Expanding Birthright Eligibility and Expanding the Conversation

Last week Birthright once again opened registration for summer Birthright trips. Birthright recently expanded eligibility for its trips, in the hopes that growing their numbers will have “a positive influence on the Jewish world.” In some senses Birthright has been a tremendously successful Jewish communal undertaking — each year 50% of young Jews eligible for Birthright trips participate. Birthright’s decision to change eligibility requirements therefore represents a crucial opportunity: as their number of participants grows, Birthright must also create a space for the rigorous and thought-provoking conversations that college students genuinely desire.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is inextricably linked to nearly all aspects of modern Israel, and yet is typically glossed over or outright ignored on Birthright. For example, a friend’s Birthright trip brought her to the Ahava Factory, a popular Israeli cosmetics company located in Mitzpe Shalem. Only once she pushed her trip leader to explain where they were did he reveal that Mitzpe Shalem was in the West Bank.

Because the effects of the conflict are so far reaching, most experiences students have in Israel inevitably bring them in contact with it. Throughout their ten days in Israel, students see Palestinian communities in the Northern District, stringent security measures at Ben Gurion Airport, excursions past the 26 ft. tall separation barrier, and much more. Birthright must address the conflict if it wishes to provide students with a deep and substantive experience in Israel.

As an organization, Birthright recognizes the importance of political discussion to furthering its mission of engaging young American Jews. In its official handbook Birthright claims, “issues of Israeli politics, society and statehood are important subjects for examination, given that the political arena permeates all aspects of Israeli life, and is a primary lens to view Israel in the broader international context.” This acknowledgement, when held up against typical Birthright programming, suggests a disconnect between institutional values and execution. The primary political issue Israel faces is the conflict with the Palestinians, and yet organized conversation surrounding it is generally left out of Birthright trips.

While discussion of the conflict occasionally takes place on Birthright, these conversations are not institutionally organized. There are, however, ample opportunities for Birthright to create discussion of the conflict. The Israel Defense Forces soldiers who accompany many trips could hold discussions, seeking to shed light on their experiences both as soldiers and as young citizens of Israel. This is also an important opportunity to discuss the impact of a long-term military occupation on both Palestinians and Israelis. Birthright trips could invite expert speakers to talk with students about the complexities of the conflict and its effect on Israel’s Jewish and democratic character. Several prominent members of Knesset, university professors, and respected social activists — in conjunction with J Street U — have already offered their time for this very purpose. Most importantly, trip leaders must be sure to facilitate organized conversation on the conflict as evidence of it arises throughout the trip.  Not only would these discussions be more honest and authentic, but those students who yearn for such candor and realism would truly appreciate the compelling dialogue.

Birthright’s Vice President of International Marketing turned to politics as a key reason for Birthright’s decision to expand eligibility. He explained that students “have more confidence for talking about Israel, and geopolitics, and anything pertaining to Israel after visiting with Birthright Israel.” At this point, however, his claim is only marginally true: studies indicate that 18% of non-participants report feeling “very much” confident in their ability to explain the “current situation” in Israel, while 23% of participants report feeling the same way. On this important front, Birthright’s impact does not seem significant. Birthright now has an opportunity to introduce a new dimension to its trips, and lift that 23%.

Although Birthright has placed some value on politics, many Jewish institutions are often reluctant to focus their Israel engagement on political discussion, preferring to hold Falafel Nights or Ice Cream Socials. But it is precisely because I struggle with the complexities inherent in the conflict that I find myself so deeply invested in Israel and the Jewish community. Time and again, I find that students most engaged with Israel on my campus, on all sides of the political spectrum, are those who are deeply invested in the politics. They read the news every day and discuss it with friends. They wrestle with issues concerning Israel’s security, democracy, and future.

Some communal leaders and institutions, from Hillels to Birthright, categorize these issues as potentially divisive. But those students who are engaged with Israel on a political level are so often the ones attending Shabbat dinners, leading discussions on Jewish life, and exploring the connection between Israel and Diaspora Jewry. My peers’ and my engagement with both politics and the Jewish community indicates that there is no tension between critical discussion on Israel, and deep, emotional attachment to Jewish tradition, the Jewish community, and the Jewish homeland. In fact, such attachment is often born out of thoughtful conversation and critique.

Birthright would be doing the Jewish community a great service by facilitating challenging conversations among its participants. True, expanding eligibility requirements will increase the number of students taking part in this summer’s Birthright trips. But as Israel enters such a critical time in its history, and as peace negotiations progress, more and more Jewish students want to engage with this issue. Birthright cannot miss this crucial opportunity to spark the interest of its participants and to ensure that our community continues to strengthen and grow.

About the Author
Daniela Tolchinsky is a junior at the University of Chicago and an Israel Engagement Co-Chair for J Street U, the student organizing arm of the pro-Israel, pro-peace group J Street.