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

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.
Karen Isaacs and AJPA Project Assistant Grace Gleason in Jerusalem on June 4, 2017
Isaacs was first drawn to live in Israel-Palestine by her questioning of how to apply the Socialist-Zionist values of Hashomer Hatzair in the 21st century. A group of Canadian members became interested in how their Hashomer counterparts in Israel were experimenting with new models of urban kibbutzim. In 2006, Isaacs and several others decided to go for a year to live communally and "make connections between Jews and Arabs and do something interesting that would be somewhat helpful." The group established a new project in Barta'ah, Wadi Ara - a town split in half by the Green Line - in a local school of Arab students. The school was "looking for ways to expand an [English] program they had started experimenting with," and Isaacs and the other educators taught English within a critical pedagogical framework focused on identity and community.
After a year, the group went to the US and established an urban commune in Brooklyn. They lived there for four years while working locally in education, youth empowerment, and activism. During that time, reflecting on the experience of teaching in Israel-Palestine reinforced her belief that there is a unique role for Diaspora Jews in working to end the occupation, specifically on the ground. She explained: "we were able to come into that community and do something meaningful in a way that Israeli Jews couldn't have done... offering to both Jewish and Palestinian citizens in Israel a different way of relating to Jewish identity" by virtue of the fact that the group members were Jewish but not Israeli.  
In part motivated by this understanding of their role as Diaspora Jews, in 2011, Isaacs and her partner, Daniel Roth, also a member of Hashomer Hatzair, made the decision to move to Israel permanently. They founded Achvat Amim in 2012 after noting the lack of communal spaces for young Diaspora Jews to engage with peace activism and education about the occupation. In the program, participants volunteer four days a week at a local nonprofit organization, as well as teach at the Yad B'Yad (Hand in Hand) bilingual school in Jerusalem. They live communally together in a shared apartment, study Hebrew and Arabic, and participate in facilitated dialogues about the occupation, Zionism, and Judaism.
Achvat Amim cohort participating in a Breaking the Silence tour in Hevron in October 2017
The small grassroots program unexpectedly came into media spotlight after Isaacs and Roth participated as individuals in the Sumud Freedom Camp, an encampment in the Palestinian village of Sarura in the South Hevron Hills that began in May 2017 to protest on behalf of Palestinians' right to live in the village and build international solidarity. The right-wing group Ad Kan sent a report to MASA Israel (a Jewish Agency program that funds Diaspora Jews to come to Israel, and partially funds Achvat Amim scholarships), claiming that the program brought participants to Sumud to do civil disobedience, break Israeli law, and incite the military. According to Isaacs, none of these claims are true. 
MASA was forced through public pressure to give Achvat Amim an ultimatum after Ad Kan brought their defamatory report to the mainstream Israeli media. They told Isaacs and Roth to resign as directors, or they would cease funding participant scholarships. Of course, Isaacs and Roth would not consider resigning from the program they had founded, so in September 2017 the program was defunded.
In our June 2017 interview Isaacs had lauded MASA for heading in a more "open-minded, progressive direction." However, Isaacs now believes that MASA has "lost the one program they had that was really honestly engaging with the conflict, which I would argue is one of the most pressing issues facing this place. And they have started down a path that is only going to get narrower and narrower in terms of who is allowed to express what, and what you're allowed to educate about, what you're allowed to engage with. And that's a sad state of affairs for the Jewish community as a whole and for this country." Like many organizations, MASA celebrates coexistence learning, "but as soon as the coexistence becomes political - actually standing up for human rights for Palestinians - then it's beyond the pale."
Achvat Amim participants organized a Sukkot Against Demolitions night of learning and taking action against home demolitions.
This sequence of events has forced Isaacs and Roth to focus on raising funds to cover scholarships for their current participants and for the new cohort arriving in February 2018. In addition to their online fundraising campaign, Isaacs and Roth began a speaking tour this week at locations across the US and Canada. (The schedule is appended below.)
Although Isaacs believes that there is an important role of Diaspora Jews in on-the-ground activism in Israel-Palestine, she was also adamant that our work on the ground "needs to be in support of efforts led by those most affected."
"At the end of the day," she explained in June, "while this conflict is preventing all of our liberation, it's much more actively oppressing Palestinians, and they're the ones who need to be at the forefront of their own struggle for freedom, in the sense of anti-occupation work....it's only reasonable that the people who are facing the highest consequences, the most severe consequences, be the ones to shape or to lead what action is being taken, because any action you take has an infinite number of consequences that are going to be disproportionately faced by the Palestinians who are involved." But, "the actual practice of [acting] jointly - Jews, Israelis, Palestinians - is something that can build the movement."
Achvat Amim Speaking and Fundraising Tour Dates:

Boston, MA
What: Talk - Jewish Anti-Occupation from Boston to Jerusalem
When: Thursday, November 2 at 8:00pm
Where: Moishe Kavod House, 104 Robinwood Avenue, Jamaica Plain
RSVP:  Facebook event
 
What: Dvar Torah 
When: Friday, November 3rd at 6:30pm
Where: Nahar Shalom Synagogue,  43 Lochstead Ave, Jamaica Plain
RSVP: Show up to Kabbalat Shabbat services :)

 
Fort Collins, CO
What: Parlor Meeting
When: Sunday November 5th at 12:30 
Where: Home of our host
RSVP: Eligar - esadeh@gmail.com

 
Denver, CO
What: Parlor Meeting
When: Sunday November 5th at 7:00pm 
Where: Home of our host
RSVP: Oriel - orieleisner@gmail.com

 
Colorado Springs, CO
  What: Talk - Organizing on the Ground in Jerusalem and Area C 
When: Monday November 6th at 7:00pm 
Where: Cornerstone Screening Room, Colorado College
RSVP: Elam - elamklein@gmail.com

 
San Francisco, CA
What: Talk - Anti Occupation Coalition Building 
When: Wednesday November 8th at 7:00pm 
Where: Kehilla Community Synagogue,  1300 Grand Ave, Piedmont

 
Chicago, IL
What: Parlor Meeting/Talk
When: Thursday November 9th at 7:00pm
Where: TBC
RSVP: Hannah - hannahrrecht@gmail.com

 
Toronto, ON
What: Hashomer Style Kabbalat Shabbat and Potluck
When: Friday November 10 at 7:00pm 
Where: CSI Annex
RSVP:  Facebook event
 
What: Talk - Building Communities of Learning and Action 
When: Sunday November 12 at 12:30pm 
Where: Holy Blossom Temple,  1950 Bathurst Street, in the Youth Chapel, 3rd floor

This is the fifth in the American Jewish Peace Archive series of profiles of Israeli peace activists, based on interviews about the relationship between American Jewish and Israeli peace activism. They are being cross-posted on the blog  Jewschool: Progressive Jews and Views.



Grace Gleason is a Project Assistant at the American Jewish Peace Archive (AJPA). She is a Jewish educator, an activist and a leader with IfNotNow, and served as Rabbinic Fellow at Mishkan Chicago from 2014-2016. She earned a B.A. in Religious Studies/Political Science from The University of Chicago in 2014 and is an alumna of SVARA:A Traditionally Radically Yeshiva and Mechon Hadar. She currently lives in Jerusalem. 
 


The mission of the American Jewish Peace Archive is to document through oral history the accounts of Jews in the United States who have worked in support of Israeli-Palestinian peace and reconciliation since 1967, and in so doing, to facilitate dialogue and inquiry between the generations, to provide primary source material for scholars, and to provide guidance and inspire hope for the future.