Another season of Birthright is at its peak right now. My sister just returned from 10 days as a soldier assigned to Birthright and I had the opportunity to reminisce with her about my similar 10-day experience when I was a soldier.
Two years ago, I joined a Shorashim Birthright trip with students from Brown University and had an incredible experience that changed my life. Not only did I learn a lot about myself, I learned a lot about American Jews which inspired me to major in Jewish history at Hebrew University. In addition, I have maintained relationships from the trip and one of these resulted in my co-founding SIACH (Students from Israel and America Chat), an initiative to generate deep conversations and strong connections between Jewish American and Israeli college students. The trip was an eye-opener for me; a wide variety of opinions were presented on this trip, if not by the students, then by the staff, who encouraged us soldiers to speak up and share our opinions.
From my sister’s account, it seemed to me she had a much different experience than I did. She was often hushed up and told that her opinions were irrelevant and would only confuse the Americans. However, the Americans in her group, who were largely ignorant about Israel and about Judaism in fact sought out information about Israel and Judaism from my sister during private conversations. Besides that, my sister’s tour guide claimed that East Jerusalem was governed by the Palestinian Authority and that Hanukkah was only about oil because there had been oil in the Temple (no, she did not mention the miracle of the oil that burned for eight days or the victory of the Maccabees over the Greeks, just “oil”), and she maintained that most Israelis were not pleased to live in Israel. My sister had a tour guide who saw Israel with black-tinted glasses and who was ignorant of basic facts about Israel and Judaism. The tour guide misled the students due to the personal negative opinions of Israel.
I very much believe in Birthright, its importance, and its success among American students today. I see its purpose as presenting Israel in a positive light so that Israel has a positive connotation for these students when they return to their campuses. Therefore, I found it heartbreaking to hear that a tour guide expressed awful things about Israel and all the worries, neglecting the history and content, and not mention that in fact the majority of Israelis are happy to live here. After all, Israel was recently placed #11 among OECD countries in happiness, so we must be doing something right!
These students are often exposed to hatred of Israel through the media and through anti-Israel and BDS groups that are thriving on campus. Therefore, I believe that Birthright is supposed to show the fun and positivity about Israel, provide some basic information about Judaism, and display the humanity of its people, especially the Israeli soldiers, who are often portrayed as murderers by anti-Israel groups on American campuses.
After hearing my sister’s experience, I realized it was very likely that these students, who had come knowing little about Israel, left here feeling that the situation was as bad as it was presented on their campus, not only because of their tour guide’s negativity, but also because she just did not have the facts or the knowledge to accurately present Israel and Judaism.
At a time when the leaders of the Jewish world worry about young American Jews’ connection to Israel and to Judaism, perhaps they should look at the people who influence these kids. There are tour guides who are damaging the image of Israel and Judaism and we should care. We should be worried. We have an opportunity to create a connection between these young Jews to Israel, and Judaism, and we are allowing that opportunity slip through our fingers. If there are many more tour guides like the one my sister experienced out there, we will regret in just a generation that we didn’t seize this opportunity to affect these young American Jews.