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What’s the story with Birthright?
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Opinion

What’s the story with Birthright?

How reading the Palestinian chapter could build committed Zionists

A Birthright group at the Kotel in Jerusalem. Photo courtesy Adam Osborne
A Birthright group at the Kotel in Jerusalem. Photo courtesy Adam Osborne

It’s August, and soon tens of thousands of Jewish students will arrive on college campuses. With the ongoing turmoil in Gaza, several may find themselves in the position of having to defend Israel’s policies with regard to the Palestinians. Or perhaps campus activists will seize upon the new nation-state law as justification to smear Israel as a racist or apartheid state.

Will the typical Jewish student be capable of processing these issues for themselves, internally, let alone confronting Israel’s detractors in classrooms and public gathering spaces? What about alumnae of the Taglit-Birthright Israel trips? Are they better prepared to navigate these difficult and complex issues?

I pondered these questions when I learned that students affiliated with the anti-establishment group IfNotNow (INN) staged a “walkout” from their Birthright trips recently, leaving early to meet with Palestinians. Their reasoning: Birthright offers only a sanitized experience that fails to explore — and even discourages — discussion of the Palestinian
narrative.

Clearly these were not spontaneous protests. The INN students knew full well what they would get with a Birthright trip, and their behavior was planned in advance, their intention to make a political statement. I associate myself with the critics of the “walkout” who argue that this 10-day trip is a gift, and that the students should have been respectful of this free opportunity to visit Israel by waiting until it was over before heading off. But, methods aside, do they make a good point? In my opinion, the answer is “yes.”

To be clear, Birthright is an amazing initiative, one which has brought great benefit to its participants, and to the Jewish people as a whole. That doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily perfect.

To get a better read on the situation, I corresponded with Professor Gil Troy, a friend with whom I have cowritten several position papers over the years. As chair of Birthright’s Israel International Education Committee, he is deeply involved in shaping the itinerary and curriculum of these trips. “We are trying to teach the ABCs of Jewish identity,” he wrote, “with the Palestinian thread one part of the tapestry, but not the main design.”

Maybe the key question is whether the “thread” Troy refers to is sufficient. In addition to building Jewish identity, should these trips also be used as opportunities to help young Jews seriously deal with issues that they will undoubtedly confront when they return home? Rachel Zaurov of Cliffside Park is convinced they should. A member of the Israel Policy Forum (IPF)-sponsored Atid program for young Jewish professionals, Zaurov participated in Birthright in 2014 with Birthright-provider Israel Outdoors. She told me “the schedule included a two-hour crash course on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which was wholly made up of the standard, shallow hasbara talking points. There was no mention of the Palestinian narrative, grievances, or current reality.”

The problem, she observed, is that “this course gives the impression that you’ve been educated about these issues, when, in fact, you have not been.” The failure to equip young Jews with a nuanced understanding of the complex Israel-Palestine conflict, she believes, is opening the doors to groups like IPF that actively address and educate young people on the conflict.

“I want to help Israel live up to the principles set out in its Declaration of Independence,” Zaurov added. An idealistic and dedicated member of the Jewish community, she soon will have a chance to fulfill her goal by assuming a professional position with The Abraham Fund Initiatives, an organization that seeks to build a shared society for Jewish and Arab citizens of Israel.

IPF Atid director Adam Basciano, who grew up in Randolph, said that while he does not support INN’s tactics, their challenge to the establishment is well-placed. “The stakes are becoming increasingly higher regarding the plight of the Palestinians,” he said. “Omitting the Palestinian issue in its entirety is not just immoral, but also implies a sense of complicity. A commitment to an honest treatment of the complexities and faults of all sides is needed to retain credibility and impact among younger generations.”

I also communicated with Sam Sussman, who in 2014 founded Extend, an organization that offers Birthright alumni and other young Jews the opportunity to meet with Palestinians in east Jerusalem and the West Bank. He regards Birthright’s position — that it avoids the Israeli-Palestinian conflict because it distracts from its focus on Jewish identity — as misleading.

“There are countless ways to build Jewish identity here in America, by studying Talmud, performing mitzvot in underprivileged communities, or watching ‘Fiddler on the Roof,’” he said. In his view, Birthright builds “Jewish identity around a particular political view of Israel that elevates voices aligned with right-wing funders and excludes 20 percent of Israeli citizens who are Palestinian and ignores the occupation of millions of
Palestinians.” 

In his email to me, Troy, while affirming Birthright’s commitment to address the Palestinian issue thoughtfully and substantively, acknowledged that to do so effectively and fairly in a rushed 10-day trip with participants from different backgrounds, different levels of Jewish identity, and different political beliefs “is a really hard thing to do.” Another complicating factor, Troy said, is that Birthright trips are run by a variety of providers, each with their own religious and political orientations. Some may be more interested in touching on the Palestinian issue than others. “Birthright is a franchise operation,” he said. “We have quality control, but I cannot claim that every tour educator does what I wish he or she did every time.” 

I’d love to be a part of a Birthright trip to judge for myself how the balance between identity building and exposure to the Palestinian issue is handled. Alas, at 69 years old, I just miss the cutoff age of 32. (Even though I cannot participate, I would recommend that Birthright encourages participants to read Yossi Klein Halevi’s wonderful new book, “Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor,” which is based on the premise that the Palestinians and Jewish people both have legitimate rights to national self-determination in the land between the Jordan River and Mediterranean Sea. In “assigning” this balanced effort to explain the Zionist perspective to Palestinians, and that of the Palestinians to Jews, Birthright would be demonstrating its desire to take this issue seriously.)

Beyond Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, in 2017 Birthright suspended encounters with Israel’s Palestinian-Arab citizens due to mixed feedback received from trip providers. In response to the feedback, Birthright launched a task force to examine its guidelines in this area, according to Troy; some of the programs with Israel’s Palestinian-Arab citizens have since been restored, while other are under examination.

Jewish federations are among the big supporters and funders of Birthright, along with major donors and the Israeli government.  I spoke with Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ executive vice president/CEO Dov Ben-Shimon, who took a very nuanced approach to this issue. Stressing that his federation has been a full funder of the Birthright program, he said, “We need to send every young Jewish person we can on these trips because it is one of an array of immersive Jewish experiences that build up Jewish identity and our community.” He added, “as everything we do, we have to be open to debate and discussion within the boundaries of decent communal consensus.”

Remember, the youngest Birthright participants are 18. If Jews are first exposed to Israel’s complex reality, including the Palestinian issue, at that stage of their lives, we are failing them — and Israel — miserably.

I also spoke with Adam Shapiro, head of school at the Golda Och Academy in West Orange. He explained that Israel education in his school begins in pre-K and culminates in a three-month stay in Israel in 12th grade. Both then and in a 10-day freshman trip, “students are given the opportunity to discuss the real issues of the day with Israelis who are experiencing them.” 

Seniors also participate in a week-long program called “Many Voices of Israel.” According to Shapiro, it “brings them to different places, both inside and outside the 1967 Green Line, to hear from and talk to many different people who make Israel the incredibly complex place it is today.” But what percentage of American-Jewish children have an opportunity to participate in this kind of in-depth Israel experience? 

Identity building — and education about the rationale for a Jewish state — should continue to be core values in programs directed at members of the young generation. And we also ought to provide them with pathways to meaningfully engage with Israel’s complexities, including the Palestinian issue. However, it doesn’t need to be an either/or proposition. Shielding them from such engagement may be well-intentioned, but, ultimately, it’s counterproductive. After all, we don’t have anything to hide.

Martin J. Raffel of Long Branch is former senior vice president at the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.

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