Diaspora youngsters enjoy a Birthright Israel trip to the Jewish state..
(photo credit: Courtesy)
NEW YORK – Starting this summer, young Jewish adults who go on Birthright trips will undergo mandatory geopolitical programming as part of their visit to Israel, in order to get a better understanding of the complexity of the situation in the country and the region.
Dr. Zohar Raviv, Birthright’s international VP of education, told The Jerusalem Post that although geopolitics was always addressed on the trips, the initiative’s goal is to “systemize, professionalize and upgrade” the discussion on the topic.
Birthright offers free 10-day heritage trips to Israel for Jews, aged 18–26.
The revised module, titled, “The geopolitical reality in Israel and the Middle East,” will consist of a two-hour expert presentation and a two-hour field experience in a relevant site that corresponds to the subjects discussed with the expert.
Birthright’s pool of experts includes diplomats, journalists, intelligence officials and army veterans.
The topics for discussion include the 2003 Iraq War to Islamic State and Hezbollah, as well as the role of Turkey in the region.
“The geopolitical reality in Israel and the Middle East” will become the only mandatory item for trip organizers to include in their itineraries.
Raviv explained that the need for such programming came from his observation that oftentimes, Birthright participants lack a good understanding of the context and the nuances that make up the security, political and social situation in Israel.
“They really don’t understand this volatile reality in its deeper context,” he told the Post. “And beyond that, when it comes to Israel, many of them demonstrate a disparity between low levels of knowledge and very high levels of opinion.”
Stressing that he does not mean to express judgment but rather observation, Raviv said most young people taking Birthright trips today seem to be part of a generation of “surfers and not divers.
“They surf. They have great access to information but they sometimes lack the attention span to dive into knowledge in depth,” he told the Post. “They scan things and they form their opinions based on surfing.”
To remedy to this, he explained, the goal of the geopolitical program is to take trip-goers through “an education process that is humbling.
“The mandate is to take young adults who are intelligent, curious, engaged people who care about things, and give them a serious, responsible, well-grounded platform to form more intelligent opinions about things.
“I always tell the trip organizers and educators that our role is one and one only: to turn their exclamation points into question marks again, because they arrive with a lot of exclamation points.”
Referring to the fact that Birthright critics often say that the program aims to sell Israeli propaganda to participants, Raviv told the Post that the argument is “the cheapest form of manipulation” and that while Birthright does have an agenda, it does not engage in propaganda.
“I don’t take offense to it as much as I think that our participants should take offense to it,” he said. “Anyone who says that Birthright is propaganda basically says that Birthright, in 15 years, has managed to fool and manipulate half a million young Jewish adults, which means there are half a million idiots out there who fell for it.
“It’s an insult to the participants’ intelligence,” he said.
Raviv made clear that the goal of the geopolitical module is not to feed participants a version of the facts in Israel as the ultimate truth, but rather to allow them to “revisit their preconceived assumptions and help them rearticulate these assumptions in more nuanced, intelligent and self-reflective terms.
“I want to broaden their horizons of their appreciation of this reality instead of further entrench them in their preconceived notions of what it is.”
In light of the wave of terrorist attacks in Israel over the past months, the organization has also stressed it will add a second security guard to each group visiting Israel.