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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Fitter, dumber, more productive

How the craze for Apple Watches, Fitbits and other wearable tech devices revives the old and discredited science of behaviourism.

When Tim Cook unveiled the latest operating system for the Apple Watch in June, he described the product in a remarkable way. This is no longer just a wrist-mounted gadget for checking your email and social media notifications; it is now “the ultimate device for a healthy life”.

With the watch’s fitness-tracking and heart rate-sensor features to the fore, Cook explained how its Activity and Workout apps have been retooled to provide greater “motivation”. A new Breathe app encourages the user to take time out during the day for deep breathing sessions. Oh yes, this watch has an app that notifies you when it’s time to breathe. The paradox is that if you have zero motivation and don’t know when to breathe in the first place, you probably won’t survive long enough to buy an Apple Watch.

The watch and its marketing are emblematic of how the tech trend is moving beyond mere fitness tracking into what might one call quality-of-life tracking and algorithmic hacking of the quality of consciousness. A couple of years ago I road-tested a brainwave-sensing headband, called the Muse, which promises to help you quiet your mind and achieve “focus” by concentrating on your breathing as it provides aural feedback over earphones, in the form of the sound of wind at a beach. I found it turned me, for a while, into a kind of placid zombie with no useful “focus” at all.

A newer product even aims to hack sleep – that productivity wasteland, which, according to the art historian and essayist Jonathan Crary’s book 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, is an affront to the foundations of capitalism. So buy an “intelligent sleep mask” called the Neuroon to analyse the quality of your sleep at night and help you perform more productively come morning. “Knowledge is power!” it promises. “Sleep analytics gathers your body’s sleep data and uses it to help you sleep smarter!” (But isn’t one of the great things about sleep that, while you’re asleep, you are perfectly stupid?)

The Neuroon will also help you enjoy technologically assisted “power naps” during the day to combat “lack of energy”, “fatigue”, “mental exhaustion” and “insomnia”. When it comes to quality of sleep, of course, numerous studies suggest that late-night smartphone use is very bad, but if you can’t stop yourself using your phone, at least you can now connect it to a sleep-enhancing gadget.

So comes a brand new wave of devices that encourage users to outsource not only their basic bodily functions but – as with the Apple Watch’s emphasis on providing “motivation” – their very willpower.  These are thrillingly innovative technologies and yet, in the way they encourage us to think about ourselves, they implicitly revive an old and discarded school of ­thinking in psychology. Are we all neo-­behaviourists now?

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The school of behaviourism arose in the early 20th century out of a virtuous scientific caution. Experimenters wished to avoid anthropomorphising animals such as rats and pigeons by attributing to them mental capacities for belief, reasoning, and so forth. This kind of description seemed woolly and impossible to verify.

The behaviourists discovered that the actions of laboratory animals could, in effect, be predicted and guided by careful “conditioning”, involving stimulus and reinforcement. They then applied Ockham’s razor: there was no reason, they argued, to believe in elaborate mental equipment in a small mammal or bird; at bottom, all behaviour was just a response to external stimulus. The idea that a rat had a complex mentality was an unnecessary hypothesis and so could be discarded. The psychologist John B Watson declared in 1913 that behaviour, and behaviour alone, should be the whole subject matter of psychology: to project “psychical” attributes on to animals, he and his followers thought, was not permissible.

The problem with Ockham’s razor, though, is that sometimes it is difficult to know when to stop cutting. And so more radical behaviourists sought to apply the same lesson to human beings. What you and I think of as thinking was, for radical behaviourists such as the Yale psychologist Clark L Hull, just another pattern of conditioned reflexes. A human being was merely a more complex knot of stimulus responses than a pigeon. Once perfected, some scientists believed, behaviourist science would supply a reliable method to “predict and control” the behaviour of human beings, and thus all social problems would be overcome.

It was a kind of optimistic, progressive version of Nineteen Eighty-Four. But it fell sharply from favour after the 1960s, and the subsequent “cognitive revolution” in psychology emphasised the causal role of conscious thinking. What became cognitive behavioural therapy, for instance, owed its impressive clinical success to focusing on a person’s cognition – the thoughts and the beliefs that radical behaviourism treated as mythical. As CBT’s name suggests, however, it mixes cognitive strategies (analyse one’s thoughts in order to break destructive patterns) with behavioural techniques (act a certain way so as to affect one’s feelings). And the deliberate conditioning of behaviour is still a valuable technique outside the therapy room.

The effective “behavioural modification programme” first publicised by Weight Watchers in the 1970s is based on reinforcement and support techniques suggested by the behaviourist school. Recent research suggests that clever conditioning – associating the taking of a medicine with a certain smell – can boost the body’s immune response later when a patient detects the smell, even without a dose of medicine.

Radical behaviourism that denies a subject’s consciousness and agency, however, is now completely dead as a science. Yet it is being smuggled back into the mainstream by the latest life-enhancing gadgets from Silicon Valley. The difference is that, now, we are encouraged to outsource the “prediction and control” of our own behaviour not to a benign team of psychological experts, but to algorithms.

It begins with measurement and analysis of bodily data using wearable instruments such as Fitbit wristbands, the first wave of which came under the rubric of the “quantified self”. (The Victorian polymath and founder of eugenics, Francis Galton, asked: “When shall we have anthropometric laboratories, where a man may, when he pleases, get himself and his children weighed, measured, and rightly photographed, and have their bodily faculties tested by the best methods known to modern science?” He has his answer: one may now wear such laboratories about one’s person.) But simply recording and hoarding data is of limited use. To adapt what Marx said about philosophers: the sensors only interpret the body, in various ways; the point is to change it.

And the new technology offers to help with precisely that, offering such externally applied “motivation” as the Apple Watch. So the reasoning, striving mind is vacated (perhaps with the help of a mindfulness app) and usurped by a cybernetic system to optimise the organism’s functioning. Electronic stimulus produces a physiological response, as in the behaviourist laboratory. The human being herself just needs to get out of the way. The customer of such devices is merely an opaquely functioning machine to be tinkered with. The desired outputs can be invoked by the correct inputs from a technological prosthesis. Our physical behaviour and even our moods are manipulated by algorithmic number-crunching in corporate data farms, and, as a result, we may dream of becoming fitter, happier and more productive.

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The broad current of behaviourism was not homogeneous in its theories, and nor are its modern technological avatars. The physiologist Ivan Pavlov induced dogs to salivate at the sound of a bell, which they had learned to associate with food. Here, stimulus (the bell) produces an involuntary response (salivation). This is called “classical conditioning”, and it is advertised as the scientific mechanism behind a new device called the Pavlok, a wristband that delivers mild electric shocks to the user in order, so it promises, to help break bad habits such as overeating or smoking.

The explicit behaviourist-revival sell here is interesting, though it is arguably predicated on the wrong kind of conditioning. In classical conditioning, the stimulus evokes the response; but the Pavlok’s painful electric shock is a stimulus that comes after a (voluntary) action. This is what the psychologist who became the best-known behaviourist theoretician, B F Skinner, called “operant conditioning”.

By associating certain actions with positive or negative reinforcement, an animal is led to change its behaviour. The user of a Pavlok treats herself, too, just like an animal, helplessly suffering the gadget’s painful negative reinforcement. “Pavlok associates a mild zap with your bad habit,” its marketing material promises, “training your brain to stop liking the habit.” The use of the word “brain” instead of “mind” here is revealing. The Pavlok user is encouraged to bypass her reflective faculties and perform pain-led conditioning directly on her grey matter, in order to get from it the behaviour that she prefers. And so modern behaviourist technologies act as though the cognitive revolution in psychology never happened, encouraging us to believe that thinking just gets in the way.

Technologically assisted attempts to defeat weakness of will or concentration are not new. In 1925 the inventor Hugo Gernsback announced, in the pages of his magazine Science and Invention, an invention called the Isolator. It was a metal, full-face hood, somewhat like a diving helmet, connected by a rubber hose to an oxygen tank. The Isolator, too, was designed to defeat distractions and assist mental focus.

The problem with modern life, Gernsback wrote, was that the ringing of a telephone or a doorbell “is sufficient, in nearly all cases, to stop the flow of thoughts”. Inside the Isolator, however, sounds are muffled, and the small eyeholes prevent you from seeing anything except what is directly in front of you. Gernsback provided a salutary photograph of himself wearing the Isolator while sitting at his desk, looking like one of the Cybermen from Doctor Who. “The author at work in his private study aided by the Isolator,” the caption reads. “Outside noises being eliminated, the worker can concentrate with ease upon the subject at hand.”

Modern anti-distraction tools such as computer software that disables your internet connection, or word processors that imitate an old-fashioned DOS screen, with nothing but green text on a black background, as well as the brain-measuring Muse headband – these are just the latest versions of what seems an age-old desire for technologically imposed calm. But what do we lose if we come to rely on such gadgets, unable to impose calm on ourselves? What do we become when we need machines to motivate us?

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It was B F Skinner who supplied what became the paradigmatic image of ­behaviourist science with his “Skinner Box”, formally known as an “operant conditioning chamber”. Skinner Boxes come in different flavours but a classic example is a box with an electrified floor and two levers. A rat is trapped in the box and must press the correct lever when a certain light comes on. If the rat gets it right, food is delivered. If the rat presses the wrong lever, it receives a painful electric shock through the booby-trapped floor. The rat soon learns to press the right lever all the time. But if the levers’ functions are changed unpredictably by the experimenters, the rat becomes confused, withdrawn and depressed.

Skinner Boxes have been used with success not only on rats but on birds and primates, too. So what, after all, are we doing if we sign up to technologically enhanced self-improvement through gadgets and apps? As we manipulate our screens for ­reassurance and encouragement, or wince at a painful failure to be better today than we were yesterday, we are treating ourselves similarly as objects to be improved through operant conditioning. We are climbing willingly into a virtual Skinner Box.

As Carl Cederström and André Spicer point out in their book The Wellness Syndrome, published last year: “Surrendering to an authoritarian agency, which is not just telling you what to do, but also handing out rewards and punishments to shape your behaviour more effectively, seems like undermining your own agency and autonomy.” What’s worse is that, increasingly, we will have no choice in the matter anyway. Gernsback’s Isolator was explicitly designed to improve the concentration of the “worker”, and so are its digital-age descendants. Corporate employee “wellness” programmes increasingly encourage or even mandate the use of fitness trackers and other behavioural gadgets in order to ensure an ideally efficient and compliant workforce.

There are many political reasons to resist the pitiless transfer of responsibility for well-being on to the individual in this way. And, in such cases, it is important to point out that the new idea is a repackaging of a controversial old idea, because that challenges its proponents to defend it explicitly. The Apple Watch and its cousins promise an utterly novel form of technologically enhanced self-mastery. But it is also merely the latest way in which modernity invites us to perform operant conditioning on ourselves, to cleanse away anxiety and dissatisfaction and become more streamlined citizen-consumers. Perhaps we will decide, after all, that tech-powered behaviourism is good. But we should know what we are arguing about. The rethinking should take place out in the open.

In 1987, three years before he died, B F Skinner published a scholarly paper entitled Whatever Happened to Psychology as the Science of Behaviour?, reiterating his now-unfashionable arguments against psychological talk about states of mind. For him, the “prediction and control” of behaviour was not merely a theoretical preference; it was a necessity for global social justice. “To feed the hungry and clothe the naked are ­remedial acts,” he wrote. “We can easily see what is wrong and what needs to be done. It is much harder to see and do something about the fact that world agriculture must feed and clothe billions of people, most of them yet unborn. It is not enough to advise people how to behave in ways that will make a future possible; they must be given effective reasons for behaving in those ways, and that means effective contingencies of reinforcement now.” In other words, mere arguments won’t equip the world to support an increasing population; strategies of behavioural control must be designed for the good of all.

Arguably, this authoritarian strand of behaviourist thinking is what morphed into the subtly reinforcing “choice architecture” of nudge politics, which seeks gently to compel citizens to do the right thing (eat healthy foods, sign up for pension plans) by altering the ways in which such alternatives are presented.

By contrast, the Apple Watch, the Pavlok and their ilk revive a behaviourism evacuated of all social concern and designed solely to optimise the individual customer. By ­using such devices, we voluntarily offer ourselves up to a denial of our voluntary selves, becoming atomised lab rats, to be manipulated electronically through the corporate cloud. It is perhaps no surprise that when the founder of American behaviourism, John B Watson, left academia in 1920, he went into a field that would come to profit very handsomely indeed from his skills of manipulation – advertising. Today’s neo-behaviourist technologies promise to usher in a world that is one giant Skinner Box in its own right: a world where thinking just gets in the way, and we all mechanically press levers for food pellets.

This article first appeared in the 18 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn’s revenge