Are you Jewish, between the ages 18-26 and never been to Israel on an educational trip with a group of your peers before? Then you’re eligible to receive an incredible gift; a free, absolutely FREE, ten day trip to Israel on Birthright. That’s not all. If you’re interested there are a number of organizations, including Aish, which will fly you back to Israel and house you for a longer stay of weeks or even months if you agree to participate in their programming learning about Judaism during your time here. If even that’s not enough, there is a plethora of highly subsidized year-long programs offered by the Jewish Agency through the Masa program and its affiliates.
My first trip to Israel was on Birthright, and I have since enjoyed freebees from Aish HaTorah and the Jewish Agency to varying degrees. But there’s always a catch to going on these programs. The catch is being forced to listen to entitled brats whining about how they are being ‘indoctrinated’ and ‘fed propaganda.’ It seems that in accepting a gift worth thousands of dollars from a stranger, it never occurred to any of these self-declared cynics that the donor might be trying to accomplish something more than showing them a good time. Perhaps he or she would like for you to become more connected to the Jewish people, or to Israel, or to your Jewish community back home, or to a specific brand of Judaism. Perhaps an Orthodox religious organization which offers you a free trip to Israel is hoping that you will adopt some Orthodox practices? Perhaps the government of Israel who pays for a third of Birthright programs would like for you to go home with a more positive view of Israel and will thus emphasize their perspective on what is happening in this part of the world?
I’m not saying that one should accept every piece of information they’re given. I applaud young people (and others) who insist on thinking things through for themselves and who view any propaganda, from any side of any issue, with some degree of suspicion. But I remember when we went to Independence Hall on my Birthright trip in 2004. (At least I vaguely remember it. Am I really that old?) There was a sizeable contingent of participants who were just disgusted by the pro-Israel propaganda presented there. Mind you, not that they merely disagreed, or felt that the information did not accurately represent the complexities of the historical reality, but they were mad, even morally outraged that such a one-sided agenda was being presented. Imagine that. The Israeli government pays to fly you to Israel for a ten day trip, puts you up in nice hotels and buses you around the country in air-conditioned style, and when they make a Zionist presentation at the site of the state’s declaration over half a century ago they don’t make a ‘balanced’ presentation including the ‘other side’ of the narrative. Chutzpah! Or those black hatted rabbis that flew you in to take classes at a religious institution for a month, room and board included. They don’t just want you to know about the beauty of Shabbat and have nice background knowledge for your comparative religion class next semester. Their ‘secret agenda’ is that they want you to keep Shabbat yourself. The nerve of some people!
We live, thank G-d, in a time of plenty. An age of jet-planes and Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel, where a worldwide collection of Jews have the political and financial capital to send hundreds of thousands of young people to the land of their ancestral heritage, no strings attached, on the slim hope that a reasonable percentage of them will become more strongly identified with their Jewishness and involved in Jewish organizations and causes. It’s a luxury completely unparalleled by any other community in the world at any point in history. For a participant to disagree with the message being given over is fine. Nobody expects you to swallow the narrative uncritically. That’s certainly not what Israelis do. But if you find yourself disagreeing with the message of your benefactor you can still say thank you and go about your business without demonizing the people who gave you such an invaluable gift. A little gratitude, with or without agreement, goes a long way.