The British children who train to fight in Israel

How each year scores of British teenagers go to the Middle East to learn about soldiering and defend

In 2001 shocking reports surfaced from Gaza of summer schools being organised by Islamic Jihad, which were teaching Palestinian adolescents to become suicide bombers. The Israeli government denounced the camps as evidence that a new generation was being brought up to hate and to kill.

What went unreported was that at a purpose-built barracks in the Negev desert, every summer hundreds of Jewish teenagers from Europe, Mexico and America pay to spend nine weeks saluting, marching, firing guns and otherwise pretending to be soldiers.

Marva, run by the Educational and Youth Corps of the Israel Defence Force and conducted entirely in Hebrew, simulates the basic training of Israeli conscripts for 18-28 year old members of the Diaspora. Dressed in boots and olive fatigues, and obliged to carry an M16 assault rifle at all times, school leavers on gap years do push ups in the dust, perform night marches with laden stretchers, maintain civil defence shelters, fire machine guns at paper figures and simulate military manoeuvres, as well as taking classes in Jewish identity and the history and values of the IDF. Karaoke and dance-offs also feature.

With the security situation improving, increasing numbers of British Jews, through youth groups such as RSY Netzer and Federation of Zionist Youth, are signing up to one of the four 120-strong sessions held every year. One half are girls, and large numbers come from public schools in Manchester and North London.

Blogs written by participants revel in the camouflage-induced machismo. "By the end of the first week we were beginning to look like soldiers" writes American Joseph Fisher. "Strict discipline is enforced by our mefakdim (commanders). There is a great atmosphere of camaraderie."

Participants deny that the course was overtly anti-Palestinian. "I never heard that sort of comment from an official source – although there were some very right wing individuals taking part," says Mark Fitch, a Manchester student who took the course last year. "There was a lot of debate about the IDF, and whilst obviously by going on Marva they implicitly endorsed the army, a lot of people said that they were torn about using guns and running about."

Since the start of the Second Intifada some aspects of the course have been reconsidered. Sessions on house-to-house fighting have been dropped, as have re-enactments of the Battle of Ammunition Hill, one of the bloodiest engagements of the Six Day War, has been cut. "They're very aware of looking politically correct," says Fitch. "When discussing the Middle East they really do try to present both sides of the story and the overriding message is of striving for peace.

Most recently, British 16 and 17 year olds have been able to take part in Gadna, the week-long course taken by Israeli schoolchildren in preparation for military service and which has recently come under fire for becoming increasingly militaristic. "Shooting an M16 gun… physically lying on the land of Israel, learning how to defend it, gave me an immense sense of pride" writes a breathless Aimee Riese, a London schoolgirl and recent participant, in the Jewish Chronicle.

And this, really, is the objective.

The IDF website states that Marva seeks to "strengthen the bond between the Jewish people and their land". Goelman, somewhat naïvely, writes of the pride he felt in being mistaken for a genuine conscript by grateful elderly Israelis. Others are more sceptical. "It's just playing toy soldiers," says Isi Genn Bash, a British student who spent her gap year on a kibbutz. "They make no actual contribution to the IDF. It's really just very silly."

A spokesman for the Jewish Agency for Israel, a state organisation that coordinates Jewish settlement and Diaspora gap year programmes, agreed. "It's not an easy programme, but it doesn't come close to being in the army – we certainly don't see these British kids as soldiers."

Participants are told on leaving of their responsibility to act as ambassadors for the 'misunderstood' IDF. "Israel sees the 70,000 Diaspora kids we host every year as advocates: people who will stand up for Israel when it is under threat and attacked and will challenge bad views, especially on university campuses" the spokesman said. "Most won't ever emigrate to Israel, but we need to educate them to defend their spiritual homeland by arguing for it."

Hence the desire to get Jewish teenagers to see the Middle East crisis through the eyes of an IDF recruit. "The decommissioned guns we carried weren't meant to symbolise weapons – they were there so we could really understand what it felt to be a soldier" says Fitch. "Just by carrying it we were able to empathise more with the IDF."

Whilst some participants sign up as prospective Israeli citizens in order to sample the three-year military service, or because a relative had served in the IDF, for most it is essentially a holiday. "There's an implicit aim to associate a fun experience with the Israeli army" says Micah Smith, a Rabbi's son who spent a gap year in Israel but decided against the Marva programme. "It definitely glorifies the army [and] the supposedly exciting life of a soldier."

Participants are encouraged to take photographs, with images of themselves smeared in camo paint, straddling tanks and toting rifles appearing on Facebook. One video hosted on YouTube shows the teenagers pretending to raid a toilet block with M16s whilst another has a young girl crouching behind a machine gun that leaps in her hands. And these kids, in olive fatigues with thick glossy hair and ubiquitous aviator sunglasses, look sharp. "Fifty per cent of going on Israel tour is about getting laid" one participant tells me.

Israel has always held a policy of 'Aliyah' – the birthright of Jews to settle in the Middle East. But Marva demonstrates how some Zionists have inadvertently come to mimic their opponents in defining Israel solely by its militarism. The website of Federation of Zionist Youth, one of the largest and most hard-line organisers of gap years, states "FZY feels that you cannot truly understand Israel and the people living their [sic] if you do not understand the army." And that, for many Jews, must be rather depressing.

There's not much to be won in games of moral equivalence and assertions as to which side's indiscriminate attacks on civilians are the more reprehensible. But ask yourself this question: If these were British Muslim 19 year-olds firing machine guns and running assault courses in Pakistan or Yemen, would we not have them all arrested at the airport?

Related video links
http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=k_aatIlgcmI
http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=VM7tDiIzIHk
http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=909xamDTsz4

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The French millennials marching behind Marine Le Pen

A Front National rally attracts former socialists with manicured beards, and a lesbian couple. 

“In 85 days, Marine will be President of the French Republic!” The 150-strong crowd cheered at the sound of the words. On stage, the speaker, the vice-president of the far-right Front National (FN), Florian Philippot, continued: “We will be told that it’s the apocalypse, by the same banks, media, politicians, who were telling the British that Brexit would be an immediate catastrophe.

"Well, they voted, and it’s not! The British are much better off than we are!” The applause grew louder and louder. 

I was in the medieval city of Metz, in a municipal hall near the banks of the Moselle River, a tributary of the Rhine from which the region takes its name. The German border lies 49km east; Luxembourg City is less than an hour’s drive away. This is the "Country of the Three Borders", equidistant from Strasbourg and Frankfurt, and French, German and French again after various wars. Yet for all that local history is deeply rooted in the wider European history, votes for the Front National rank among the highest nationally, and continue to rise at every poll. 

In rural Moselle, “Marine”, as the Front National leader Marine Le Pen is known, has an envoy. In 2014, the well-spoken, elite-educated Philippot, 35, ran for mayor in Forbach, a former miner’s town near the border. He lost to the Socialist candidate but has visited regularly since. Enough for the locals to call him “Florian".

I grew up in a small town, Saint-Avold, halfway between Metz and Forbach. When my grandfather was working in the then-prosperous coal mines, the Moselle region attracted many foreign workers. Many of my fellow schoolmates bore Italian and Polish surnames. But the last mine closed in 2004, and now, some of the immigrants’ grandchildren are voting for the National Front.

Returning, I can't help but wonder: How did my generation, born with the Maastricht treaty, end up turning to the Eurosceptic, hard right FN?

“We’ve seen what the other political parties do – it’s always the same. We must try something else," said Candice Bertrand, 23, She might not be part of the group asking Philippot for selfies, but she had voted FN at every election, and her family agreed. “My mum was a Communist, then voted for [Nicolas] Sarkozy, and now she votes FN. She’s come a long way.”  The way, it seemed, was political distrust.

Minutes earlier, Philippot had pleaded with the audience to talk to their relatives and neighbours. Bertrand had brought her girlfriend, Lola, whom she was trying to convince to vote FN.  Lola wouldn’t give her surname – her strongly left-wing family would “certainly not” like to know she was there. She herself had never voted.

This infuriated Bertrand. “Women have fought for the right to vote!” she declared. Daily chats with Bertrand and her family had warmed up Lola to voting Le Pen in the first round, although not yet in the second. “I’m scared of a major change,” she confided, looking lost. “It’s a bit too extreme.” Both were too young to remember 2002, when a presidential victory for the then-Front National leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, was only a few percentage points away.

Since then, under the leadership of his daughter, Marine, the FN has broken every record. But in this region, the FN’s success isn’t new. In 2002, when liberal France was shocked to see Le Pen reach the second round of the presidential election, the FN was already sailing in Moselle. Le Pen grabbed 23.7 per cent of the Moselle vote in the first round and 21.9 per cent in the second, compared to 16.9 per cent and 17.8 per cent nationally. 

The far-right vote in Moselle remained higher than the national average before skyrocketing in 2012. By then, the younger, softer-looking Marine had taken over the party. In that year, the FN won an astonishing 24.7 per cent of the Moselle vote, and 17.8 per cent nationwide.

For some people of my generation, the FN has already provided opportunities. With his manicured beard and chic suit, Emilien Noé still looks like the Young Socialist he was between 16 and 18 years old. But looks can be deceiving. “I have been disgusted by the internal politics at the Socialist Party, the lack of respect for the low-ranked campaigners," he told me. So instead, he stood as the FN’s youngest national candidate to become mayor in his village, Gosselming, in 2014. “I entered directly into action," he said. (He lost). Now, at just 21, Noé is the FN’s youth coordinator for Eastern France.

Metz, Creative Commons licence credit Morgaine

Next to him stood Kevin Pfeiffer, 27. He told me he used to believe in the Socialist ideal, too - in 2007, as a 17-year-old, he backed Ségolène Royal against Sarkozy. But he is now a FN local councillor and acts as the party's general co-ordinator in the region. Both Noé and Pfeiffer radiated a quiet self-confidence, the sort that such swift rises induces. They shared a deep respect for the young-achiever-in-chief: Philippot. “We’re young and we know we can have perspectives in this party without being a graduate of l’ENA,” said another activist, Olivier Musci, 24. (The elite school Ecole Nationale d’Administration, or ENA, is considered something of a mandatory finishing school for politicians. It counts Francois Hollande and Jacques Chirac among its alumni. Ironically, Philippot is one, too.)

“Florian” likes to say that the FN scores the highest among the young. “Today’s youth have not grown up in a left-right divide”, he told me when I asked why. “The big topics, for them, were Maastricht, 9/11, the Chinese competition, and now Brexit. They have grown up in a political world structured around two poles: globalism versus patriotism.” Notably, half his speech was dedicated to ridiculing the FN's most probably rival, the maverick centrist Emmanuel Macron. “It is a time of the nations. Macron is the opposite of that," Philippot declared. 

At the rally, the blue, red and white flame, the FN’s historic logo, was nowhere to be seen. Even the words “Front National” had deserted the posters, which were instead plastered with “in the name of the people” slogans beneath Marine’s name and large smile. But everyone wears a blue rose at the buttonhole. “It’s the synthesis between the left’s rose and the right’s blue colour”, Pfeiffer said. “The symbol of the impossible becoming possible.” So, neither left nor right? I ask, echoing Macron’s campaign appeal. “Or both left and right”, Pfeiffer answered with a grin.

This nationwide rebranding follows years of efforts to polish the party’s jackass image, forged by decades of xenophobic, racist and anti-Semitic declarations by Le Pen Sr. His daughter evicted him from the party in 2015.

Still, Le Pen’s main pledges revolve around the same issue her father obsessed over - immigration. The resources spent on "dealing with migrants" will, Le Pen promises, be redirected to address the concerns of "the French people". Unemployment, which has been hovering at 10 per cent for years, is very much one of them. Moselle's damaged job market is a booster for the FN - between 10 and 12 per cent of young people are unemployed.

Yet the two phenomena cannot always rationally be linked. The female FN supporters I met candidly admitted they drove from France to Luxembourg every day for work and, like many locals, often went shopping in Germany. Yet they hoped to see the candidate of “Frexit” enter the Elysee palace in May. “We've never had problems to work in Luxembourg. Why would that change?” asked Bertrand. (Le Pen's “144 campaign pledges” promise frontier workers “special measures” to cross the border once out of the Schengen area, which sounds very much like the concept of the Schengen area itself.)

Grégoire Laloux, 21, studied history at the University of Metz. He didn't believe in the European Union. “Countries have their own interests. There are people, but no European people,” he said. “Marine is different because she defends patriotism, sovereignty, French greatness and French history.” He compared Le Pen to Richelieu, the cardinal who made Louis XIV's absolute monarchy possible:  “She, too, wants to build a modern state.”

French populists are quick to link the country's current problems to immigration, and these FN supporters were no exception. “With 7m poor and unemployed, we can't accept all the world's misery,” Olivier Musci, 24, a grandchild of Polish and Italian immigrants, told me. “Those we welcome must serve the country and be proud to be here.”

Lola echoed this call for more assimilation. “At our shopping centre, everyone speaks Arabic now," she said. "People have spat on us, thrown pebbles at us because we're lesbians. But I'm in my country and I have the right to do what I want.” When I asked if the people who attacked them were migrants, she was not so sure. “Let's say, they weren't white.”

Trump promised to “Make America Great Again”. To where would Le Pen's France return? Would it be sovereign again? White again? French again? Ruled by absolutism again? She has blurred enough lines to seduce voters her father never could – the young, the gay, the left-wingers. At the end of his speech, under the rebranded banners, Philippot invited the audience to sing La Marseillaise with him. And in one voice they did: “To arms citizens! Form your battalions! March, march, let impure blood, water our furrows...” The song is the same as the one I knew growing up. But it seemed to me, this time, a more sinister tune.