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Birthright Reimagined

I received an encouraging amount of feedback on the Birthright Revisited pieces. For the sake of clarity, I will break the constructive criticism down into two groups. First, many found the articles not only biased, but naive. What could I expect from a ten day trip? Of course we treat them like children, because, educationally, they are children. Or, alternatively, a favorite of mine, “even if I agree with you about the reductive nature of Birthright, you misunderstand the purpose of Birthright. The whitewashed version of Israel is purposeful. If I invite guests into my home I would also show them the prettiest parts, not those that need renovation.” Or, “It lays the foundation for a more complex understanding of Israel. These people know almost nothing, how could you expect them to understand the intricacies of a country at war? When they return home, or return to Israel they will learn more. First we create a strong emotional and experiential attachment to the land and people, and then, if they choose they can explore further.” While the first group disagrees with my assumptions, the second group agrees with my premises on a fundamental level, but demands a next step. “To criticize is human, to create is divine,” one literary friend of mine replied. Challenge accepted: hence, the title of this post: Birthright Re-imagined.

Before I attempt to reimagine Birthright, even slightly, I hope to respond to the first criticism. My supposed naivete demands a reply. Even if I agreed (which I don’t) that because of the participants’ supposed educational level we should treat them like teenagers, Birthright, consequently must change its message. No longer can it tout itself as an experience of the “real Israel.” Birthright attempts to both treat the participants as children, but constantly remind them of the group’s maturity and intelligence. I believe that this gap between what we say and how we treat the group creates a disconnect for many of the participants. Our participants demand more honest and transparency about the true nature of the trip, upfront. They deserve to make educated choices.

However, I disagree fundamentally with the claim that because of the participants’ lack of education, we must treat them like teenagers. Says who? Why underestimate the ability and potential of the participants, why create such a low standard, when the participants themselves want more? Though anecdotal, numerous birthrighters came up to me, at some point during the trip, to discuss the same topic: Why do they treat us like teenagers? Why not create a higher level trip and watch as the participants rise to the challenge? We forget that people react to the context created for them. Treat them like prisoners and guards and they will react in kind. Treat them like adults and they will act more like adults. It appears more likely that we treat them like teenagers because it serves our ulterior motives of inculcating the next generation with an abiding love of Israel, and of creating a political and economical force in support of Israel. This isn’t per se a negative goal, but its not a goal that respects the dignity and maturity of the participants.

Furthermore, the contention that we first must create a strong emotional connection, and then we can let them explore the complex Israel fails to take into account that we cannot easily separate the emotional from the intellectual. Once we create a strong emotional bond through the childish Israeli narrative in which heroes stand strong and clear and enemies glow with yellow nefarious eyes, can we truly expect anyone to see Israel with clear untainted eyes? Lastly, we grossly underestimate the damage done by the narrative we present on the trip. How about those participants with Arab or Palestinian friends, even partners? What message do we send to those participants with only one Jewish parent? We leave many, as mentioned in previous posts with a taste of bitterness towards their Jewish identity, one shaken by the trip, without guidance as to the next step.

Criticism is easy. Nothing will attain perfection. You can gauge the genuineness of the criticism by the positive conclusions that grow from the analysis. In this case, a few general suggestions, I believe, could deepen the scope and power of Birthright. If so much of our trip rests on the assumption that our participants are educationally infants, then perhaps we can change their educational knowledge. Could we not provide materials to the participants to read before the trip, or even on the trip? If we accept less than 10% of applicants, we most certainly can make demands of our participants that respect their maturity. We could provide a booklet of some of the most important documents, essays, and articles in the short history of the State of Israel. Why do we fear exposing them to the spectrum of opinions, to the poor places in Israel, to the moral lapses? I believe, even if the participants choose not to read it, we can create a discussion that contains different views on the essential issues in Israel.

Educational preparation for the trip will create a higher level of discussion on the trip, because as of now, the conversations on the trip entail less a dialogue and more an attempt to lay the groundwork for a dialogue. With a better prepared group, we can engage with different, more mature speakers. Participants’ need not feel blindsided by paradigm shifting ideas that shake the grounds of their identity. Education provides a sense of empowerment, whereas, ironically, birthright infantilizes through pointing to the immensity of the situation but providing little guidance how to access understanding that immensity. On top of all these benefits, a stronger educational component builds a real platform for the complexity we can show them on the actual ten day excursion.

Besides a drastic shift in our educational model, or built off this drastic change, we can offer a less sterilized view of Israel. This plan less abandons the current model than rather expands it. Birthright, with its considerable largess, can offer a greater range of trips based on the desired goals of the participants. If some participants still just want the Disney version of Israel, then fine, but if some participants want a more politically focused trip, perhaps one that even ventures into disputed territories, we can offer that too. Jewish trips already exist that offer these type of experiences, why can’t Birthright do the same? Why can’t we respect the participants’ ability to choose and think for themselves?  Of course, many of these ideas are purposefully inchoate. An organization as large and imposing as Birthright needs greater self-awareness to improve, but these steps, I believe would create a beautiful message. Not only a message of love for the land, but a willingness to engage the complexity – and the beauty – of life in Israel.

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