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Israeli political youth movements hope for revival

In contrast with veteran Israeli political parties, HaBayit HaYehudi and Yesh Atid devote considerable efforts to building their youth movements, thus cementing a strong electoral base for the future.
Youths look at a Likud-Yisrael Beitenu campaign poster depicting Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem January 17, 2013. Netanyahu looks set to form a new governing coalition after next week's election, polls show, with the only question being whether he wants to soften its hardline contours. REUTERS/Ammar Awad (JERUSALEM - Tags: POLITICS ELECTIONS) - RTR3CKHF

If it were up to students, Economy and Trade Minister Naftali Bennett could very well be the next prime minister. A January 2015 survey of 2,583 students predicts 26 seats for his HaBayit HaYehudi party, and it's no wonder: HaBayit HaYehudi has been working for years with young people, and now it's paying off — those young people have grown up and now have the right to vote.

Those who were young in the early '90s, like myself, recall that participation in youth movement activities sponsored by political parties was a popular option, similar to a large extent to participation in apolitical youth movements like the Scouts, socialist Zionist HaShomer HaTzair or religious Zionist Bnei Akiva.

Meretz Youth led the trend and was considered a youth movement in every sense, with thousands of activists and dozens of branches across the country. Labor Youth and Likud Youth also saw lively participation. Somehow, this participation has been lost in the last two decades.

Some say the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995 was the breaking point. The sense of total disappointment was mutual: The youth were disappointed in politics, and the politicians gave up on the youth. Meretz Youth dwindled, until, following the 2009 election, it stopped all activity. Labor Youth officially ceased to exist in 2007, and Likud Youth also ended activities over a decade ago.

Yonatan Barbershtein, 18, from Rishon Le-Zion, has been trying to reinvigorate Labor Youth in recent months. He is convinced that the older political parties have given up on young people too easily. "At one point, a party was an ideological home," he says, "but many of them have given up so easily on electoral bases: What do I care about youths, the Mizrahim [Middle-Eastern Jewry], the Ethiopians? Some of them think that no matter what they do, they'll be in power and they rest on their laurels. They see the strengthening of centrist parties such as those of [former Minister Moshe] Kahlon [Kulanu] and [former Minister Yair] Lapid [Yesh Atid] and think that they will build a coalition with them, but they don't understand that there's a chance that these parties will be the ones to build the coalition. There are parties that have not yet learned that they have to deal as much as possible with the micro level — for instance establish municipal movements and create a stable youth organization that would take things by the reins and advance things by itself. The youths of yesterday are tomorrow's voters. That's how you build things, not from moment to moment."

It seems a change has taken place; young people are returning to the parties — at least those parties smart enough to fight for every vote, in the present and future. For instance, HaBayit HaYehudi, in its previous incarnation of Ichud Leumi-Mafdal, consistently engaged youth activist groups; today, the party has about 60 youth coordinators and thousands of activists. "The youths have the greatest power," says Achiya Barkay, 17, from Ali, who is responsible for the young leadership in the party. "Youths in the party are an asset. They give the party enormous power and they're basically its field base. Who do people see in the field? Me, with a HaBayit HaYehudi shirt. Thus the party really supports us, including with budgets and with constant contact with Knesset members."

Another party that sees young people as an asset is Yesh Atid. Upon its founding, the party established a body for young adults and youths, and half a year ago officially launched Yesh Atid Youth. One of its most senior and active members is Inbar Kedmi, 18, from the city of Modi'in. "Youths are really important for the party, and we get a great reception," she says. "This party allows youths to come and express what bothers them and also to start to move things and make change. It backs us up and gives us full support. These are things you can't do in a regular youth movement."

Whether it's the Lapid stardust or real field work, the investment in youths has paid off: In a project of the Israeli news website Mako before the 2013 election, Lapid was elected the prime minister of high school students with 29% of the vote.

Meretz also restarted Meretz Youth before the 2013 election. Chairman of Meretz Youth Eliran Bykhovsky says that the group, from a "branch and a half," has "grown to 10 branches across the country with hundreds of activists. At the end of the '90s, Meretz held a seminar with 650 youths in attendance. This past December, more than a hundred youths participated in our seminar," he says of the attempt to recreate the glory of the past. "We're making a move that may seem to be unpopular. We won't be a movement of dozens of thousands, but at the end of the day, the person who follows his own truth will touch peoples' hearts."

The Labor and Likud parties also take seriously educating youths on the party's values from a young age, but things are moving more slowly with them. For instance, after Labor Youth was relaunched at the end of 2013 with a conference of 70 youth activists, the excitement waned and activity dropped.

Barbershtein himself hasn't given up. He has recruited 30 activists in recent months. The party's Knesset members, he says, expressed support, but he isn't receiving any real help yet. Well, maybe they'll have time after the election.

"By their nature, youths are uninvolved and it's not their fault. The parties have given up on them and the educational system has also given up on them when it comes to political and social engagement," Barbershtein says. He describes with some envy Meretz's attitude toward youths: "Meretz Youth does it right. The party supports it, and 2% of the Meretz's convention delegates are from Meretz Youth. Meretz integrates youths in its institutions and the youth platform is written by youths."

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