Fundamentally Freund: Time for a hasbara Birthright

Time for a hasbara Birth

Tonight, thousands of young Jews from across the world will come together at the Jerusalem International Convention Center for one of the capital's most exciting annual events. If the gatherings of previous years are any indication, it will be a remarkable and inspiring sight as the youthful participants -all of whom are here on the Taglit-Birthright Israel program - openly celebrate their Jewishness. They will sing and dance, swaying to the words of Hebrew melodies and cheering wildly for Israeli dignitaries and Jewish leaders, in what has justifiably come to be known as the "mega-event." The electrifying atmosphere is reminiscent of a Super Bowl or a World Series finale, only it is one in which the Jewish people emerge victorious. Thanks to philanthropists such as Michael Steinhardt, Charles Bronfman and Sheldon Adelson, Taglit-Birthright Israel is marking a decade of success. It has brought nearly a quarter of a million young Jews from more than 50 countries on free educational trips to Israel, forever altering how they view themselves and their identity. IN THE past, critics have derided the program, asserting that there is little, if any, value in a 10-day junket, with its whirlwind nature and superficial glimpse of the country's history and reality. But Birthright's accomplishments are no longer a matter of debate. A recent study conducted by Leonard Saxe of the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University looked at the program's long-term impact over the past decade and discovered that it has had what can only be described as a transformative effect. Put simply, Birthright alumni are far more likely to marry Jews, identify with Israel, express a strong attachment to the Jewish people and attend religious services than those who did not take part. A whopping 73 percent of participants felt the trip was "very much" or "somewhat" of a life-changing experience, and they are 30% more likely than nonparticipants to view raising their children as Jews as "very important." Those are the kinds of numbers that bode well for the Jewish future. Interestingly, the study also found that Birthright has strengthened Israel's standing in the world by creating a new generation of informal ambassadors. Graduates of the program are 50% more likely to feel "very confident" about explaining the situation in Israel than those who stayed home. This is an especially noteworthy finding. It means that Birthright alumni are going back to their campuses and communities with a stronger sense of commitment to Israel and a renewed self-assurance about defending the Jewish state in the arena of international public opinion. Not bad for a "10-day junket," don't you think? INDEED, PERHAPS the key lesson of the Birthright experiment is the power that visiting Israel can have. It not only opens people's eyes, but also touches their hearts, forging a connection that lasts well beyond takeoff from Ben-Gurion Airport. In this respect, it is time for Israel and its advocates to grab hold of this success and consider replicating Birthright's model not only as a means for reinvigorating Jewish identity, but also for building support for the Jewish state abroad. The government, working in partnership with Jewish organizations, should develop the equivalent of a hasbara Birthright program geared toward key decision-makers, both Jewish and non-Jewish, in the US, Europe and elsewhere. The aim would be simple: to bring them here on a free trip for a week or 10 days so they can see and experience Israel beyond the headlines. There could be programs aimed at clergymen and jurists, prominent doctors, lawyers and scientists, and even sports stars and athletes, with each one tailored to their specific interests. We need to show them that Israel is not Sparta. Just walking the streets, seeing the normalcy of daily life, with children going to school, cafés buzzing with young couples and beaches lined with bathers could be enough to begin tearing away at the stereotypes that the foreign media so readily promote. Encountering the country up close would humanize it for many, profoundly affecting their view of the Jewish state, which is a message they would then spread far and wide. Take, for example, the mounting efforts in recent years by pro-Palestinian activists in Europe and elsewhere to get trade unions and academic groups to boycott the Jewish state. Much of their success is based on the fact that people are ignorant of the reality here, seeing Israel through the only prism they know: the warped one provided by the press. Had a targeted program been in place, say, to identify key trade-union leaders or university deans and bring them to Israel, much of this might have been avoided. SURE, SUCH initiatives already exist in one form or another. The Foreign Ministry, for example, arranges visits here by journalists and dignitaries, and a number of Jewish groups periodically bring over delegations of congressmen and community leaders. But there is no central coordinating body, and no overriding strategy being applied in this area. That needs to change. It might sound silly for a country to offer free trips to its shores at taxpayer expense. But this is the kind of program that will ultimately reap rewards far greater than the initial investment. It will boost tourism and encourage others to follow, and have a perceptible impact on Israel's standing abroad. We need to stop focusing on countering every critical letter to the editor that appears in the Western press, and instead start bringing more people here in an organized fashion. As Birthright has shown, that may be the best possible remedy for our current hasbara woes.