As Birthright Israel reaches its 700,000th participant, certain voices in America have done their best to slander the organization and force it to make drastic changes. Having staffed multiple Birthright trips as a madrich (youth leader), I have had the amazing opportunity to pass on some of the love for Israel that helped change my life. After saying goodbye to my latest group of participants last week, I decided that it was time to set the record straight for those who have not had the same opportunity as I did. Here is the truth about Birthright.
As its official website states, “Birthright Israel seeks to ensure the future of the Jewish people by strengthening Jewish identity, Jewish communities, and connection with Israel via a trip to Israel for the majority of Jewish young adults from around the world.” This is a fine definition for a brochure, but no words can summarize the heart and soul of Birthright — what the experience makes you feel. No two Birthright trips are the same because as important as the itinerary is, it is the individuals in the group and how they interact with each other that define the experience.
I can imagine some outsiders seeing these trips as generic copies of each other, led by cookie cutter staffers that have been produced somewhere in a Birthright factory. In reality, the tour guides are as diverse as the participants. Madrichim come from all over the United States. Some are staffing for the first time while others for their 15th time. Often, the only previous interaction between the staff was a quick phone call the week before. With dozens of different providers offering slightly different variations in scheduling, even the itineraries are unique.
Heading into Day One at the airport of departure, what ties us madrichim together is the excitement of meeting new people and the desire to create an atmosphere where the participants can open up. It’s not a coincidence that anyone who has had me as a madrich will tell you that my last words before takeoff are “don’t let a moment of this trip go to waste. Don’t leave any question unasked. You don’t want to go home with any regrets.”
While it’s easy to assume that the value of the trip is in the itinerary, the true beauty is the result of Birthright’s open culture. Some of the participants grew up around few or no other Jews. Some grew up in homes where their Judaism was never discussed. Some had no previous desire to visit Israel, but were influenced by a close friend or a family member. All of these people converge in one trip to explore their heritage together. All of these people come with different preconceived notions that get tossed aside during a brilliant cultural exchange that can’t be understood in stats and surveys.
Many who haven’t gone on Birthright hear of the strong impression made by the mifgash (accompanying Israeli soldiers) on the participants, but fewer may be aware of how mutual this exchange is. This goes beyond the surface level awe and reverence that Diaspora Jews have for their Israeli peers who serve their country with pride. These men and women are people under their uniforms and Birthright helps to peel back the layers, exposing the reality that we truly are one family that has been separated by mere circumstance. Birthright participants don’t need to read about this because they feel it themselves through authentic experiences with their peers. The mifgash leave the trip with a better understanding of what their service means for the Jewish people as a whole. In a world where human interaction is being replaced by social media, Birthright provides the personal touch that the international Jewish community is sorely lacking.
Unfortunately, this once in a lifetime experience was tainted for some groups this past summer when the extremist group IfNotNow staged “walk-offs” during their Birthright trips. Coming with an agenda, these individuals shifted the focus of the trip to themselves and to the narrative that they wanted to craft as they recorded their departure for media sources that relish bad news about Israel. While coverage of these individuals put the spotlight on the fight to control Birthright’s itineraries and discussions, it ignored the selfishness that disrupted the trip for other participants.
Not surprisingly, the response written by Sara Lodgen and Ben Fields, two of the individuals on a trip that dealt with the disruption, got much less attention than the negative narrative that was manufactured by IfNotNow. While claiming to speak for young American Jews who are an abstraction to them, they failed to consider the young American Jews on this trip. They did not consider the fellow trip mate who signed up to honor their recently departed father or to live the unfulfilled dream of a grandmother. So busy searching for negativity to support their preconceived notions about Israel, they miss the realities of the trip. By alienating themselves from the group through focusing solely on their political agendas, they forfeit the relationships that their peers cultivate through natural interaction.
As a result of the disrespect towards Birthright and the participants who are genuinely seeking a life-changing experience, an addition was made to the organization’s Code of Conduct. This stated that “Taglit-Birthright expects each participant to maintain the personal integrity needed to build the intimate, intense and holistic group experience that typifies its trips. In order to ensure the trip’s overall integrity and educational mission, Taglit-Birthright Israel rejects any attempt, by any individual or organization, to manipulate its open climate. Efforts to coerce, force, or suppress opinions, hijack a discussion, or create an unwarranted provocation violate Taglit-Birthright Israel’s founding principles and will not be permitted.”
Shortly after this addition, three participants were removed from a trip for hijacking the discussion. One girl, an IfNotNow member named Emily Bloch, was quick to promote her story writing that “Getting kicked off my Birthright trip showed me that Birthright is not here to facilitate discussion or invite young Jews to develop a complex, nuanced relationship to Israel. They want unwavering support for a political agenda that leads to border walls, family separation and endless hatred and violence against people on the margins.” Bloch’s complaints are impersonal enough to have been written before she even left for Israel, echoing the canned talking points that characterize IfNotNow. Those who sign up for Birthright know exactly what the typical itinerary looks like, and no one is forcing them to take the free trip. These activists are little more than bad actors.
The difference between asking questions and attempting to control a conversation is obvious to most people. Anyone who has been to a public Question and Answer session understands the necessity for the host to ask for “no statements disguised as questions.” Every teacher and every parent knows that the question itself is rarely as important as the framing of the question. This intellectual dishonesty on the part of IfNotNow plays well in the media where tone, intent, and context are lacking, but adds nothing to a deep substantive conversation the activists claim they want. Focusing on a small group of individuals with obvious agendas driven by politics, the media undeservingly projects a depth, meaning and importance onto these activists.
Never one to miss an opportunity to join the mob, columnist Peter Beinart lent his pen to the minuscule voice of the disgruntled, writing that “Since June, 22 Diaspora Jews have either walked off Birthright trips in protest against their tour guide’s refusal to take them to meet Palestinians or been kicked off for raising uncomfortable questions about Israeli policy.” What is obvious to anyone who has staffed a Birthright trip before is that the tour guide does not have the authority to reroute a bus just because a participants demands it. To protest against “their tour guide’s refusal to take them to meet Palestinians” is the behavior of an entitled child and/or someone with an agenda. Having no personal experience with Birthright and the dynamic of individual trips, Beinart seems to have no problem promoting sensationalized accounts from participants who are seeking to demonize the Birthright experience.
Beinart goes on to say “ideally, Birthright would thrive. But it can’t thrive if it makes moral blindness the price of Jewish connection.” His hope is that “Instead of seeing Israel as a Jewish Disneyland, young American Jews will see it as a country – like their own – that is both precious and in urgent need of moral repair.” Beinart’s views are typical of someone who sees the world through a pessimistic lens. He passes judgment and suggests changes to an experience that he himself has never had. Like a backseat driver with no driving experience, he misses his own irrelevancy. More than twice the age of the average participant, Beinart sounds like he doesn’t understand that Birthright is not a tourist trip to a foreign nation, nor is it a PR campaign. It’s an opportunity for Jews to connect with their culture and their community.
One might ask what exactly IfNotNow and Peter Beinart envision for the Birthright of their dreams. Have they thought at all about the 85% of the participants who considered the trip a life-changing experience? Without any hands-on-involvement with these trips, they don’t understand that most participants would prefer less, not more talk about the conflict. Would they be satisfied with Birthright bringing them to meet pro-Israel Palestinians like Mosab Hassan Youssef, Sara Zoabi, or Khaled Abu Toameh? Something tells me that they wouldn’t be pleased with these Palestinian voices since they do not follow the firm political line that anti-Israel partisans are interested in maintaining.
Do they also deem it necessary to visit Ashkelon and Sderot or visit the terror tunnels leading into Israel from Gaza or Lebanon? Which leg of Birthright (a hyper condensed trip as it is) does Beinart believe can be discarded? Is it his expert opinion that Tzfat, the Golan Heights, and the northern part of Israel are less important to the history and character of Israel than spending additional days addressing the conflict? Perhaps he has decided that Jerusalem should no longer be a prominent part of Jewish education. Any participant can tell you that what most of our youth want is more time in Tel Aviv, not more lecturing. How can we fail to see the irony that these activists who complain about Birthright’s supposedly forced ‘right-wing agenda’ with to replace it with a forced anti-Israel agenda.”
Birthright continues to thrive because of the authentic and unique experience its detractors pretend doesn’t exist. This is because their diverse staff cares about the individual and creates an environment where everyone can be open and explore their Jewish identities as they choose. What can an outsider know about what happens on a Birthright trip? What can they know about letting your guard down to people you just met, speaking with an honesty that isn’t used with your oldest friends back home? How can they understand the culture swap that can take place over a single plate of hummus, forever changing the way you look at life? If you have never witnessed a participant who grew up the only Jew in their small town experience heir community for the first time, who are you to belittle their journey and who are you to tell others to pass up on the trip of a lifetime?
Yes, Birthright is more than just a free trip. It’s the opportunity for young Jews to escape the cocoon that a judgmental society has forced them in to. It’s the chance to be who they want to be in a group of loving strangers. Birthright has always been less about what you are doing and more about who you are doing it with.
Those who preach to Birthright about how they “need” to change if they are to “survive” should remember that without significant experience on a trip of their own they have no right forcing their agenda on others. As Theodor Herzl said, “We only lose those whom it is no loss to lose.” Birthright will continue to thrive and continue to benefit the global Jewish community just as it is — as an incredibly inclusive and inspiring program that helps our youth explore their roots in ways that our ancestors could only have dreamed of.