as a place to express our personal values. “You think this is your moral Disneyland,” he said.

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