Last week I ran into my ex-boyfriend, Mark, at a Whole Foods salad bar. We had dated on and off for about fifteen years, and spent many summers together at a Jewish Zionist summer camp in Three Rivers, Michigan, in the early 1980’s. When I saw him reaching for the cottage cheese right next to the tofu I was reaching for, I thought about turning away and not saying anything, pretending that I hadn’t seen him. I had a second to decide–he was moving on to the BBQ chicken on the other side–and in that moment, a flurry of memories came to my mind. I thought, at first, what a horrible cliché to run into an ex at a Whole Foods salad bar, and then, I remembered how much I loved him during the high school, college, and graduate school years we were periodically together. My deep love for him was fiercely connected to my deep love for Israel, because it had been born at Zionist summer camp. Ultimately, I decided to turn towards him and say hello.
Like many other young Jewish Americans, I spent several summers at Jewish camp. I was part of the Habonim (Hebrew for “builders”) youth movement, a Zionist, Socialist camp that models itself on a kibbutz. We lived in Israeli tents that we, American suburban Jews, put together ourselves. We sang “Hatikvah” every morning at the flagpole as we raised the Israeli flag. We worked in the morning, we lived in nature, and we developed a sense of who we were and who we wanted to be–living out a particular kind of egalitarian idealism in a simulated kibbutz. We were fashioning a mode of liberation available to us only in the eight-week summer session of camp. During the school year, we were young, mostly upper-middle class budding suburban capitalists–Jews in a secular world (destined later in life to shop for tofu and organic meats at Whole Foods).
In the evenings at camp, after Israeli folk dancing, we fooled around, exploring our sexuality, in a space seemingly filled with freedom and openness, as we deepened our love for Israel at our simulated kibbutz. Our adoration for Israel was a kind of love that, for me, and many other young Zionists, felt much like a first love–a deep attachment to something felt strongly in our hearts. The bunk beds in our tents touched each other, and only sheer mosquito netting separated us. One night, a friend in the bunk next to mine had sex for the first time–our bunk beds so close that the metal bars on my bed were shaking as he and another camper moved on top of each other–and I could hear the Israeli music from the Israeli folk dancing still in the distance. Though I wasn’t the one losing my virginity, I felt part of something big.
Jewish American Zionist camps help to develop identity among Jewish youth. They teach important decision-making skills in a supposed democratic collective. They’re designed to instill and deepen a love for Israel. They are also a place for young people to learn about living away from home and they become a space to experiment sexually under the nationalistic ethos of Zionism. Most of the camps associated with these Zionist youth movements have a goal to build a love for Israel that might ultimately persuade Jews to move there. Habonim, for example, features a gap year in between high school and college called “Workshop,” where high school graduates, in a work/study program, live on a kibbutz for the year. The Habonim website features a video about “Hannah,” a young woman who describes Workshop as a “Labor Zionist youth movement whose main goal is to create social justice and Jewish values in Israeli society.” Hannah is spending her Workshop year, she tells us in her video, “teaching about equality and shared existence” in various Arab villages. Arriving in Israel, and setting foot on the land, finally, for the first time, the Jewish youth consummate the unrequited wandering of the diaspora. The summer camp becomes a kind of foreplay, the anticipation builds for years, and landing in Israel is the ultimate fulfillment. I know the feeling well. A letter I sent to my parents in 1992, when I was a Zionist, two months after arriving in Israel for graduate school reads, “I’ve finally made it to Israel. And I’ll be here long enough to see the seasons change.” I also described the Palestinian man I was dating (not telling them he was Palestinian). “I knew I loved him when I saw him look towards the Judean Hills,” I wrote, “and I noticed how his chin was aligned perfectly with the hills.” The “Judean Hills” are occupied Palestine, of course, and as a Palestinian man, he was looking out at his homeland, Palestine. In sexualizing my experience in Israel–eroticizing the Zionist connection between person and place–I had appropriated his. I didn’t know better. The angle of his chin was very attractive to my twenty-two year old self, which was in love, and far from home.
During the camp summer sessions, we were Socialists who believed in the motto we chanted, “Give what you can, take what you need.” This saying was specifically meant for our additional pot of money, collected separately from our tuition. We called this extra money “Kupah,” Hebrew for “cash register.” Habonim explains the concept of “Kupah” on its website:
[I]n Habonim Dror we translate it as a ‘cooperative fund.’ Kupah is how we incorporate elements of cooperative living into camp life. All campers pool their funds and then decide as a democratic community how to use those funds. The idea of Kupah is one of the most important elements in the educational program and ideology of Habonim Dror. Through Kupah campers learn about sharing, teamwork, compromise, democracy, budgeting and more. Kupah funds are also used as a central canteen from which campers can draw small personal necessities such as toiletries, stationery, etc. The fund can also be used for special treats as decided by the campers.
It was our parents, of course, who paid for all of our camp expenses. One summer, a camper’s Kupah check for twenty-five dollars was found crumpled, torn, and unreadable by the lake (today, Kupah costs $120 per camper for the summer session). The camper called her dad and he promptly sent another check. We found it silly at the time, unaware of our privilege to be able to be so nonchalant about money. Sure, we made fun of the recklessness in which funds were handled, wondering–but not for too long–how did the check become crumpled, torn, ending up by the lake in the first place? We could laugh about it, because we knew that such a mistake as a lost check could be easily replaced. There would always be enough in Kupah.
In our minds, overnight camp became a playground where we got to leave our homes and create a new kind of family. We sat in circles, held group discussions, and talked through problems as they came up. We communicated better at camp than most of us did at home. We expressed ourselves in ways we couldn’t with our families. We were creating a new way to be–not unlike a Sabra–shedding our old selves for a few thousand dollars each summer. Creating our new identities at camp extended to our Zionism as well. Like the Zionists who immigrated to Israel to “settle the land” and “make the desert bloom,” thereby shedding their old American and European selves, we, too, were developing a new way of being, leaving behind our old ways at home, three hours away down Interstate 90.
My ex-boyfriend Mark would tell me years later, when we attended a camp friend’s wedding together, that he was one of the two people who lost his virginity that night in the bunk bed. This was not uncommon. Many people at camp had their first sexual experiences in these Israeli-made tents, in the woods, and in the bathrooms where we took naked group baths together. Afternoon “educational” sessions on Shabbat included girls sitting in a circle chanting, “I am a woman and I have a vagina.” It felt weird to do this, of course, but it followed discussions about sex and womanhood that I hadn’t experienced before. We read and discussed the groundbreaking book, Our Bodies, Ourselves, like it was scripture. The book, published in 1971, revealed things to us that we had wondered about privately but had never talked about with others. I had been very shy at home, and learning about my body in a kibbutz-style collective felt different and open. We were young, attractive teenagers who were given permission to experiment and talk about our bodies. We skinny-dipped at night, scrubbed bathrooms in the morning, cooked, cleaned, and believed that we were working for something much greater and bigger than ourselves.
One day, we decorated a large map of Israel with ice cream, frosting, and other toppings. The forests–many years later to be recognized by me as Palestinian villages ethnically cleansed and replaced with pine trees–were decorated with green frosting. The desert, soon to be populated with olim, like us, was caramel. The rivers and sea, a blue ice cream called, at the time, Smurf. The whipped cream was a bonus. We then ate the whole thing–all the bright colors melting together across the Golan Heights like a sad, crazy clown face, zigzagging down the Jordan River, dripping above Jerusalem. It was a distorted rainbow, and we–licking Israel at the same time licking our fingers–wondered who would hook up that night. We were digging into the land with our hands and our hearts while thinking about sex. We believed in Israel’s Socialist Zionism and played out the role perfectly in a large Midwest plot of land near a lake. If we could feel so good about ourselves at camp during the summer, the idea was, we could attend Workshop and feel this way for a year, or, ultimately, we could make aliyah, live on a kibbutz, and feel this way forever.
Although by a young age I had already developed a nationalism born of the fusion of sexuality and Zionism, my story preceded the emergence of Birthright trips. It followed, all the same, the manufactured convergence of sexuality and Zionism that has grown into what is now Birthright. Much has been written about the forced sexuality that occurs on these trips, which are designed to recreate the summer camp feel, this time consummated in Israel. For example, Rose Surnow’s essay, “I Gave a Handjob at Jew Camp,” details her Birthright trip, calling it an “all-expenses-paid orgy in the desert,” describing a Bedouin tent in the West Bank where “45 of us were going to sleep in one massive tent in the desert, which in our sleazy minds meant HOOK-UP-CITY.” As Surnow and others have written, my deepened love for Israel was inextricable from my sexual coming of age. The boundaries and sense of place and person–of body and nation–merged seamlessly. Like the hyper-sexualized experiences of youths at U.S. Jewish summer camps, Birthright participants also find themselves in situations where sexual experiences are encouraged. Some websites even offer advice on such sexual matters for Birthright participants as, “The Unofficial Guide to Sex and Drugs on Birthright Trips,” in which potential hookups are encouraged. This website gives advice on condom usage as well as rules for “hooking up” with soldiers, counselors, and other participants.
One night at camp, we sat around a campfire singing Bob Marley and David Bowie songs. In between singing, we were quiet, listening to the crickets around us, mesmerized by the crackling of the campfire, the popping of red and orange underneath the burning wood. It smelled like sandalwood, and felt cozy and new. Someone played the guitar softly. Back at home, my father had joked that “Jews don’t camp,” and the closest that we’d ever get to camping would be to stay in a cheap hotel. Here, at camp, I was outside all the time. I would miss those nights as I got older.
This particular night during our campfire, we discussed whether or not we were going to take the gap year and go to Israel for Workshop. I sat with Mark. He confided in me later that night, as we were lying in his bunk bed–the mosquito netting our canopy–that instead of going to Israel for Workshop he thought he might want to study in Korea or Japan. He was becoming more interested in Asian cultures. He thought that as a group we were becoming too “Israeli-centric”–that was the point, of course, of being a part of Habonim–and that it was important to study other places too. He thought that I should as well, and often criticized my unconditional love of Israel over the years we were together.
As young Zionists who finally made it to Israel some time after our years of camp (for me, it was the mid 1990’s), we knew we weren’t the first to have a sexual connection to the land, but somehow when we did for the first time, we felt like the only ones who ever had. We were simply recreating the Zionist ethos we had been a part of at camp, feeling nostalgia for our childhood and our budding sexuality. It is a brilliant brainwashing tactic–like Pinkwashing–to build our nationalistic Zionist love for a land that continues to occupy and expel Palestinians. In all my years at camp, I never once heard the word Palestine and I didn’t learn about Palestinians. Despite these evasions–this is why it is difficult to write about–my years at camp were some of the best of my life. I learned so much about myself in those summers. I felt an openness and freedom that is often available only to youth. Some of my closest and oldest friendships are still with people I met at camp. Last week as I was working on this essay, one of my current students told me she couldn’t wait to go back to Habonim this summer. I asked her what it was about the camp that she loved so much. “It’s hard to explain,” she said. “I just feel like people accept me more there than anywhere else.” Her enthusiasm about camp is moving; I remember having the same feelings.
The sexualizing of Zionism–at camp and in Palestine–continues, of course. My experience was 32 years ago, but camps like Habonim continue these efforts today. Young campers, like my current student, will keep going to camp because of how good they feel about themselves when they are there. Like me, she’ll grow up and be grateful for the experience–which inevitably involves an eroticized relationship with the land. How many more orgasms will be had for Zionism? How many more ice-cream maps of Israel will be created and then eaten and destroyed at the whim of the colonizer? How many more youths will be lured into the Bedouin tent–empty of Bedouins except for the ones who, desperate for work, serve the Jews tea while they continue to be displaced–to play out an Orientalist, colonialist sex game?
I remembered how critical Mark was of me about Israel when I saw him at the salad bar last week, and I thought about one of our “off” periods, when I moved to Jerusalem for graduate school. He made it to Japan for the year. I cared at the time far too much what he thought about me, and I was worried, when we’d both be back from traveling, that I wasn’t radical enough for him, that my life had gone too much the route of a typical Jewish American Zionist. Last week, at the salad bar, he told me that he had gotten married “to a super Jew,” a woman who used to do fundraising for the Jewish Federation. They had three kids. Their son had recently had his Bar-Mitzvah in Jerusalem.
He was excited–I should have known this was coming–to some day send his kids to camp. He must have heard about my Israel/Palestine activism work, because he asked, with a small smirk on his face, if I was still “marching in the streets, waving flags of Palestine.” We walked out of the supermarket together, holding our salads, and moved towards the parking lot. I didn’t watch to see which way he went.