Religion & Beliefs

Redesigning Birthright for the Next Decade

Since its founding in 1999, Taglit-Birthright Israel’s mandate has been to renew and strengthen the relationship between Israel and the Diaspora. Over the past decade, it has proudly sent more than 200,000 young Jews from around the world on a … Read More

By / December 23, 2009

Since its founding in 1999, Taglit-Birthright Israel’s mandate has been to renew and strengthen the relationship between Israel and the Diaspora. Over the past decade, it has proudly sent more than 200,000 young Jews from around the world on a free 10-day trip to Israel.  It is considered a great success story by many in the Jewish community and its popularity has gained such attention that other American religious and ethnic groups have been inspired to implement similar programs within their own communities.  But is Birthright truly deserving of its accolades?   After speaking with numerous alumni and carrying out my own research, I found many reasons to be skeptical.

How Birthright structures its program raises significant questions.  The organization’s website describes its mission to "diminish the growing division between Israel and Jewish communities around the world."   Yet for all its advocacy of fostering stronger ties between Diaspora and Israeli Jews, the trip offers little opportunity for young Jews to connect with Israelis themselves, and from them understand the daily realities and nuances of living in Israel.   Discussions on the trips focus primarily on Israel’s past with "a mandatory 40 hours of educational lectures about the history of the state and Zionism" (according to Ben Murane, a former peer leader).  Contemporary issues are glossed over in favor of an emphasis on Biblical-era Jewish history and grand philosophical questions.  There are moreover few unstructured opportunities to experience contemporary life and minimal interaction with Israelis. Marissa Katz, a Birthright alum from Long Island, described her interaction with Israelis as limited to tour leaders and a few young soldiers. When contemporary topics are broached, they are typically presented from a politically conservative viewpoint, often lacking nuance and context.  Another participant from a trip in 2000 told me that while she loved being in Israel, she "bristled… at elements of the trip that seemed a bit ‘indoctrination-ish’ — especially because some of the people on the trip didn’t know enough about Israeli culture and politics to know they were only being presented with one side of a controversial debate."  Discussions are tightly controlled-Murane explained that "…[there is] lots of oversight into what should be said -and there is virtually no critical examination of Israeli history or the impact of Israel’s tangled relationship with its neighbors on Israeli society or outside.  Yet according to the November 2004 Birthright Israel Research Report, seventy percent of students feel "at least somewhat confident" about their abilities to explain the political situation in Israel at the conclusion of their trip,.  This number is consistent with the goals of the Birthright leadership who, as defined by the same report, "[want] to enable young Diaspora Jews to speak intelligently about the situation in the Middle East from a perspective sympathetic to Israel." How can such a significant proportion of Birthright participants feel so knowledgeable and speak intelligently about Israel on college campuses when they are not exposed to the full complexity associated with Israeli history and politics?  Birthright leaders advertise their trip not only as an opportunity to visit the spiritual center of the Jewish people, but also as a way to educate unaffiliated Jews about contemporary Israel.  A program that limits its participants’ full exposure to Israeli life, culture, and politics, however, falls far short of this promise. Please do not misunderstand me.  This is not a general repudiation of Birthright’s mission or the opportunities that it offers.  The chance to go abroad and visit Israel as a college student with members of your own peer group for free is a wonderful experience.  I should know, I took many similar trips to other countries between the ages of 18 and 26.  I also know, however,  that expecting to speak intelligently about the history and politics of any country after a 10-day highly regulated trip there is like visiting Disney World and offering yourself up as an expert on world politics and culture.  This knowledge gap is only magnified when the country in question is Israel.    What Birthright provides is a fun, but ultimately unbalanced view of Israel and its history.  This is not sufficient.  In order to be truly deserving of its accolades, its leaders must face a critical decision.  Do they want to offer a spiritual and historical guided tour to young Jewish adults and hope that the glimpse will inspire them to return and experience Israel more fully? If so, then the funders should acknowledge as much and not suggest that the participants are qualified to speak about contemporary Israeli politics on campus.  If, on the other hand, Birthright’s leaders want to offer a true educational trip that consistently presents multiple sides of the complex and messy reality that is Israel today, then it needs to foster difficult discussions with speakers of all political, ethnic, and religious backgrounds and encourage probing questions.  Additionally, both options should offer participants greater opportunities to meet and mingle with ordinary Israelis in more informal settings including Shabbat dinners with families, home-stays, and mixers-all successful staples of standard travel abroad programs.  In this Obama generation, young Jews, more than ever, are motivated and excited by a plurality of ideas and approaches. This multifaceted view of Jewish life, especially in regards to Israel, is often rejected by traditional organizations thus forcing young Jews to seek other ways to connect to their identity.   They deserve a space for nuanced discussion about Israel and Birthright is in an excellent position to provide it. Only then can the real education can begin.