With June comes stifling summer heat and the French. Perhaps even more visible,
or audible, is the endless stream of tour buses out of which tumble thousands of
young Americans on whirlwind tours of the country.
They’re loud, excited,
and wielding cameras like weapons. Ladies and gentlemen, it’s Taglit-Birthright
season in Israel.
I am not a Birthright alumnus, but some of my best
friends are. I was ineligible because I had participated in an organized youth
tour in high school, in the summer of 1999. After two weeks in Israel on that
B’nai B’rith program, I came away with a sunburn and an ear piercing, but having
never heard of the Green Line, even though I’m sure I crossed it a few times
while zigzagging through the country.
In 10 jam-packed days, the
participants of Birthright and similar programs will scale Masada, bake in the
mud of the Dead Sea, stuff prayers into the cracks of the Kotel and party ’til
curfew at the Tel Aviv Port. They will leave Israel without seeing a single
African refugee or Thai foreign worker, and most will still not know the
difference between east and west Jerusalem. For most Israelis, American
engagement with Israel, like the stereotypes of America itself, is shallow,
superficial and rushed.
Yet while Birthright may scream the loudest,
there are also programs for young American Jews that quietly explore Israel with
curiosity and intention, that scratch through the layers of complexity with care
and look at Israeli society through a magnifying glass, rather than rose-colored
CONSIDER A different scene: 10 Americans, all of us in our 20s,
winding through the hills of the Golan, teaching each other about the 1967
annexation of the region and debating whether or not we personally would give it
back in exchange for peace. Soon we reach the Druse village of Majdal Shams,
where we continue the conversation at the home of a local family, overlooking
the Syrian border.
This excursion was one of the learning seminars of the
Dorot Fellowship in Israel, a 10-month program for a small cohort of passionate
and curious American Jews, post-college and under 30, of which I count myself a
lucky member. For 20 years, Dorot has proposed a vastly different way of looking
at Israel – one that doesn’t shy away from the controversies that the rest of
the world is talking about, but instead faces them head-on and forces its
participants to grapple with Israel’s many contradictions.
Fellowship is funded by a private family foundation based in Providence, Rhode
Island, that is unaffiliated with any government program or Jewish denomination.
Though the foundation supports other projects with clear political aims, this
fellowship is adamantly apolitical.
How? Because we, the fellows, are
responsible for our own learning, and we hold each other accountable for
presenting a broad range of ideologies, perspectives and histories. The goal: to
hear as many voices as possible and make up our own minds.
course of the year, we have addressed the Israeli political and legal systems
with members of Knesset, explored the local culture with museum directors,
analyzed the politics of kashrut with rabbis, debated IDF policy with soldiers,
and put a spotlight on refugees, foreign workers, haredim and the Beduin, among
In the process, we have learned to listen carefully, pry more
deeply, and disagree respectfully.
Dorot is a highly competitive
fellowship that pays us to live here for nearly a year.
Birthright is a
free 10-day educational vacation.
The capabilities and intentions of each
are clearly incomparable. But it is important for Israelis to know that beyond
the waves of rambunctious teenagers, there are small, dedicated groups like
Dorot that take Israel seriously enough to look past the stories and myths of
our American upbringing with the belief that we have a responsibility to know
Israel as it is today and to consider how we see ourselves a part of
The 10 of us come from a wide range of political views and religious
practices (and are chosen for the fellowship because of this). Some fellows
spend their time wrestling with Talmud; others haunt checkpoints or volunteer at
refugee health clinics. I work at the Suzanne Dellal Center in Tel Aviv,
exploring dance in Israel as a tool of cultural diplomacy. Some of us see the
lack of pluralistic Judaism as the largest obstacle to Israeli stability; others
think the occupation is its gravest threat. The point is not to reach solutions
or find closure. When our fellowship ends in a few weeks, many of us will leave
more confused and conflicted than when we arrived. To see Israel as it is can be
disillusioning. The struggle is to keep looking.
WHICH IS exactly what
Birthright seems to be afraid of. Programs such as this, rather than widening
the eyes of their participants, put on blinders and send them back home knowing
Israel through Goldstar and humous. The Israel that students see on Birthright
is still the Israel of the past – but with much better shopping. They are
carefully, and unfortunately, kept out of the Israel of today.
alumni of Birthright with whom I have spoken note that sometimes politics do
sneak into the trip in small ways, but this depends entirely on knowledgeable
individual staff members and inquisitive participants who know what questions to
ask. Organizationally Birthright does not create a framework for how to delve
into the sticky issues. Why not encourage students to follow Israeli media in
the months leading up to the trip to gain a grasp of the topics that the country
is currently discussing? Why not provide a reading list post-adventure so that
students can then arm themselves with a variety of perspectives and opinions of
contemporary history in order to speak intelligently about Israel back home?
Many will argue that the focus of Birthright is Jewish identity – not Israeli
politics – and that given the sheer volume of participants, any attempt at
introducing even slightly controversial topics might offend, confuse or scare
away potential Israel-lovers. Birthright supporters claim that the primary goal
is to initiate an easyto- swallow connection to Israel so that participants will
return on their own to learn more. Indeed, statistics of those who do in fact
return suggest that Birthright is incredibly successful in its goal.
what benefits Israel most is not hordes of Americans buying Coca-Cola Tshirts in
Hebrew script, but those who can look with insight and compassion at the many
complexities here. The launch of Birthright NEXT is a promising step toward
continuing the conversation, but the program can do more to provide its alumni
with resources and information to be able to talk about the country in
articulate and nuanced ways, allowing them to respond to the organized and
institutional criticism of Israel sweeping through American college
Birthright and Dorot are completely different ways of engaging
with Israel, but they are not mutually exclusive. The main difference between
the two programs is not their duration; rather it is how they conceive of and
treat their participants: as consumers and cheerleaders, or as stakeholders and
advocates. Birthright and other youth programs can create a bridge from one to
the other if they commit to planting those seeds now.The writer is a
Dorot Fellow. He blogs at www.MyTwoLeftFeet.net