In front of a giant, blue, Z-shaped balloon, British war veteran Col. Richard Kemp addressed about 100 Jewish teenagers in a San Mateo ballroom on Jan. 18. It was shortly after 9 a.m. on the second day of a national conference hosted by Club Z, a network of pro-Israel youth groups created by a Bay Area woman.
The “Z” stands for Zionism.
“You, all of you, are soldiers,” said the retired infantry commander and staunch Israel supporter, who served in five wars from 1977 to 2006. Now 60 and silver-haired, Kemp has testified on Israel’s behalf before the United Nations Human Rights Council, has penned fiery op-eds in the Daily Telegraph in the U.K. and the Jerusalem Post, and is a frequent guest on the SiriusXM radio show Breitbart News Daily.
“You’re not soldiers in a war where you’re going to have to shoot the enemy with a machine gun and stick a bayonet in him,” Kemp continued. “You’re soldiers in a political war.”
Around the room were posters, roughly 7 feet tall, on Jewish history topics, such as “Jews in the Hellenistic Era,” “The 3,500-Year Relationship of the Jewish People with the Holy Land” and “Moses: Liberator and Lawgiver.”
For four days and three nights over the recent MLK weekend, scores of Jewish teens from across the county listened to speeches in a ballroom decked out in blue and white and participated in breakout sessions with educators, writers and supporters of Israel.
This year’s conference was titled “Zionism: A Love Story.”
Headquartered in Redwood City, Club Z was founded on a shoestring budget in 2012 by Masha Merkulova, an OB-GYN nurse living in San Mateo. Since then, what was a local club has grown steadily, and in addition to the Bay Area, Club Z has a presence in Charlotte, North Carolina, Brooklyn, New York, and Los Angeles.
About 20 teens attended the club’s first retreat in 2012. By 2015, Club Z reported about $175,000 in total revenue. And in 2018, it took in more than $507,000, becoming a full-time job for Merkulova.
The organization is funded in large part by Bay Area-based Jewish philanthropies: the Fooksman Family Foundation, the Koum Family Foundation and the MZ Foundation. Eugene Fooksman, from Russia, and Jan Koum, from Ukraine, were both instrumental in developing WhatsApp, which sold to Facebook for $19 billion in 2014.
According to ClubZ.org, the group’s mission is to “cultivate the next generation of proud and articulate Jewish leaders.” The organization also runs Club Z Institute, a speaker series and leadership training program throughout the year in four cities.
Merkulova sees support for Israel as essential to Jewish identity, and she hopes to impart that to her students. She says the climate for pro-Israel students has deteriorated over her tenure leading the organization, making Club Z all the more important.
Many young Jews feel unconnected to the Jewish state. According to a 2019 survey by the Jewish Education Project, 30 percent of high school-age teens involved in Jewish youth organizations said they do not feel a strong connection to Israel.
“If you identify as a Jew, and you understand that you have a shared history and shared destiny, you’re part of a people,” Merkulova said during a lunch break at the conference. “If you’re part of a people, that means when your people get attacked, ultimately you’re getting attacked.”
She said a healthy dose of Zionism for three or four days is a good thing.
“They get the other perspective everywhere they go,” she said. “Kids are afraid of repercussions if they speak up.”
Born in Minsk, Belarus, Merkulova experienced what she called a “typical Soviet upbringing.” She did not know she was Jewish for much of her childhood, and when she found out, she was harassed by other students. Today she calls herself an “unapologetic Zionist.”
In a 2012 interview with J., Merkulova said she felt that many organizations “shy away from strong Zionist speakers,” adding, “There’s too much of a desire to please everybody and not to offend.”
Merkulova called the Club Z conference a “safe place” for Jewish students. “Somewhere where they cannot just learn history, but also be able to question it.”
Much of the event was geared toward preparing high-schoolers for college and beyond, when they will likely encounter critics of Israel.
The breakout sessions — conversations with about 20 teens sitting around a conference table — had titles such as “How to Explain Why Anti-Zionism=Antisemitism,” “Zionist Chutzpah: How to Be a Zionist and Make Friends” and “What Is BDS and Why Is it Bigoted, Discriminatory and Slanderous?”
The keynote speakers ranged from campus activists to Olga Meshoe Washington, a self-described “black Zionist” from South Africa. Washington is a former litigator and daughter of a South African member of parliament, the Rev. Kenneth Meshoe.
In her keynote address, she said calling Israel an apartheid state “is a lie.” She listed a number of apartheid-era laws in South Africa against miscegenation, against sharing a public dinner table, and laws forcing people to use different hospitals “just because they were black.”
“Unfortunately, the word apartheid has become so synonymous with Israel we don’t even know what it means,” she told the audience.
Nonie Darwish, a self-described human rights activist, author and outspoken Israel supporter, gave another keynote address and led a breakout session called “The Problem with Radical Islam.”
Darwish is a highly controversial figure who founded Former Muslims United, a group that opposed the building of a mosque in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. The Bridge, a research program on Islamophobia at Georgetown University, described Darwish in a fact sheet as someone who has “made false claims about Islam” and has “numerous affiliations with anti-Muslim organizations.” Her father, an Egyptian army lieutenant who was placed in Gaza to do intelligence work in the 1950s, reportedly was assassinated (via a mail bomb) by the Israel Defense Forces.
Darwish, who lived in Gaza as a girl, said she was raised to be an anti-Semite, but when she moved to the United States, she underwent a radical transformation and converted to Christianity.
“Every time I went to church I heard something totally opposite to what I heard in mosques,” she said. “Every value system in Judeo-Christianity is opposite to Islam.” In her books and speeches, she criticizes Islam, which she called an “evil” ideology at the conference.
If you’re part of a people, that means when your people get attacked, ultimately you’re getting attacked.
She made harsh remarks during her breakout session, saying that “all the Islamic countries are dictatorships” and that Islam is based not on coexistence but “replacement.”
“Hating Jews and Christians is fundamental to Islam,” she said.
Some students pushed back against her characterizations.
“Is there any way to practice Islam peacefully?” a girl wearing hoop earrings and a hamsa necklace asked. She said she feared being labeled Islamophobic if she expressed similar ideas.
Darwish said she is not opposed to Muslim people, but to the ideology of Islam.
“A lot of people get very angry with me and call me horrible names,” she told the students. “America today is suppressing freedom of speech. Don’t be ashamed to express your views.”
In conversations between sessions, a group of students from Charlotte said they found the speakers interesting and engaging, even though they did not agree with everything they heard.
Polly, a high school sophomore, said her favorite breakout session was with Meshoe Washington.
“We talked about different ways to communicate civilly, and how to cooperate with groups that you don’t identify with,” she said.
Daria, a freshman, said she learned a lot in only the first two days and was impressed that some speakers admitted “Israel is imperfect, but they still want to show the positives.”
“I do think at certain times you have to watch out for more anti-Palestinian things,” Daria said. “Personally, I want to be pro-Israel, but not anti-Palestine.”
Talia, a sophomore, complimented Club Z for including “different perspectives,” including ones she distanced herself from.
She said she supports a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, even as Col. Kemp, for example, “was definitely more pro-Israel as its own state. He mentioned how Palestinians don’t want a two-state solution.”
Do Talia’s peers at the conference agree with her?
“I think maybe half and half,” she said. “I know that a lot of people believe that as Jews we’re entitled to our whole land, and I believe that too. But in today’s circumstances, it’s challenging to achieve that.”