Why Ha’aretz Hates Birthright

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 8-14-12

Taglit Birthright Israel remains “the most successful project in the Jewish world,” according to the chair of its steering committee, Minister Yuli Edelstein. The Birthright Bump has helped young American Jews grow “More attached to Israel” and “marry in.” Even “Young Israeli Jews get [a] Jewish identity boost” when they participate in the program. Birthright “covers all the bases” by bringing in Jewish baseball players for special trips, and has reaffirmed that one effective way to a Jew’s heart is through the stomach, with a special culinary trip for chefs. And, of course, again and again, the love bug bites and blossoms into a lasting Zionist charm as “American girl meets Israeli soldier and stays.”

I learned all this by reading articles published in the news section of Ha’aretz over the last two years. Unfortunately, the Ha’aretz opinion pages offer a different spin. There, readers learn that “Birthright Israel tours are insulting young Jew’s intelligence” with “sanitized infantile content spoon-fed” to them; that “the Birthright model is consumer-based,” peddling “Israel and Jewish peoplehood” to these willing dupes; that it serves as “a gateway drug of sorts – in which customers consume the environment and programming around them”; and that Birthright purports to be apolitical but in exposing these young innocents of “Taglitistan” to “Jewtopia” by “carefully avoid[ing]” the “Arab-Israeli conflict, socioeconomic divisions and the ethnic and religious rifts within Israel,” a manipulative right-wing agenda is being advanced, seductively, secretly.

This gap between the facts reported and the opinions offered is symptomatic of Ha’aretz’s worldview, reflecting a general problem afflicting the Israeli and Jewish left. They take the modern media compulsion to bash, to criticize, to mock, to a pathological, self-destructive extreme. Taglit has become such a juicy target because it so successful. It ruins the reigning self-critical leftist story lines. It proves that young Jews are not alienated from Israel. It proves that Israel has not become an embarrassment to modern Jews. It proves that Israel is not only not a failure, a disappointment, an oppressor but remains a source of fascination, pride and inspiration for most participants on these now iconic ten-day trips.

To make matters worse for our perpetual cynics, Birthright Israel succeeds by not propagandizing, by not being an advocacy trip, and by being rooted in a sophisticated educational model that is person-centered, non-partisan, substantive, sensitive, broad-ranging, and thought-provoking, with its famous guarantee: “no strings attached.” The program invites young Jews to launch their own, personal, Jewish journeys rather than imposing a one-size-fits-all worldview. In fact, neither the heavy-handed, ideological, hidden-agenda-driven, propagandistic program nor the round-the-clock sex-drugs-and-rock-n’-roll idiocy the cynics claim to see would work with this generation of smart, savvy, skeptical, and serious students.

This is not to say that Birthright Israel is a sober graduate seminar. It is a fun, experiential, ten-day trip for 18 to 26 year olds. It cannot undo the party culture that is a fact of university and twenty-something life. But it strives to offer alternatives to the failing, enervating, exasperating, guilt-ridden, hidebound, hierarchical, superficial, soporific and materialistic Jewish experiences that have turned off so many young Jews today.

Ultimately, Birthright Israel’s true secret to success remains Israel itself. The gap between the distorted version of the Israel story most visitors bring to Ben-Gurion airport, and the different country they experience transforms millions every year from Israel skeptics or agnostics to Israel enthusiasts. Even with all its challenges, Israel’s mix of surprisingly normal, familiar, orderly, safe Western-style life with its charmingly offbeat, old-new, Jewish yet cosmopolitan, Zionist but not doctrinaire character continues to entrance.

That is at the heart of the Ha’aretz beef with Birthright.

Birthright shows that Israel is not just a bundle of problems and that those who see Israel solely through the lens of the Palestinian conflict have myopic vision. Israel – and Birthright – are considered exceedingly political because a relentless, delegitimizing propagandistic campaign has tried to make everything about Israel political. When an organization educates about Israel with a minimum of partisan posturing, when it unites right-leaning funders like Sheldon Adelson with left-leaning funders like Charles Bronfman and Lynn Schusterman, when it creates a conversational space that acknowledges problems and sees some ugliness but also toasts successes and appreciates the enduring beauty, it repudiates the Is-crits’ Johnny-one-note approach, it normalizes Israel, and yes, it also celebrates Israel, unapologetically, not neurotically.

The Israeli and Jewish left has yet to learn the lesson that both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama mastered to get elected. In a proud, functioning democracy, valid political positions, important self-critiques, and valuable ideological challenges, can best be heard by dissenting optimistic patriots not seemingly self-hating sourpusses. As president, Obama has struggled to find the right balance. Candidate Obama spoke eloquently during his 2008 “Hope and Change” campaign about the failure of many 1960s radicals to convey their love of country while trying to reform it. Yet President Obama has sometimes foolishly, and self-destructively, made too many apologies for American foreign policy, going too far to validate the Blame America First crowd.

Especially since the hopes of Oslo degenerated into the horrors of Palestinian terrorism, the enduring animus of the Blame Israel First, Last, and Always crowd has sabotaged some important messages that the Israeli left should be broadcasting. Critics of Israel need to be heard, for example, raising moral issues about the cost of controlling millions of unwilling Palestinians. They would be heard better if they acknowledged the toxic impact of Palestinian negationism and violence on Israel’s peacemaking efforts. Broader critiques of Israel and Zionism would also resonate better if some Israeli and Zionist successes – like Birthright Israel – could also be respected, appreciated, cheered – and then criticized carefully, constructively and lovingly in those areas where improvements are still needed.

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Birthright Israel is pro-fun and profound

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 6-19-11

Inherent in the title of Brian Schaefer’s op-ed on Dorot and Birthright “10 days, 10 months,” is the problem with the comparison he is making. Dorot offers an exclusive ten-month fellowship to “a small cohort of passionate and curious American Jews.” Taglit-Birthright Israel provides free ten-day Israel experiences for tens of thousands of Jews, ages 18 to 26, who have never visited Israel in an organized group. Comparing Birthright to Dorot is like comparing freshman week to a year-long graduate seminar. Dorot should be seen as one of the many programs Birthright Israel graduates can – and do — attend, not some artificially high standard for judging an introductory program.

In fairness, Schaefer’s critique goes deeper. He accuses Birthright Israel of relying on rambunctiousness rather than addressing Israel’s “sticky issues,” of treating participants as “consumers and cheerleaders” not “stakeholders and advocates.”

Yes, it is true, Birthright is fun. This exuberance is part of the Birthright magic and its success — 90 percent of participants reach Birthright thanks to word of mouth. When is the last time we read in the Jewish press a complaint about Jewish kids having too much fun at an organized Jewish community event? If Diaspora communities offered more exciting, exhilarating, engaging, enriching, enlightening programs for Jews growing up, we would not need the last-minute intervention of programs like Birthright to encourage young, frequently alienated, Jews to restart and reorient their Jewish journeys.

A gateway program, Birthright welcomes many Jews who are on the way out. The gift comes with “no strings attached,” meaning no ideological, theological, political, or institutional demands beyond participating constructively. And it is a populist program – although most participants attend or graduated from America’s top 50 universities. But to assume therefore it is all “Goldstar and humous,” misses its multi-layered educational process, both formal and informal. Birthright succeeds in being pro-fun and profound.

Birthright offers a first-timers tour, showcasing Israel’s greatest hits and most defining experiences, requiring that every group visit Jerusalem, celebrate Shabbat, hike in the countryside, etc. The planned, more standard, moments mix with many smaller informal moments, encouraging spontaneity, complexity, individual discovery.

Since Birthright began 11 years ago, demographers have tracked participants, discovering their lower intermarriage rates and higher rates of Jewish engagement and Israel engagement. The Birthright bounce has linked this younger generation closer to Israel, despite claims of political alienation. Anecdotally, the overwhelming majority of more than 250,000 Birthright alumni testify enthusiastically to undergoing amazing, substantive, and usually transformational experiences.

Birthright’s “quilted theory” of young adult identity education weaves together sites, experiences, and discussions. Each tour features a concise “birds-eye” overview of Jewish history, giving the Jewish people’s story; discussions about Israel as a modern contemporary Jewish state; explanations connecting Judaism, Jewish values, and Israel; exposure to Israel’s diverse views reflecting modern Jewish pluralism; introduction to Israel as a rich laboratory for Jewish arts and culture; and glimpses of the role ecology, environmentalism, science and technology play in cutting-edge Israel.

As a result, participants experience the trip in four important dimensions:

First, the Israel they see. Day after jam-packed day, Birthright participants see, smell, touch, this extraordinary altneuland, Old New Land. In learning about Israel’s past, present, and future, participants address Israel’s challenges too. Participants discover an Israel that is neither defined by negative headlines nor superficial slogans.

Next, the Judaism they discover. The Birthright Jewish experience is more vibrant, exuberant, welcoming than the Judaism many experienced before. It is also a Judaism that acknowledges people hood as a central glue uniting us – enlightening participants about a key dimension of Judaism many have long experienced but few have understood.

Third, the interactions they have. The late night talks, the discussions with tour educators or medics, or bus drivers, the arguments that sometimes erupt, all spin a web of often extremely intense, soul-stretching, mind-blowing, identity-transforming conversations, in a safe space – and a community context.

Finally, the “mifgash,” participants’ encounters with Israeli soldiers, tries to burst through the bubble of the Israel tour. The IDF Educational Branch embraces this experience because the soldiers appreciate how meaningful the interactions are. I have witnessed numerous intense, often emotional, encounters at Israel’s National Military cemetery at Har Herzl, where soldiers shared some of their difficult dilemmas and searing traumas with newly-sensitized participants.

A few years ago, I sat with Birthrighters and soldiers in Jerusalem’s Jewish Quarter. One soldier remembered being ambushed in Gaza. He and his surviving buddies searched on their hands and knees in the sand for their dead comrades’ body parts. He said that until Birthright, he had not realized his ties to the Jewish people worldwide, not just to Israel – which made his national service more meaningful. Other soldiers have admitted their joy in encountering pluralistic yet passionate American-style Judaism, which more Israelis should experience.

And yes, Birthright is a Jewish identity program, addressed to young Jews yearning to understand who they are and where they come from. Without a firm identity in this globalizing world it is hard to find ourselves or figure out how to help. I am repeatedly amazed at how effective Birthright is at stirring up thoughts, feelings, conversations, for so many participants – although it remains a first step. Here, Schaefer is absolutely right. We must work harder on pre-and post-programming, so Birthright is not a vacation from real life but an effective Jewish jumpstart.

The appropriate framing for his article would have been to introduce Dorot – along with MASA’s many Jewish Agency supported Israel programs — as the logical next step after that initial Birthright encounter. Among Birthright’s happy, unintended consequences has been the new popularity in Israel programs, especially through MASA, and the important act of putting the needs of twenty- and thirty-somethings on the Jewish communal agenda.

Finally, a friendly warning to Schaefer. I began as a Birthright skeptic who wrote a critical article about the program when it debuted. I now chair Birthright Israel’s International Education Committee. I invite him to meet with me and suggest improvements, because he is correct. “The struggle is to keep looking” — in Israel to see how it can improve and in Birthright to see how it can continue to improve too.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGillUniversity and a Shalom Hartman Research Fellow. The author of “Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today,” he has chaired Birthright Israel’s International Education Committee since 2010. giltroy@gmail.com