Keep politics out of Birthright Israel

The attempt of political stakeholders to intervene in the teaching content of this successful project could harm the program — which aims to unite, not to divide.

A TAGLIT-BIRTHRIGHT group climbs down the slope of Masada (photo credit: TAGLIT-BIRTHRIGHT)
A TAGLIT-BIRTHRIGHT group climbs down the slope of Masada
(photo credit: TAGLIT-BIRTHRIGHT)
Taglit-Birthright Israel participants receive geopolitical lectures from Israeli professionals, some from the Right and some from the Left. The attempt of political stakeholders to intervene in the content taught in this successful project could harm the institution, which aims to unite, not to divide.
In the winter of 2004, a group of young Jewish men and women from the United States ran to the bus at Ben-Gurion International Airport with their suitcases, trying not to get wet from the heavy rain. I saw an incompatible group of people, the only thing uniting them was that they were Jewish. Some were part of the Farsi community in Los Angeles, some from a large group of Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union; others were fourth- and fifth-generation Americans, and those who thought they knew the country and were proved wrong: the sons and daughters of Israelis who immigrated to the United States.
During a trip to Kibbutz Lavi, where we stayed on the first night, the bus broke down. Outside laid darkness and rain; inside – sparks suddenly began to ignite. It was a group forged at the last minute, of outsiders who were not accepted into any other groups – and after ten days, we felt like this was real Divine providence.
Out of the 40 or so participants, 90% had some form of musical background. They pulled out musical instruments and together sang a variety of songs into the night. It took several hours before they sent an alternate bus, but that did not bother us. We taught them Jewish and Israeli songs; they taught us songs we did not know. As the days passed, the same sparks grew – until ten days later, we were like one big family.
“Tell me, when are we going to visit Bethlehem?” one of the participants asked me, with a heavy Russian accent, and a bodybuilder’s physique. He explained to me that he was very interested in visiting the birthplace of the founder of Christianity. As a young student in a hesder yeshiva (combining Torah study and military service), I almost wanted to scream inside. But that young man actually became one of most involved participants and was undoubtedly the group’s greatest surprise. He celebrated his bar mitzvah, and at Masada, he laid tefillin for the first time. He clung to the guides and listened to every word, taking it upon himself to make his Jewish identity a greater part of his life.
A “SPIRITUAL Experience” is how I define the event I partake in, twice a year: Birthright Israel’s Mega Event, attended by thousands of young Jewish men and women from around the world. Most yarmulke wearers, like myself, would not necessarily use this term for such an event – basically a huge party, with no prayers or Torah-study elements. But even so, the electricity in the air and the togetherness of Jews from all over the world does something to my soul. It also seems to bring me back to the Taglit-Birthright Israel (TBI) groups I led more than a decade ago, for which I have a very warm place in my heart.
I was very skeptical before the first group I trained as a discharged soldier; I was sure I had seen it all before, and some of the international youth groups I guided in Israel while younger had not prepared me for what was about to happen. “Do not be a Birthright Israel snob”, my coordinator said. When I asked him what he meant, he told me: “Some guides have their first taste of Taglit-Birthright Israel and will not guide any other groups afterwards.”
I promised him that it would not happen with me, but of course he was right, and every time I met these participants I could talk to them for hours, sharing from my personal experience as an Israeli, as did the other male and female soldiers who occasionally joined us. I still meet some of them from time to time, whether during visits to the United States, or with those who immigrated to Israel, following their experience in Birthright.
For nearly a decade I’ve been accompanying Taglit-Birthright Israel as a journalist. This is a project that is still being built, that changes over time, that is improving and streamlining and that tries to awaken the interest of all its participants, while at the same time, remaining as neutral as can be. Birthright is the last remaining project that’s a consensus in the Jewish world, beyond political debate.
But there are many who try, from both sides of the political map, to change this reality. There is no doubt that this is the most successful and influential Jewish project in the world today. Every few months I receive a press release about organizations that are establishing “Birthright for Mothers” or “Birthright for Engineers,” not at all related to this wonderful project, but that derive from its basic and smart model.
From right & left, there are those who do not like this reality: from the right there is criticism that there are not enough visits to the settlements (tough nowadays some groups go to Gush Etzion) and the left claims that there’s not enough discussion on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Haaretz Newspaper has become the most critical reviewer of the project in recent years, dedicating articles to various “oversights”, every few months.
A FEW DAYS ago, five young Jewish women took a break from Taglit-Birthright Israel to participate in a “Breaking the Silence” (Shovrim Shtika) tour in Hebron. They said that “the truth about the occupation was hidden” during the trip and claimed that it presents a one-sided picture.
The body that encouraged the youngsters to retire was the radical leftist organization IfNotNow, composed of young Jews who want to “change the discourse about the occupation” in Jewish organizations. Only recently, the Makor Rishon newspaper covered the organization’s activity in summer camps, and now they are launching a campaign claiming that Birthright is “not just a free trip to Israel”. In the video they posted, they claim that the project is aimed at altering the narrative and presenting Israel in a distorted and incomplete manner.
But the truth is quite different. Birthright participants take part in two hours of geopolitical lectures by Israeli professionals, some from the Right and some from the Left. Simultaneously, talks held with Israeli participants in the group undoubtedly lead to endless internal discussions, and sometimes even heated debates – that is the goal.
At the same time, they have created specific programs related to the Arab population in Israel, and participants who wish to do so can visit the Israeli-Arab communities as part of the project and learn about their lives. When I was asked as a guide about the disengagement from Gush Katif, I could not help but respond according to my personal opinions. But at the same time, left-wing guides did the same thing.
There is no visit to Bethlehem or Gaza, but there is also no visit to Shilo or Kiryat Arba. And it’s better this way; otherwise there is no end to this. And even if they visited the territories of the Palestinian Authority, who would they talk to? With Hamas or with Abu Mazen’s people? There is no end to this.
ANOTHER CONTENTION of IfNotNow is that Birthright’s biggest donor is businessman Sheldon Adelson, and that as a result, he is trying to promote a right-wing agenda.
But the truth is that the founder of Taglit-Birthright Israel was Yossi Beilin, who indeed has been writing for Adelson’s Israel Hayom in recent years, but is certainly by no means defined as a rightist. The project’s first two major donors are Charles Bronfman and Michael Steinhardt, who are also on the left side of both the political map in Israel, and so far as religion and state affairs are concerned.
So what really bothers IfNotNow’s people with Taglit-Birthright Israel? They probably want to hitch a ride on the back of the most successful project, because they know that only then will they be able to receive media exposure and perhaps recognition. But Birthright is stronger than this small and extreme organization: 650,000 young Jewish people have participated in it over the last 18 years, and this is only the beginning. Left and Right organizations should not be allowed to try and harm Birthright, since this is undoubtedly one of the last institutions in Israel that is still considered unaffiliated, bi-partisan and cross-sectoral.
Zvika Klein is the Jewish world correspondent for Makor Rishon newspaper in Israel.