On May 25, the first Taglit Birthright Israel participants since the pandemic’s outbreak landed at Ben-Gurion airport. The Covid-19 crisis confirmed many of Birthright’s essential values. In our isolation, we all felt the anguish of the loneliness Birthright counters with group trips and community consciousness. Ideologically, we lived Birthright’s lively Jewish, Zionist and liberal-democratic dance. We cherished the particular—safe homes, clear borders, effective national policies. But we understood universal interconnectedness too—how we share a common fate, endure similar vulnerabilities, and appreciate life-saving technologies as fellow humans, transcending borders.
Still, this summer’s participants are visiting Israel during a sensitive time. Even before this recent war, many Israel educators recognized that conversations about Israel, Zionism, even Judaism have shifted dramatically, especially since the George Floyd protests. Accusations of white privilege, fragility and supremacy are complicated enough. But insults accusing Israel of “apartheid” and claiming Zionism is a form of “Jewish supremacy” make many discussions explosive. During this fragile post-Covid transition, America is so polarized that many even question the liberal value of robust dialogue. In some circles, Israel is so demonized that even some rabbis have joined the pile-on against the Jewish state.
Here’s where historical perspective helps. In its 21 years in action, Birthright Israel has overcome many traumas. We survived the suicide bombings of the early 2000s, the events of 9/11, the second Lebanon War, and various Gaza operations. We have navigated the periodic media mudslides attempting to sully Israel, the Israel-America tensions over the Iran deal, the divisive Hillary Clinton-Donald Trump election, and four years of polarizing battles over Trump.
Throughout the social and political conflicts, Birthright Israel has remained a delightfully counter-cultural and non-partisan organization. We’re in the Jewish identity business, not the business of politics. We’re playing the long game: welcoming everyone into a 3,900-year-old conversation about our people, our faith, our homeland, and ourselves, as well as into a 73-year-old conversation about our Jewish democratic state and our Jewish communities worldwide.
Eighteen months ago, refuting unfair criticism that Birthright was overly-partisan, we commissioned a special survey asking whether participants find that Birthright provides “a supportive environment for the exchange of ideas and opinions.” A stunning 83.1 percent agreed, while 85.8 percent said the trip included “opportunities to express my thoughts and feelings.” Eighty percent confirmed that they had been given “an opportunity to think critically about Israel’s challenges.” Few organizations get such impressive feedback. In fact, even America’s top-tier universities don’t invest what Birthright does in surveying students and responding to their views.
In the Birthright spirit of democracy and transparency, I want to share with you, those who care about Jewish identity-building today, my advice to our educational staff. I write independently, as the voluntary chair of Taglit Birthright Israel’s International Education Committee, urging everyone to help us to continue doing what we have done so successfully with over 750,000 happy participants since December of 1999.
Birthright is a free 10-day trip to Israel, with no strings attached, for young adults between 18 and 32 years old. Birthright’s defining structure is a bus with 40 participants in addition to a delegation of Israelis who join for a few days. The bus is everyone’s rolling home for the trip, their gateway to Israel and their community. For participants, it’s a fun pod, social circle, ’round-the-clock seminar space, and instant family.
While preparing to visit Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, Masada and the Dead Sea, participants should also come ready to listen and learn, discuss and debate. Despite jumping from place to place, Birthright participants still have an opportunity to absorb, sift, process, and yes, question, challenge, and disagree in thoughtful, respectful and sensitive ways. The intention is not to impose viewpoints but to jumpstart conversations by asking open-ended questions rather than offering closed-minded answers.
The range of different life experiences on each bus guarantees a diversity of viewpoints. The dynamic discussions that follow often launch deep, meaningful and meaning-seeking identity journeys. But this process requires open minds and humble hearts, not marching orders from the trip organizers or the participants.
When I meet participants, I often invite them to ask me the tough questions about Israel, Zionism, Jewish-democratic issues and Palestinians. “If we don’t talk about it here,” I say, “within the family, how will we ever learn?” I encourage them to continue to find what Birthright Israel’s International Vice President of Education Zohar Raviv calls “Safe and Brave Spaces” to discuss Israel, Zionism, Judaism and every other topic that concerns them.
With its blue-and-white flag, Israel is not a black-and-white place. Anyone who sees only “Israelis” will miss Israel’s four-school community choice systems: for religious Jews, secular Jews, ultra-Orthodox Jews, and Israeli-Arabs. Anyone who sees only “Jews” will miss the dizzying variety of colors, languages, communities of origins, and ideologies living side-by-side in Israel. And anyone who sees only “the conflict” won’t be able to see Arab countries at peace with Israel from Egypt to the UAE; Israeli-Arab citizens who constitute 20 percent of Israel’s doctors and 23 percent of Israel’s nurses; Palestinians living with autonomy under the PA; and Palestinians in Gaza ruled by Hamas’s theocracy.
What you see is what you get: by facing dimensionality, diversity, and dilemmas we accept the messiness of Israel’s reality while getting a kaleidoscope of sights, sounds, ideas, attitudes, challenges and solutions that is Israel and the Jewish people.
No one should visit Israel and see everything reflected through the lens of their own American or other national experiences.
Simplistic (and sometimes insulting) analogies mislead. For example, comparing America’s racial reckoning or South African apartheid’s race-based bigotry to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict distorts reality and inflames tensions. The complexity of Israeli-Arab and Israeli-Palestinian relationships isn’t connected to skin color: it’s a clash of nationalisms. We in the Israel Education world need a racial de-coupling, to disentangle the story of Israel and its neighbors from the story of America and its races.
Instead of viewing Israel through the perspective of our individual realities, we encourage travelers to see Israel through its own unique lens that helps them understand the complexities that Israelis navigate on a day-to-day basis.
Leaning In Without Falling Over
Birthright, like every educational interaction, is a covenant of trust. More than a leap of faith, it’s a headfirst jump into what is often a profound, life-changing relationship between the educator and the learner. Just as participants have to bypass some of their pre-conceived notions, educators have to lean in, reaching participants where they are. So while many Israelis may instinctively scoff at words like “intersectionality” and “whiteness” and “privilege,” that’s not helpful. Instead, they should see where those concepts are useful. That’s what leaning in is about. But stay balanced, don’t keel over: every educator must also identify where these concepts begin to distance everyone from an authentic view of Israel.
“Intersectionality” helps us understand that everyone oppressed due to race, gender, sexuality, religion, or ethnic identity shares overlapping insights regarding those traumas. Yet when Jews are blocked at the intersection and the trauma of antisemitism is the only bigotry discounted, this useful tool becomes a dangerous weapon. Similarly, white and light-skinned people should acknowledge the different benefits they might enjoy when walking down certain streets or applying for certain jobs. But when “white privilege” is used to treat all Jews as rich, monolithic, or all white, and when “check your privilege” essentially means “agree with me or else,” a helpful concept becomes hurtful.
Focusing on Identity
We live in highly-politicized times, when simply changing the subject or opposing polarizing partisanship can be caricatured as a power game. Here too, Birthright must continue to be countercultural. Focusing on identity, on peoplehood, and on eternal questions is difficult when Israel is attacked, when Americans are at each other’s throats, and when universities often impose doctrines rather than nurture critical thinkers. But that makes initiatives like Birthright even more important, and may be one of the secrets of its success.
In today’s culture, even within the Jewish community, the loudest and most social-media-savvy people seem to win, or at least dominate the conversation. Birthright’s magic may not be only the lure of Israel, the enjoyment of the bus-community, the appeal of its culture of conversation, and its big-picture perspective on identity, but also its core constituency: the silenced majority, not the bullying minority.
Gil Troy is a Distinguished Scholar of North American History at McGill University, and the author of nine books on American History and three books on Zionism. His book, Never Alone: Prison, Politics and My People, co-authored with Natan Sharansky was just published by Public Affairs of Hachette.