History Begs it: The Return of the Youth Movements

History works in mysterious ways. As I’ve written before, historical events themselves don’t repeat themselves, but historical relationships do: human beings often find themselves responding to the same type of stimuli the same way as other human beings from different cultures, different backgrounds and with different personalities.  The most striking findings of social psychology confirm this to a shocking degree–showing that, in many ways, we know ourselves even less than we think we do.

Likewise, societies, which are essentially collective actors responding to environmental stimuli and utilizing cultural cues to direct collective action, respond very similarly to changing circumstances. As such, when the industrial generation hit Europe in the mid- to late-1800s, it took a whole generation of youth socialized within the industrial framework (with all its implications on new forms of social interaction) before new structures were developed. This “generation of the desert,” or Dor Midbar as designated by the Hebrew narrative, searched out new ways of meaning and relating by drawing away from their elders, who were tainted by the old world and its old systems. And the best way this new, industrial-age generation found to develop a whole new world was by banding together and forming youth movements.

Youth movements were not an exclusive Jewish phenomenon at all. In fact, many claim the Jewish youth movements were formed only because the German ones wouldn’t take us in. It’s certainly a possibility. Either way, the fact of the matter is that youth movements were born of historic necessity to enable the generation of the desert to fully assimilate and adapt the new forms of social interaction enabled and structured by industrial-age technology.

Today, we live in a moment parallel to that of the turn of the twentieth century. Again there arises a generation of the desert–a generation that does not know the old world, that cannot imagine a world without the Internet, without cell-phones, without skype. And accordingly, this new generation has retreated to its own neck of the woods away from the guardians of the old–to Facebook, MySpace, and, it seems, back to youth-movements. As the Jerusalem Post reports, “Participation in youth movements from the fourth to the ninth grades rose by 20 percent over the past year, according to a study released this week by the Education Ministry.”

It could be that the movements are over reporting a bit, and it could be that the rise is so sharp in Israel because Israeli kids seem less likely to utilize social networking technology such as Facebook. But I doubt that’s the reason. I think the kids are really on to something: we, as the new generation, cannot rely upon the generation that knew the narrowness of life in Egypt. Our generation has been blessed with two paradigm-shattering revolutions: the information revolution and the post-1967 shift in the perception of the Jew and the Jew’s relationship with the rest of humanity. While the information revolution created a world-wide network of data-points, thereby leveling the playing field more than ever before, the post-1967 shift in Jewish identity proved to the world–and more importantly to ourselves as the Jewish People–that the Jews will no-longer be history’s whipping boy; we will, for now on, be the subjects of our own narrative, and not solely the objects of another’s accusation. Thus, we as Jews have become even more distinct.

What better way to fully come to grips with this paradigm shift than youth movements and their attendant industries: magazines, blogs, forums, celebrations on the beach–youth-empowerment zones where information-and-sovereignty age Jews can determine together new forms of action and interaction to move the Children of Israel into the next stage of our national story.  The revolution is here: and it is once again up to the youth movements to show us the way.


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