Palestinians in proportion: On Birthright and other peoplehood programs

Fortunately, Birthright, like all ethical, effective person-centered education, is counter-cultural.

A group of Birthright Israel participants go sandboarding at Dror Bamidbar in the Negev desert. (photo credit: LEAH GRAFF)
A group of Birthright Israel participants go sandboarding at Dror Bamidbar in the Negev desert.
(photo credit: LEAH GRAFF)
It’s Birthright recruiting season – meaning for a shrill minority it’s Birthright-bashing season. Reading the Jewish press, you’d never know some surveys estimate that more than 90% of American Jews, including our youth, support Israel – or that the overwhelming majority of participants applaud Taglit-Birthright Israel’s educational balancing act.
I don’t get it. Birthright is an educational program, building a common Jewish future through Jewish identity-building 101. Yet leaders who should know better keep trying to politicize its big-tent peoplehood-oriented platform. It’s self-defeating: you don’t teach calculus before arithmetic or overemphasize polynomials while ignoring numbers. As voluntary chair of Taglit-Birthright-Israel’s International Education Committee, I endorse “PIP” – Palestinians in proportion – like everything else.
Some critics want Birthright to be a neutral fact-finding mission to Israel, offering “multiple… narratives.” But Birthright isn’t an academic course on the Arab-Israeli conflict. It invites young Jews to jump-start a conversation about Israel, Jewish identity, and their lives, among themselves and with Israeli peers – inviting them to return independently to Israel to explore more in depth, including the Palestinian perspective, if they choose.
Birthright has succeeded with 650,000 strikingly happy customers because it’s honest: it says what it is and what it isn’t.
Birthright also is not a partisan trip, grinding one political ax or another. No political party dictates the agenda – nor does any funder, no matter how generous. But it’s not a values-neutral trip either, although the gift comes with “no strings attached.”
Birthright calls itself “A Jewish Educational Journey… committed to understanding Israel’s place as a Jewish, democratic and sovereign state among the family of nations, and to preserving its historic and eternal standing as the homeland of the Jewish people.”
Any Birthright educators who would ignore the Israeli-Palestinian issue would be Ostriches – foolishly burying their heads in the sand. But any who would center the trip on Palestinian relations from left or right would be Oxen – bovinely following the partisan herd and headlines, while stampeding over the more subtle, identity-building process Birthright participants seek.
The Birthright educators I know are Owls, wise and ready to soar high, working hard to stay balanced. The Tour Educators come from across the Israeli spectrum, politically, religiously, ideologically. They try, in Birthright’s words, to foster “unity, not uniformity,” encouraging “insight-seeking, not just site-seeing,” offering “context not content.”
Mandatory topics include “Geopolitics” – Israel and its neighbors, including the Palestinians, and “Social Diversity in Israel” – especially the 20% of non-Jewish Israelis. But both admittedly whiz along with other ideas, topics, experiences, values, discussions, and visits packed into the 10-day-whirlwind. Such proportionality teaches a valuable lesson: Israel isn’t all about the Palestinians, like America isn’t all about race.
Thanks to such careful, nuanced, thoughtful, framing – inviting young Jews into this 3,500-year-old conversation about who we were, who we are, and who we can be – Birthright has succeeded wildly.
No other Jewish educational project has invested so much in assessing its own impact scientifically. By interviewing tens of thousands of applicants, Professor Leonard Saxe and his colleagues at Brandeis University’s Cohen Center, have also trailblazed new conversations about identity-building among all young Americans.
In repeated surveys over the years, including during the 2014 Gaza conflict, when fear could have turned even great educators into propagandists – the Birthright balance triumphed. Fully 88% called Birthright an “intellectually engaging experience”; 82% reported “encountering… the real Israel.”
Wow, few professors bat in the .800s!
Remember: participants are smart, idealistic, savvy. You just couldn’t fool so many for so long if the trips were so flawed.
Perhaps most disappointing to the critics, when asked to what extent “the trip included thoughtful discussions about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” 82% answered “very much” or “somewhat.” Before sourpusses yell about the missing 18% – consider it’s one of six categories, along with “Jewish history,” “Jewish ideas and Values,” “Contemporary Israeli Society,” “the Holocaust” and “Zionism.” That illustrates how educationally ambitious this 10-day trip is, and why the Palestinian issue must be taught in proportion.
Zionism also earned 82%. As the man who wrote the book The Zionist Ideas, I wish Zionism earned 100%. But the mark proves that Birthright is educating broadly, not hectoring narrowly, even about Zionism.
Finally, consider that anti-intellectual, amoral, trendoid phrase “multiple narratives.” As an historian, I acknowledge life’s complexity, multi-dimensionality, and messiness. If students walk away from my courses thinking any person’s or people’s simplistic, self-promoting perspective tells the whole story, I’ve failed. But if students walk away thinking that everything’s up for grabs and it’s all relative, I’ve also failed. Students should follow the evidence and build an interpretation – not “multiple narratives.” That interpretation, however, must be fact-based, nuanced, and resilient enough to absorb contradictions, lapses, stumbles.
Similarly, as a Birthright educator, I challenge participants to assemble some coherent narrative, some story that explains them to them – explaining: who am I, how did I get here, and where am I going. That’s not about multiple narratives, just humble, thoughtful, three-dimensional, story-telling and self-understanding.
“Multiple narratives” regarding Israel is often a Trojan-horse-in-tweed to justify Palestinian leaders’ delegitimization, terrorism, and compulsive rejection of any reasonable compromise under the guise of “everyone suffered.” Were Birthright to slide down that silly, self-indulgent pathway, I’d quit.
Fortunately, Birthright, like all ethical, effective person-centered education, is counter-cultural. We’re not afraid to take a stand, but our job is inviting, challenging, and empowering participants to stand on their own – because that’s their birthright.
Recently designated one of Algemeiner’s J-100, one of the top 100 people “positively influencing Jewish life,” the writer is the author of the newly-released The Zionist Ideas, an update and expansion of Arthur Hertzberg’s classic anthology The Zionist Idea, published by the Jewish Publication Society. A Distinguished Scholar of North American History at McGill University, he is the author of 10 books on American History, including The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s.