Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu addressed the final meeting of a group of Birthright (Taglit) participants in Jerusalem last week. Netanyahu’s message was straight forward. He told the participants to send a message to everyone back home about what they saw and experienced. He told them to be emissaries for Israel, to come back to visit and/or to make aliya, and to tell everyone the truth about Israel.
“There’s so much slander about Israel,” he said. “And the only way to fight a lie is to tell the truth.”
On its face, the message is clear and traditional, what you would expect from an Israeli prime minister before a group of Jewish visitors or any Jewish audience in the world. The problem is that Birthright participants are a special group. Most are still college students or recent grads. What they hear on those campuses is that Netanyahu’s version of the “truth” is not acceptable. The Israeli narrative is now challenged by an alternative Palestinian version of the “truth,” and these students are ill-prepared to respond. Even if some of them are themselves ardent supporters of Israel, they face faculty and students who are adamant in presenting a very different account.
While the largest percentage of Birthright participants is American, many come from all over the world. Although there is a growing anti-Israel feeling on American campuses, there are much more serious problems on campuses in South America, Australia, and especially Europe. For many of them, taking back home Bibi’s “truth” is not sufficient to fight their battles.
Young people need a more open and honest message from the prime minister. These students need to combat the growing pro-Palestinian presence and activism on campus. They need to combat the message of Palestinian victimhood, which is widespread and growing.
Many of the young Diaspora Jews — most of whom are not religious — do not buy the message that many young religious Jews accept. They are far more critical and skeptical of Israel’s treatment of Arabs both within Israel as well as on the West Bank. They seriously question Israel’s control of the West Bank and its seeming inability to move ahead in the peace process.
Israel’s remains a remarkable story. It is a vibrant democracy and an economic powerhouse in many cutting edge fields, while remaining a besieged state. It has warts and problems both internally and throughout the world. Young people need to hear a message that is sophisticated and nuanced, not pabulum. Netanyahu needs to recruit these people or else Israel will lose much of the next generation of pro-Israel advocates, despite all the AIPAC outreach activities on college campuses.
Birthright was created largely to reach out to young people who never had a real Jewish education or only a minimal one. Many come from homes with only one Jewish parent and are only marginally connected to the Jewish community. These trips can be very seductive and positive. Young Jewish women still love to be photographed with handsome Israeli soldiers, but that is a passing image. Some participants can become the troops for the next generation of supporters and pro-Israel advocates. Unless the message is more open, there is a serious likelihood that they will succumb to anti-Israel attacks escalating on campuses, largely because they were not given the proper ammunition and story to counter it.
They also cannot be armed only with the story of Israel’s precariousness in a sea of enemies. There is a need for more than the notion that Israel is the refuge that was not there during the Holocaust.
Finally, this new generation is unwilling to tolerate many of the policies of the current Israeli government. As they return to their home countries they will have seen firsthand or read about the ugly religious tensions as well as the mutual dislike and intolerance among the secular and fervently Orthodox. They will have seen not only the opportunities for women but the discrimination; they will have seen Arabs all over the country but they also have seen road-blocks and checkpoints; they will have seen Ethiopian Jews throughout the cities but will have read about the economic problems they continue to face. This summer, they saw the high-tech and bio-tech corporate offices along the highways, but the tent cities that sprung up as well. They will be unable to reconcile these clashing images unless the underlying issues are treated with candor and objectivity.
The prime minister knows that the Birthright participants see and understand the existential threats Israel faces. It stares every Israeli and every visitor in the face. That truth they cannot help but take home. What they also need is a more painful but honest picture.