The summer tourist season is here. For the 10th summer in a row, the Birthright
Israel visitors are back. More than 20,000 of them this year.
Birthright was launched a decade ago, skeptics dismissed the 10-day tours of
Israel as little more than a free party for privileged college kids. It was an
unfair critique, but it gained traction because it combined the ever popular
lament about the “youth of today” with an equally curmudgeonly suspicion that
something so fun could not actually be serious.
supporters of Birthright still buy into the critique even as they seek
it. To defend the program against the charge of frivolousness, they
“tourism” from “education,” portraying the former as flighty, the latter
substantive, and insisting that the program has little to do with Disney
everything to do with Dewey.
After a quarter-million participants, and
years of evaluation research documenting success, it is time to stop
ground on the issue of principle. Instead of running ashamed from the
“tourism,” Birthright’s proponents should proclaim with pride: Tourism,
serious, meaningful and even profound.
Even the aspects that are the most
derided – souvenir shopping, simulations and photo snapping – engage
deeply in an essential way.
Take photography, for instance. Through the
camera’s lens, tourists build an aesthetic relationship to the country.
frame their shots, they become artists for the moment, attuned to the
the landscapes and cityscapes that surround them.
simulations. Birthright tours are rife with them. At Independence Hall,
listen to the crackly radio broadcast of David Ben-Gurion declaring the
establishment of the state, then stand to sing “Hatkiva.” Dressed in
costumes at the Kfar Kedem biblical village, they play at living the
life of Jews in the mishnaic era, grinding wheat on stone mills and then
it into pita on a taboun.
Simulations are often lambasted as kitsch, but
at their best, they are springboards for imagining oneself into a story.
facilitate role playing, which in turn helps to generate empathy and
understanding of lives very different from the ones that tourists lead.
the same as the real thing? Of course not, but everyone knows this.
is not the issue. Just as audiences at a movie willingly suspend
participants in a simulation do the same. But in contrast to
tourists in simulations gain the benefit of being both actor and
Of all the aspects of tourism that have gotten a bum rap,
souvenir shopping has probably gotten it worst. No surprise, for
general has long been stigmatized as an act of self-indulgent
But as advertisers have long known, and as scholars of
contemporary life are increasingly coming to realize, we often use
shopping as a
way of expressing our deepest sense of self. From the books we place on
shelves, to the food we stock in our cupboards, to the clothes we drape
bodies – we use our consumer choices not only to tell others who we are,
tell ourselves, and to help ourselves become who we want to be.
Birthright, the most popular souvenirs include IDF T-shirts, necklaces
kabbalistic markings, mezuzas, shofars and other forms of Judaica. Those
them may not be soldiers or mystics or religious virtuosos. Still, in
out and choosing to buy these particular souvenirs, they are engaging in
of Jewish self-affirmation.
No doubt, many would dismiss this as
second-rate Jewishness. Better to serve in the IDF or study Kabbala or
in synagogue on Rosh Hashana, they might say. But this argument ignores
important consumption is to identity in the modern world.
democratic West, the self is largely constructed through our choices in
We are what we consume.
By embracing tourism,
Birthright Israel taps this dimension of modern life as few other forms
Jewish practice have. By engaging Diaspora Jews as souvenir shoppers,
photographers, felafel tasters and inveterate sightseers, the tours give
powerful opportunity to express themselves as Jews in a consumer
is nothing to dismiss.
How is it that those who have criticized
Birthright as Jewish-lite have been so deaf to the classic message,
every Purim, that there is such a thing as serious fun, and that Judaism
place for it? It is time to drop the defensiveness about the 10-day
Consumption is not always empty or frivolous. Role playing often
Birthright Israel’s supporters should proudly embrace the
moniker “tourism,” and should challenge the skeptics whose dour vision
Jewishness has no place for aesthetics, consumption and a little
The writer is assistant professor of sociology and Jewish
studies at Vanderbilt University. He is the author of Tours That Bind:
Pilgrimage and Israeli Birthright Tourism (NYU Press, 2010).