We’ve seen the buses with the banners, the groups of gallivanting youth all around the country, and perhaps even the recent controversial “Eretz Nehederet” spoof on TV. Taglit- Birthright Israel, the free 10-day trip to Israel for Jewish 18- to 26-year-olds, now in its 12th year, has been so successful, it has even inspired comparable programs for other diasporas with similar goals (including Birthright Armenia for the Armenian diaspora, and Birthright Greece for the Greek diaspora). The biggest supporter of Birthright is Sheldon Adelson, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s proponent and the owner of Israeli daily newspaper Israel Hayom.

It is well known by now that the government of Israel pumps millions of dollars into bringing scores of young Jews from around the world to Israel on organized visits ranging from 10 days to a year in duration.

But despite the fact that a trip to Israel has proven to be the most highly effective tool for strengthening the connection and identification of Jewish youth from around the globe to their Jewish heritage, there is no overarching “master plan” for how this should be carried out. Granted, an immersion experience will go a long way in affecting how a young person sees and thinks about Israel. But is Israel putting all its eggs in one basket (or, more accurately, two baskets: Birthright and Masa)? What of the high school age group?

Articles such as Natan Sharansky’s recent op-ed in The Jerusalem Post blatantly ignore the fact that the critical sector of high school age programs to Israel, under the organizational coalition of “Lapid”, which sees 12,000 high school age teens participate on Israel programs every year (many of whom subsequently return on Masa programs), are being grossly sidelined. While millions of government and Jewish Agency dollars are being poured into bringing college age students to Israel, never has there been an integrated, coherent, conceptual framework or “grand strategy” for educational travel to Israel en masse – something which begs to be changed in the near future.

Israel evidently views these programs as crucial in terms of national security. Otherwise, amidst a backdrop of omnipresent war and social and economic unrest, how else could this perilous little country justify spending millions of its tax payers’ dollars (and shekels) on these initiatives?

I write as one who first stepped foot in Israel on such a Birthright trip eight years ago, at the age of 21. While not wanting to spoil the parade of Birthright’s highly touted success, and while some may consider me a walking ‘success story’ for Birthright, I honestly do not attest my subsequent aliyah (immigration to Israel), my marriage to a Jewish spouse, nor my Zionism, to my 10-day whirlwind Birthright trip to Israel.  If I’d been offered a free trip anywhere else, I probably would have taken it too.

But why should Israel pay for rich foreigners to come to Israel?

This is a timely issue as it comes at the heels of this week’s Israel Apartheid Week (IAW). Now in its eighth year, IAW is a series of events around the world, mainly taking place on university and college campuses, attempts to draw attention to Israel’s “apartheid” policies and promote the cause of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. A host of big-name universities (including Oxford and Cambridge Universities) have played a part in IAW. Last year’s IAW was so successful 97 cities participated from around the world. While Opponents of IAW argue that it has led to an upsurge of anti-Zionism and have labeled the event as anti-Semitic, this charge has been flatly rejected by supporters, particularly by Jewish student supporters who appear to have given great legitimacy to the cause.

Wake up and smell the anti-Semitism

Anti-Semitism is arguably on the rise and Israel’s opponents are working harder than ever to bash Israel at every opportunity in the international arena, in the media, and on college campuses around the world. It is undoubtedly the case that the delegitimization of Israel (the virulent attack on the Jewish State’s very right to exist), promoted through aggressive campaigns such as the BDS, poses a real and strategic threat to Israel.

What is Israel doing about all this? Israel has come to realize that it is embroiled in a war that far exceeds the traditional battlefields of conflict. This is a new battlefield of words, messages, images and information (and disinformation), and as such, Israel cannot rely purely on the traditional backing from an unconditionally supportive Diaspora; to remain strong, it must invest in Diaspora support as well.

Call it “Israel advocacy,” “public diplomacy,” or whatever happens to be the English equivalent of the Hebrew buzzword “Hasbara,” Israel has found itself in a precarious position where it needs to not only defend itself but to proactively counter the sea of misinformation that is turning away swarms of young members of Jewish communities. Israel is embracing the young generation from Jewish communities around the world with wide open arms. How?

What better way to make Israel look attractive than to offer a free trip?

Israel – the land, the culture, the people, the history – is considered to be at the very core of Jewish identity and peoplehood. In 2009, the Jewish People Policy Institute (JPPPI) submitted a report to the government of Israel on the topic of strengthening Jewish identity and connectedness to Israel among Jewish youth around the world. The first and most vital of the six key recommendations emanating from the report was a clear recommendation for the government to “enable and encourage every Jewish youth to visit Israel between the ages of 15-35.”

At a Knesset Committee of Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora Affairs meeting held on January 10, chaired by Member of Knesset, Mrs Einat Wilf, the findings of this JPPI report were discussed among major stakeholders in the field. Avinoam Bar Yosef, President and Founding Director of the JPPI, outlined the report’s preface: “In the current state of affairs, Diaspora Jewry is one of Israel’s most important strategic assets, while the standing of the Jewish State is seen as a strategic asset for Jews worldwide on the individual level and for the continuity and flourishing of Jewish civilization in general.”

On February 15, MK Danny Danon — Chairman of the Knesset Committee of Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora Affairs and Chairman of World Likud — called for a meeting specifically to discuss the issue of Programs for Diaspora Jewish Youth to Israel. In attendance were representatives of the Prime Minister’s Office, the Ministry of Finance, Jewish Agency, the World Zionist Organization, the Ministry of Public Diplomacy & Diaspora Affairs, the Ministry of Absorption and Immigration, the Ministry of Education, Lapid, Masa, Taglit-Birthright, AACI (the Association of Americans & Canadians in Israel), Nefesh B’Nefesh, JPPI, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and others.

The following three main points, which should be of interest to both the Israeli tax-paying public and the Jewish Diaspora, were discussed:

  1. Why has the Israeli government invested such a vast amount of financial support in college-age programs bringing Diaspora youth in the 18-30 age bracket to Israel (specifically, Birthright and Masa), yet despite formal recommendations has neglected the high-school-age programs in the 15-18 age bracket (specifically “Lapid”)?
  2. Why are children who go to Israel on high-school-age programs denied eligibility to go on Birthright?
  3. What is the significance of the high-school years in terms of identity formation and connection to Jewish life?

MK Danon said “don’t prejudice Taglit-Birthright and Masa, but invest more in the teens,” and demanded that an inquiry be made, decreeing that the government submit a report within 30 days on why high-school-age programs to Israel are not being funded.

Yoni Heilman, Birthright’s Special Advisor to the CEO, who attended the Knesset Committee hearing, appeared to evaluate Birthright’s achievements, as many others have done in the past, including Adelson and Sharansky, by referring to the ubiquitous waiting lists for Birthright, aliya rates, and intermarriage rates (51% of Birthright alumni are marrying Jewish).

But how are prospective applicants to Birthright screened for their affiliation and connection with Israel prior to joining the trip? And can it really be proven that a person’s decision to make aliya could be attributed to their 10-day Birthright trip? In my case, it could at best be described as a spurious relationship. Yes, Birthright brought me to Israel — that’s true — but it was not what made me stay.

A year ago, Prime Minister Netanyahu proudly promised to increase his government’s funding of Taglit-Birthright to an eyebrow-raising $100 million over three years, aimed at increasing the number of Birthright participants from 30,000 to 51,000 annually by 2013. He has so far delivered on this promise. This year, the cash-strapped Jewish Agency reduced its $6-million contribution to Birthright to just $3 million.

The second and lesser-known player in the field, Masa (for 18-30 year olds, now in its seventh year), by comparison, brings 10,000 participants to Israel annually on long-term programs of up to a year in length, and has received $24 million in support this year from the Government of Israel, as well as an additional $24 million from the cash-strapped Jewish Agency. “Within five years,” Netanyahu pledged to a gathering of Jewish Agency’s Board of Governors in June 2010, “every young Jew should be able to visit Israel”.

But just “how old,” and who is considered a “young Jew” in the eyes of the Israeli government? There are many who will argue that Israel is not investing in bringing them young enough. Are the programs achieving their goals? What are the criteria for these programs? Most importantly, what is the return on investment for these ambitious enterprises? Is making aliya the driving force? Who decides how the resources are allocated? And is Israel spending enough?

Introducing to the picture the third and least-known, yet oldest player in the field: Lapid – The Coalition for High School Age Programs in Israel.   

It is very rare for 30 large international Jewish organizations to come together, put differences aside, and join forces for a common cause. Yet, Lapid, a not-for-profit organization in Israel, formed three years ago, has managed to do exactly this. Its member organizations (many of whom compete with each other for the same target market audience), have been running high-school-age programs, some for well over 40 years. They maintain that they banded together out of sheer necessity.

Every year, more than 12,000 Diaspora Jewish teens (15- to 18-year-olds) come to Israel on a range of Lapid high school-age programs spanning from three weeks to five months in length, and pay anywhere from $1,000 to $1,750 per week, pumping an estimated 70 million shekels a year into the Israeli economy. While 12,000 may seem like a decent number, and indeed it is significant, that figure used to stand at 20,000 annually 12 years ago. But 12 years ago, during the peak of the Second Intifada, when tourism to Israel was beginning to drastically wane, the Government started to fund the post-high-school-age programs, and the picture suddenly changed. Today, the numbers for the high school program enrollment continue to decline while the waiting list for Birthright continues to increase.

The truth of the matter is the State of Israel may fund excellent programs like Birthright and Masa, but it does not spend a single shekel toward bringing high-schoolers to Israel. No one can explain why. No one is saying that there is anything wrong with the college-age programs (quite the contrary, in fact). But Lapid clearly feels it has been cut out of the pie and is determined to change the situation so as to make the high-school-age trip to Israel a more affordable possibility for Jewish families in the Diaspora.

MK Nachman Shai of Kadima, Chairman of the Lobby for the Promotion of Israel`s Public Diplomacy, was present at the Committee hearing in February, and maintained that a significant investment in the high school age sector is the best investment for Israeli public diplomacy and national security. So, too, MK Danon affirmed, “It is vital to invest in this age group, in the age when the personality is formed, and so influence the rest of these youngsters’ lives.” Said Danon, “Former prime ministers Sharon, Olmert and Netanyahu understood the importance of this issue, and allocated budgets to reinforce ties with Jewish students, but now we must also invest no less in high-school students from the Diaspora.”

Several negative outcomes affecting high-school-age travel to Israel have emerged. Today there is a built-in incentive for delaying the first trip to Israel from the high school years to Birthright (free, and therefore very attractive) and subsidized college-age programs like those offered by Masa. This results in Israel connecting with Jewish Diaspora youth later in their lives and therefore losing many of them along the way.

We are shifting the norm from longer programs during high school to shorter trips in early adulthood, as the message of exclusion to participants and parents of high school programs puts high school programs in an undesirable light. Israel cannot afford to be sending out any more wrong messages to its Diaspora Jewish communities. By investing so heavily in the college age programs at the expense of and detriment to the high school age programs, Israel is sending the message loud and clear to those who wish to fork out good money on sending their child on a Lapid program: “We don’t want your children as we do not think they are worth the investment.”

With the current set up, the Jewish community is losing masses of teens who can engage with Israel earlier while still with family and community; fewer Jewish teens are entering college with readiness and motivation to be engaged with Israel, and fewer Jewish student are competently able to tackle events like Israel Apartheid Week on their college campuses.

High school age programs contribute enormously to Israel and to the fabric of Jewish identity, education and leadership in Jewish communities throughout the Diaspora. With 80 percent of Lapid alumni (numbering over 500,000) marrying Jewish spouses, and with second generations of children now participating in the same programs with which their parents first came to Israel, what further support for Jewish continuity can there be?

The bottom line: the government should not cut its budgets for excellent programs like Birthright and Masa. But students who participate in high-school-age trips to Israel should not have their birth right wronged, and should certainly not be discriminated against and excluded from the privilege of the Birthright grant. This creates unhealthy competition. To this end, the government of Israel ought to have a more egalitarian way of allocating its resources and should support the concept of a “universal voucher,” with equal opportunity granted for the “birth right” of all Jewish youth from around the world to visit Israel, from the age of 15, on any pre-approved program of their choice. All signs point toward the educational value and importance of the high school age trip to Israel, and that it should be made a more affordable possibility for families in the Diaspora. The Jewish world and the government of Israel therefore have a vested interest in increasing the numbers of Jewish youth coming to Israel during the high school age years.

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