Birthright CEO addresses alienation from Israel by Diaspora youth

Gidi Mark says the trip is not designed to deal with political issues

A CROWD of Birthright Israel participants. ‘We should never forget that we came from the same nuclear family,’ says director Gidi Mark. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
A CROWD of Birthright Israel participants. ‘We should never forget that we came from the same nuclear family,’ says director Gidi Mark.
The Birthright Israel program has had tremendous success in the nearly 19 years since it was founded in 1999, bringing hundreds of thousands of young Jews from North America and across the Jewish world to Israel to bolster their Jewish identity and connection with the Jewish state.
In total, some 600,000 young Jewish men and women from the Diaspora have been on the free 10-day trips Birthright provides, constituting an impressive 7.5% of the global Jewish population outside of Israel.
And research demonstrates that participants in Birthright trips have an increased affinity to Israel and are more inclined to find a Jewish spouse, raise their children Jewish and get involved in Jewish communal activity.
This summer, there were 32,400 Birthright participants from across the Jewish world, along with 6,500 Israelis participating in the tours, while another 15,500 Diaspora Jews will participate in tours during the winter season.
A 7% drop in numbers is expected for the 2018 winter season over the 2017 figures, although this is a far smaller decrease than has been reported.
But two challenges have surfaced of late. The first is the troubled relationship between the Israeli government and the Diaspora Jewish leadership over some key issues relating to the state’s Jewish identity that have blown up over the last couple of years, over the Western Wall, conversion, and similar issues.
The second, a direct challenge to Birthright, has been a campaign led by a left-wing Jewish group protesting against what it sees as Birthright’s failure to sufficiently address Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians and its control of the West Bank, during its tours.
SPEAKING WITH The Jerusalem Post before the current winter season of Birthright trips began, Birthright director Gidi Mark talks about how more than 100,000 Israelis have participated in the tours alongside the participants from the Diaspora, and emphasizes the importance of creating this mass of Israelis who have friends and direct connections to Jews and Jewish communities abroad.
He also addresses the walkout demonstrations that gained significant media coverage and were seen as a symptom of alienation from Israel among liberal-minded Diaspora Jewish youth.
Several Birthright groups during the course of this summer were, to all intents and purposes, infiltrated by activists from the IfNotNow organization, who during the course of their trip declared that they were dissatisfied with how the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was discussed and demonstrably walked out.
They were filmed by co-activists and the event was live-streamed on social media for maximum effect, after which they went to participate in activities relating to Palestinian life in the West Bank and east Jerusalem.
And there was a similar incident earlier this week in which IfNotNow activists were removed from a tour while trying to discuss the security barrier with their tour guide and filming him during the discussion.
IfNotNow has described the trip as “a bribe” to Jewish youth by Birthright’s benefactors, especially Sheldon Adelson, a patron of the Israeli and American right-wings, whereby they are given a free trip to Israel to bolster their Jewish identity and connection to Israel but are shielded from the realities of Palestinian life, and thus they ignore a critical issue that the Jewish state is caught up in.
First and foremost, Mark insists, Birthright is an educational organization dedicated to providing an educational experience to its participants, and is not designed to deal with political issues.
“We refuse to turn Israel into something which is 99% political and 1% Jewish life,” he says.
And, he argues, the organization seeks to be as inclusive as possible, and must take into account all sides of the political map, not just one perspective.
But he also seeks to put the issue into perspective, pointing out that out of the approximately 40,000 participants in the summer tours, just 13 engaged in a walkout, on just three separate occasions.
“This was mainly a media-directed provocation. The press took this anecdote of the 13 and wrote more reports on them than the 40,000 other participants,” he says somewhat indignantly.
He declines, however, to venture an opinion as to how reflective of Diaspora Jewish youth the IfNotNow walkout demonstrators are.
Nevertheless, he insists said that concerns regarding the conflict with the Palestinians are also addressed during Birthright tours, despite claims to the contrary.
“We show their point of view, just like we show the opposite side as well; we present the spectrum that reflects the Israeli consensus and the massive distances [between them],” he says.
Birthright’s critics argue that the trips do not focus enough on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but Mark insists that the organization dedicates “a fitting proportion of time to the issue which is appropriate for an educational experience.”
And, he insists again, Birthright is about Jewish identity and connection to the Jewish state, and does not have political goals.
“We very much do not want to turn Birthright into a political experience,” he says. “With all due respect, if they want to organize their own groups, they can do so, but they can’t come to us and demand that we do the programs they want. They can’t hijack an educational program and say ‘We want to turn it into a political program.’”
Mark says there are two hours of time on Birthright trips dedicated to discussing the conflict, but beyond that opines that participants often have the most in-depth conversations on big issues during the travel time on the tour buses between stops, which he says amounts to some 40 hours over the 10 days, with the Israeli participants and the tour guides on the trip.
“The biggest way participants can understand what is happening here is through interacting with Israelis, and often the most important communication is informal discussions on the bus with Israelis on the program, and among themselves, where every topic is discussed, and there’s no censor.”
Nevertheless, Jewish youth in North America, Birthright’s biggest target audience, are largely liberal-oriented and increasingly are concerned with Israeli rule in the West Bank, the enlargement of settlements and the treatment of the Palestinians.
Critics of Birthright have argued that by giving the conflict scant attention, the program will become less relevant for Jewish youth who often connect their Jewish identify to liberal notions of social justice.
Mark responds by saying that Birthright has developed hundreds of niche tours, including those that deal with Israeli societal issues and include meeting with Israeli Arabs and other sectors of the population, as well as LGBT groups, all-women tours, needs-based groups such as those for people with physical and mental disabilities, and many others besides.
“There are many groups which come to Israel in the role of fact finders and similarly where the majority of their agenda is political issues. Someone who wants a political group can go on Google and find lots of such groups, and they are welcome to go on them,” says Mark sharply.
Birthright has also started to actively deal with the “walkout” phenomenon. Those who left tours during the summer were required to pay for their plane ticket back home, and new clauses were inserted into the contract for the winter season warning of possible consequences for participating in a demonstrative walkout.
The new clause states: “Efforts to coerce, force or suppress opinions, hijack a discussion or create an unwarranted provocation violate Taglit-Birthright Israel’s founding principles and will not be permitted.”
Mark does not directly relate to the new clause, but opines that the walkouts are “preplanned provocations” and says that “someone who wants to be a provocateur needs to pay for his ticket himself.
“We pay fully for the tours which we receive from very generous donors so that someone can fulfill their right for an educational experience in Israel. If someone wants to say they don’t want to have this educational experience but, rather, wants to exploit it for a political provocation, I’m not willing to give him a free plane ticket.”
AWAY FROM the issue of the walkouts, Mark is eager to emphasize the contribution of Birthright to building bridges between Israelis and Diaspora Jews, specifically by having a smaller number of Israelis participate in every trip alongside the participants from abroad.
In total, some 100,000 Israeli youth have been on Birthright trips, 90,000 of whom were still in the army and on a sanctioned break from their IDF service, as part of a deliberate policy of affording young Israelis the opportunity to get to know Jews from abroad.
“When Birthright began nearly 19 years ago, there were very few Israelis who knew Jews from the Diaspora,” says Mark.
“They are target No. 1 as much as the others. They are not ‘accompanying’ the others or security staff, they are participants. Their need for familiarity with a Jewish experience is no less for them than those coming from abroad.”
Mark says that there are now some 9,000 Israelis participating every year in Birthright trips, “a division, in the army’s terms,” he quips.
Despite the negative headlines about a rupture between Israel and the Diaspora, be it due to the actions of the government on religion and state, or a perceived divergence of values between Israelis and Diaspora Jews, Mark insists that claims there is a disconnect are not accurate.
“There has never been a situation in which 100,000 Jews living in Israel had at least one friend living abroad, and 600,000 Jews in the Diaspora who had at least one friend in Israel,” he said of the sheer mass of Birthright participants from Israel and the Jewish world abroad.
Mark argues that many of the Israeli participants are already entering public service and will positively impact the way the state relates to and deals with its brethren abroad.
He talks of the “development of a quiet reality” in spite of “headlines which sometimes are taken out of proportion,” and says that Israelis and Jews in the Diaspora can learn from one another’s successes.
“We shouldn’t turn this into a war. There isn’t a war. Both sides have great strengths, and both sides can learn from each other and improve. We’re not perfect here, and they are not perfect there.
“We should never forget that we came from the same nuclear family, and every contact between Israelis and Diaspora Jews is crucial.
“Birthright has made a living bridge, spanning continents, which 700,000 people have crossed, and this has never happened before.”