Diaspora youngsters enjoy a Birthright Israel trip to the Jewish state..
(photo credit: Courtesy)
A decision by Birthright Israel to halt organized encounters between participants and Israeli Arabs drew swift criticism from Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, who accused the organization of being “out of touch.”
“The fact that Birthright Israel has decided to halt their outreach to Arab citizens of Israel shows just how out of touch Birthright is becoming,” he said in a statement released on Thursday. “Arabs make up 21% of the Israeli population, and tens of millions of dollars of Jewish philanthropy from North America, the UK, Israel and elsewhere are being well spent by supporting and integrating Arab citizens of Israel into education, the workforce and Israeli civil society.”
His remarks followed a report published on Wednesday in Haaretz that cited sources familiar with the decision-making process at the organization, who said the decision might have been based on unease experienced by Israeli soldiers who accompany Birthright groups, or could be a reflection of the wishes of Birthright donors.
“Birthright has been a transformative experience for over half a million young Jews, 40% who self-identify as Reform.
But many are now questioning whether the 10-day trips are exposing participants to a too-narrow slice of contemporary Israel,” Jacobs said.
Birthright brings thousands of young Jewish adults from all over the world on heritage trips to Israel every year.
The 10-day trips are organized by various organizations and companies accredited by Taglit-Birthright Israel.
Since the inception of Birthright in 1999, the organization has run encounters with Arab Israelis, but until two years, ago, they were dependent on the consideration of the organizer.
In the past two years, Birthright began examining the initiative with the aim of creating a structured protocol for all organizers.
This past summer, Birthright began testing operations of the initiative in a standardized manner “We believe that young people can fall in love with the real Israel that has so many inspiring aspects, while also seeing up close the struggles for religious pluralism and for better ways for Jewish and the Arab citizens of Israel to live together.
Young Jews, in particular, bring their Jewish values with them wherever they go, including on Birthright trips to Israel,” Jacobs said.
“This is a moment to attract more progressive participants to these unique trips. By cutting off encounters with Arab citizens of Israel, Birthright Israel will have the opposite effect; it will communicate loudly and clearly that these are trips with a narrow political agenda that is out of step with today’s young Jews and most of their parents as well,” he concluded.
Birthright told The Jerusalem Post the decision only applies to the coming season.
“Ever since its inception, Birthright Israel has endorsed a policy which aims to expose its participants to the various sectors of Israeli society, including the Arab citizens of Israel.
This policy has never changed,” Birthright said in a statement to the Post.
“This past summer – as a routine protocol during and after each season – BRI [Birthright Israel] conducted an evaluation and oversight process of all educational programs, including modules focusing on coexistence initiatives between Jews and Arabs in Israel. In light of the evaluation findings, BRI has decided to restructure these modules in order to ensure the optimal realization of their potential,” the statement said.