A guided tour of Birthright

Sociologist Shaul Kelner "unpacks" the program’s methodologies, impacts, strengths and weaknesses.

brithright book 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
brithright book 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Tours that Bind
By Shaul Kelner | NYU Press | 304 pages | $35
‘Imaginings of the homeland used to be the preoccupation of poets and philosophers. Now, they have landed in the portfolio of the tourism minister,” writes Vanderbilt University sociologist Shaul Kelner in his academic analysis of Taglit-Birthright Israel.
When Birthright was launched in 1999, more than a few skeptics wondered how a 10-day trip could supply young American Jews – particularly the targeted participants “on the margins of Jewish life” – with the massive dose of “diasporic identity” that the program’s founders aimed to provide.
A decade later, criticism has all but vanished as this multimillion-dollar program has facilitated free trips to Israel for more than 230,000 18- to 26-year-olds from 52 countries. The vast majority of participants report that the trip made a significant impact, many describing the experience as “life-changing.”
As Kelner points out, Birthright may be the most ambitious and far-reaching, but was not the first organized attempt at forging bonds between Israel/Israelis and Diaspora Jews. Nor are Jews the only ethnic group taking international “tours that bind.”
Tourism, Kelner writes, “provides a means for diasporans to encounter their ethnic homelands, regardless of whether or not they have direct social and material ties there [and provides]... a crucial way to reestablish, maintain or initiate a diaspora-state relationship.”
Chinese, Irish, Italian and Indian organizations in America also use homeland tourism to foster continuity and cultural literacy.
Kelner’s study, however, centers on Birthright. He accompanied three groups and engaged in nine years of evaluation and research, culminating in this book. While it is not geared to the casual reader, and indeed is steeped in dense sociological jargon and concepts, Tours that Bind does serve up some fascinating insights into one of the most daring and effective social experiments of the modern Jewish Diaspora.
Many Israelis are accustomed to the sight of Birthright tour buses. By thoroughly “unpacking” Birthright’s methodologies, impacts, strengths and weaknesses, Kelner offers a rare inside-the-bus perspective. That view encompasses positive, negative and judge-for-yourself aspects.
We learn, for instance, that “while attempting to avoid the appearance of providing official sanction,” the program allows participants time for opportunities to “experience the highs of intoxication and sex.”
As one participant confided to Kelner: “Everyone knows... that people hook up on the trip. And they sort of feel like they haven’t had a real Israeli experience until they have.”
In an attempt to overcome “structural barriers that tourism erects between tourist and toured,” Birthright arranges for IDF soldiers to accompany each group of visitors for a few days. Though this integration generally achieves its goal, it also leads to a sexually charged atmosphere, albeit almost exclusively between male soldiers and female tourists, who are imagined to be, respectively, macho and promiscuous.
“As with other forms of sex and romance tourism, the cross-cultural liaisons on diaspora Jewish homeland tours are rooted in fantasies of eroticized exotic Others,” observes Kelner, who does not mention the single-sex and religiously stringent Birthright programs available.
Had it not appeared after his research was completed, Kelner might have cited Birthright alum Glynis Ann Ritchie’s 2008 “Modern Love” New York Times essay in which she described “rolling around on a ratty mattress in a sandy Beduin tent in the middle of the Negev desert with a fantastically handsome 6-foot-2, 21-year-old Israeli army commander” who later “opened up my chest, scooped out the contents and tossed them into the trash.”
But in “allow[ing] tourists to try different types of Jewish or Israeli behaviors that they may not commonly engage in or even know of at home,” Israel experience programs also enable participants to test new spiritual waters by, for example, strapping on tefillin or praying.
Still, as the author points out, “the trips generally have not met with unbridled success in translating the enthusiasm they generate into sustained, broad-based participation in Jewish religious, organizational and political organizations.” He posits that this may be because “the tours primarily engage people in – and hence prepare people for – a narrow Jewish behavioral paradigm centered on consumption” of Jewish objects, foods and images.
The book devotes much ink to analyzing the political messages conveyed by tour leaders and fretting whether Palestinian “counternarratives” are adequately presented. Despite Kelner’s introductory pledge to try to correct for his personal “Zionist left” bias, an undertone to his analysis suggests unease with an agenda that aims – let us not forget – to instill Jewish pride through a greater understanding of Jewish history in the Jewish homeland.
Kelner generally ascribes participants’ emotional reactions to Israel to the effects of “controlled tourism.” For example, he dismisses one participant’s comment that in Israel “everything seems to have meaning, everywhere,” as a “misrecognition” born of the tour’s “social practices” rather than “some inherent properties of the place itself.” He is undoubtedly correct, however, in assessing such impressions as “a powerful form of symbolism that does much to create long-lasting attachments to Israel.”
Among Kelner’s thought-provoking revelations is that Taglit-Birthrightis consciously focused not on persuading tourists to make aliya, but on“ensur[ing] the continued existence of vibrant, Israel-oriented Jewishcommunities abroad.”
“Israel’s decision to devote state funds to such a project,” he writes,“reflects a changing understanding of its own interests based on anevolving Zionism that is adapting to an era of transnationalism andglobalization.”
Tagging along with groups, courtesy of Kelner, one marvels that theproject’s architects are, by and large, achieving their goals. Afterall, young tourists predictably goof around and don’t always payattention to their guides. The guides themselves are, understandably,limited in the knowledge they are able to impart (one leader explainedthat “Na nah” graffiti refers to the biblical commentator Nahmanides,when it actually is a reference to Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav).
Perhaps credit is due to the carefully crafted Birthright approach tobuilding Jewish identity in Israel. Perhaps, one could suggest, it alsois due to “some inherent properties of the place itself.”