Putting a price tag on Birthright

I wonder how many young North American Jews are actually aware of the asylum seeker situation, namely, about the 37,288 African migrants in Israel.

A member of kibbutz plays with his dogs in a field near the border between Israel and Gaza, outside Kibbutz Beeri, Israel November 16, 2018 (photo credit: REUTERS/AMIR COHEN)
A member of kibbutz plays with his dogs in a field near the border between Israel and Gaza, outside Kibbutz Beeri, Israel November 16, 2018
(photo credit: REUTERS/AMIR COHEN)
Taglit-Birthright Israel made headlines this year following a series of dramatic walk-offs coordinated with the anti-occupation NGO IfNotNow. And now, numbers are down for this winter’s trips, though perhaps not to the extent trumpeted in liberal media outlets, some of which claim a drop of as much as 50%. Why has the free trip lost its appeal? Maybe because young Jews sense not merely generosity in the offer, but also a whiff of desperation.
As a Canadian Jew who grew up before Birthright, a proud Israeli, and a parent of a 24-year-old Birthright alum, I’m saddened that kids aren’t snapping up the free trip, even if they don’t care much about their heritage. But Birthright is at least partly to blame, because it asks so little in return, proudly proclaiming there are no strings attached.
Liberals are quick to credit the drop in numbers to savvy youth voting their conscience on Israel’s hard-line, ultra-conservative politics (even though many Israelis see Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as a centrist voice, far to the Left of many of his voters). An article in Haaretz, just as one example, was quick to explain the drop by claiming young Jews were alienated by “Israel’s treatment of Palestinians and of asylum seekers.”
I wonder how many young North American Jews are actually aware of the asylum seeker situation, namely, about the 37,288 African migrants in Israel, a massive number given that Israel’s population isn’t even nine million. I’m guessing most don’t know much about this or anything to do with Israeli politics that doesn’t have the word “occupation” in it. But again, I seriously doubt that’s why they’re not as keen about Birthright as they once were.
Here’s what I do know: Kids aren’t dumb. And we’re not getting to them first. We’re up against forces directly targeting young people who are more open to social justice than to simplistic anguish-to-triumph narratives of their own people’s history (especially to an increasingly diverse and intersectional generation who may come from more than one people and possess more than one history).
When Birthright first opened in 1999, it was jam-packed, with waiting lists. For years that was the status quo, as young Jews lined up for the free trip experience.
Back then, one of my sisters told me gleefully, “One of my friends just went on Birthright and met a nice Jewish girl – probably not the kind of Jewish connection the organizers had in mind.”
Since then, Birthright has started offering lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) experiences, nature experiences, accessible experiences and culinary experiences. However you define yourself, there’s a Birthright for you. The Birthright website looks like a slick travel agency’s, with trip providers hyping their fabulous journeys. And yet fewer people than ever are interested – even though (or perhaps because) the upper age has gone from 26 to 32, removing the pressure to take the trip before your “birthright” expires.
A NUMBER of friends here in Israel have worked for trip provider call centers, phoning eligible North American Jews with the offer: free trip, all-expenses paid, see the homeland, connect with your roots. And to be honest, it smacks of desperation.
By hawking free trips, by asking nothing in return, by selling Israel in the most rah-rah fashion possible, Birthright is selling itself short. If you have to give away the merchandise, you must be selling damaged goods.
It doesn’t have to be that way.
First, whether or not political events have triggered the current protests, there’s always been a disconnect between North American Jewish values and Israeli values, in part because of the Ashkenazi nature of North American Judaism versus the Mizrachi nature of Israeli Judaism.
One major reason for the divide is the issue of obligation, according to author Daniel Gordis. North American Jews prize autonomy and independence, while Israelis grow up in a “non-voluntary” society characterized by mandatory military service and a state that butts into many aspects of private life, including religion. Perhaps counterintuitively, these conditions have actually created an astonishingly high rate of volunteerism and public-mindedness.
When Gordis brought a group of young Israelis – ranging from haredi (ultra-Orthodox) to secular – to North America, they were shocked at how few expectations were placed on North American Jewish youths.
“None of them,” he writes, “no matter where he or she resided on the political or religious spectrum, could even begin to imagine a meaningful Jewish existence that did not place at its core the notion of obligation.”
Obligation is a central Jewish value, as seen in the concepts of mitzvah, a requirement (not a “good deed,” as many often translate it), tzedaka, an obligatory contribution (not “charity,” which is motivated by the heart), and hessed, the good deeds that are not “above and beyond” but rather represent the beating heart of Jewish life.
Judaism isn’t voluntary. There is no Jewish identity, indeed, no community membership, without obligation. But Birthright organizers have lost sight of this idea. Others have not, like Birthright Armenia, founded in 2003 and consciously based on Birthright Israel, yet whose organizers went in a totally different direction.
Sure, the Armenia trip is free. But once participants arrive, they’re not staying in hotels, whisked to and fro in a magic school bus for a canned 10-day experience. They’re put to work, volunteering and living with Armenian families, generally for around three months (the minimum is nine weeks). It’s not all work: they can join excursions for a token payment of about $8. If they stay longer, and many do, they get a stipend for living expenses. And there’s more money for those who come up with meaningful projects to extend their experience once they get back home. Oh, and the minimum age is higher – 21 instead of 18 – probably because volunteers have far more to give with those extra three years of life experience under their belts.
MARKETERS LOVE free. They know it gets our attention. But we’re smart enough to know there’s always a catch. A “free” checking account could include dozens of nickel-and-dime charges that a paid account might not. “The minute you go free, it’s very hard to go back,” says psychology researcher Dan Ariely. “It’s very hard to figure out how much something is worth.”
After 20 years of free Israel trips, young Jews have gotten smart.
They know what their birthright is worth: nothing. And groups like IfNotNow are stepping up to tell them there’s a catch. Birthright is hiding the truth about Israel, they claim. So the continued existence of free trips might even make young Jews more receptive to the messages of anti-Zionist NGOs, organizations like Students for Justice for Palestine, and the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement.
Birthright CEO Gidi Mark insists that the media are trumpeting the 13 walkout participants while overlooking the 40,000 satisfied participants this year alone (Birthright educator Gil Troy gives the total number of success stories as “650,000 strikingly happy customers”). In any case, what they and others are missing is that, yes, for most self-selecting Birthright participants, the program may still work. But many young Jews today are saying no, perhaps a growing number. And those are the exact people who need to hear that we have something very valuable to offer, and that we’re sick of giving it away for nothing.
If you have something great to sell, and I believe Israel is truly great, there will always be people willing to pay for it.
That doesn’t have to mean money. I want to keep the trips free and open to every young Jew, regardless of background, education or religious affiliation. But let’s just sit down as a community and rethink this idea of obligation. Let’s figure out what we can ask in return. 
A volunteer program in Israel? A series of webinars, reading assignments, and homework before the trip? Financial incentives for great Israel project ideas? There are so many ways we can do this, keeping the free price tag while upping the perceived value immeasurably.
Israel is worth paying for, worth working for. The Talmud says, “The Land of Israel is acquired through suffering,” and indeed, many gave their lives for the vision of a nation that young Jews could visit and enjoy.
More than that, whatever our differences, Israel is still an important part of North American Jews’ heritage as well as a source of Jewish identity. But it’s also clear that the old ways of connecting aren’t working, at least not for every participant. That’s a shame, because as a community, we’ve tossed a ton of money into these trips over the last 20 years, so it’s tough to do an about-face now. But it would be more of a shame to lose an entire generation just because we’re too scared to put a price tag on their birthright.
The writer made aliyah from Toronto to northern Israel in 2013. She is a regular contributor to The Canadian Jewish News and has written more than a dozen books for Jewish children and families. Find her at Tzivia.com.