It came as a shock to learn recently that the highly successful Taglit- Birthright currently faces a dearth of applicants.
Started by two outstanding philanthropists, Canada’s Charles Bronfman and the US’s Michael Steinhardt, Birthright has attracted some 360,000 participants since its inception in winter 1999. This 10-day free trip, geared toward those who have never been to Israel or on an organized visit here, first showed a 17-percent decline in applicants between 2011 and 2013.
Today, the program’s organizers have decided to use a marketing company to reach out to those young Jews with little or no Jewish affiliation, as well as those whose father is Jewish but according to Halacha are not considered Jews.
The first question to be asked is why applications have decreased, while the second question is whether this seeming withdrawal from identification with Israel is also affecting the Diaspora as a whole.
Birthright is a scheme that attracts 18- to 25-year-olds. Perhaps a look at what has been happening on campuses throughout the world in recent years will provide insight into why this situation has arisen.
Some 16 years ago I had the privilege of serving as chair of the UK’s Hillel Foundation, working very closely with the Union of Jewish students, whose head office was housed in the same building as Hillel. At that time, Jewish students faced many challenges from their Arab and Muslim counterparts.
Hence, there was no running away from situations where Israel was under attack. The Jewish students would stand up and be counted, organizing many campaigns to educate and support students in their fight against attempts to close down Jewish and Israeli societies, and generally bash Israel. They were always ready to debate and speak out forcefully against the constant drip, drip of virulent anti-Israel campaigners.
During these past 16 years, however, support for the Jewish student has diminished considerably. What we have witnessed is that the majority of Jewish students are not willing to become involved in fighting anti-Israel campaigns. This is partly due to an ignorance of the facts relating to Israel, but is also a reflection of the well-organized anti-Israel campaigns – in which a number of Arab states have invested heavily in universities throughout the Western world, including the financing of seats in Middle Eastern studies.
One illustration of this successful anti- Israel isolation came in 2002, when then-minister Binyamin Netanyahu was unable to address a meeting organized by the Hillel House at Montreal’s Concordia University because of Arab students’ protests. Yet in 2007, there was nothing to prevent Iran’s then-president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad – a Holocaust denier who wished to “wipe Israel off the map” – from addressing students at New York’s elite Columbia University.
It is disturbing to view previously staunch US campuses distancing themselves from associating with Israel. The fact that there are Israeli academics who launch “Israel Apartheid Week” on campus only adds to the dilemma in which the Jewish student finds himself.
One such academic, Israeli-born Ilan Pappé, once employed by the University of Haifa and now at the UK’s Essex University, is a frequent lecturer propagating anti-Israel rhetoric worldwide. Indeed, this past March, he was a keynote speaker at the University of California, Berkeley’s Israel Apartheid Week – a week (and on a number of campuses, one week turns into two) dedicated solely to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign against Israel.
This is the 10th year of Israel Apartheid Week, which in 2010 saw Tel Aviv University professor Adi Ophir participating in the UK’s apartheid week, where she vilified Israel’s name at both the School of Oriental and African Studies and the London School of Economics.
The BDS campaign is taking its toll on the wider Jewish community and, sadly, even on its leadership. The question arises as to whether there remains a sufficient commitment to Israel to withstand an increasingly blatant campaign to delegitimize the one Jewish state.
Married to an architect, a member of the Royal Institute of British Architects, it came as a shock to me to learn that RIBA recently voted to demand that the Israel Association of United Architects be removed from the International Union of Architects. My husband immediately wrote to RIBA president Stephen Hodder, expressing outrage that the association had entered the political arena and had selected, from all the countries in the world, only Israel to seek its removal from the international union.
The reason given for this demand is that Israeli architects are building in the so-called “occupied territories,” which is considered illegal. My husband cited Turkey, which occupies part of Cyprus; China, which occupies Tibet; and Russia, which is currently occupying the Crimea, asking whether RIBA intended to take similar action against these countries. The response he received was that RIBA was not asking for the boycott of the Israel Association of Architects, but rather for their suspension from the International Union of Architects.
Meanwhile, my husband pointed out that Israel is somewhat unique in this part of the world, offering complete freedom for all to practice their religion. How different this is from other Middle Eastern countries, even those we have peace treaties with such as Jordan, where the constitution specifies that no Jew is allowed to become a citizen or own property. Furthermore, there is no place of worship allowed for Christians or Jews in Saudi Arabia. Such is the democracy and human rights of some of our neighbors.
While UK Education Minister Michael Gove condemned RIBA’s action outright, it was interesting to note that UK newspaper The Independent was quick to point out that 65 Jews and non-Jews fully supported RIBA’s action, and that “Gove’s sensitivity to Jewish issues is not new.”
In the past, Anglo Jewry’s leadership would have immediately risen to the defense of Israel, but sadly today the story is different. Hard as I tried, I could not find a response from Anglo Jewry’s major representative body, the Board of Deputies of British Jews. In fact, it was difficult to find a worthwhile response from any Jewish group.
This is synonymous with a growing sense of distancing from Israel, which is happening not only among Anglo Jewry but among communities worldwide, including the US – where, hitherto, support and understanding of Israel was taken for granted.
What is painfully clear is that Israel is viewed as the world’s pariah. A personal example of this is that 16 years ago – following our aliya, when we would return to London to visit friends and family – there was always an interest in what was going on here. Today, there is a clear reluctance to wanting to talk or ask questions about Israel, and that speaks volumes!
Sixty-nine years after the end of World War II, guilty feelings that countries had towards the Jews have dissipated. Yes, today anti-Semitism is once again rearing its ugly head, but we also need to ask ourselves whether we have treated hasbara (public diplomacy) seriously enough. We live in a world of the “word,” and of the TV/computer screen, but for too long we in Israel have ignored the importance of presenting Israel’s case.
The attitude here has been that it does not matter what we say, it is what we do that counts. This has proven to be a big mistake, for while we do not do everything right, we still do not deserve to have become the world’s No. 1 whipping boy.
Diaspora leadership must take stock and recognize its priorities. Students should be given maximum support in terms of knowing and understanding Israel, as it is the student generation that will determine the future political leadership and policy in their respective countries.
Our Jewish students must be equipped and encouraged to play their part in Israel’s future.
The writer is the chair of ESRA and has been active in public affairs and status- of-women issues.