Barry Newman

Birthright Israel: A Holistic Perspective

Everybody is understandably waiting for some official confirmation that the pandemic is, finally, behind us and we can once again return to the routine that we were unhappily dragged away from two years ago. How soon we’ll be at that point is anybody’s guess, but now, hopefully, we can say with some confidence that there is indeed light at the end of the tunnel.

Not surprisingly, throughout both conventional and social media post-pandemic scenarios are being modeled, argued over and evaluated. Virtually every aspect of our society – education, philanthropy, working environment – is being looked at by pundits to determine what will life be like once the masks have been put into storage and the morning news will no longer regale us with grisly statistics regarding virus-related illnesses and deaths. One such area being reviewed very closely is the Birthright Israel (Taglit) program, which has been virtually dormant for the last two years and is now, seemingly, being rebooted.

I am not, to be frank, among the ardent fans of the Birthright program. I’ve yet to be convinced that the benefits to Israel, thus far anyway, have made the cost of the program worthwhile. It would be far more advantageous, I would think, to devote financial resources on college students and young adults who have already expressed interest in Israel and a sincere support for Zionism. I can’t help but feel that those applying for acceptance to the Birthright trip to Israel are interested in little more than a free vacation to a country to which they have never been and most likely would never otherwise visit. Granted, there are some who, as a result of the Birthright experience, have made aliyah, or are planning to in the very near future. And, others, no doubt, may now be more inclined to publicly and aggressively express support for Israel’s security and well-being. They, though, represent the exception rather than the rule; most participants, from what I’ve read and heard, are more taken in by the Tel Aviv nightlife and jeep rides in the desert than by the historical and spiritual majesty of this country. Is it, in other words, a worthwhile investment to provide college kids the opportunity to have lunch in a Bedouin tent or to be photographed floating in the Dead Sea?

On the other hand, I would be terribly remiss if I ignored studies that have correlated participation in this program with a newly discovered and long-term acceptance of one’s Jewishness and an awareness of the unique cultural and religious characteristics associated with a heritage many participants were totally unfamiliar with. If these studies are in fact statistically valid, then Birthright may very well prove to be a minor but relatively effective means for countering the growing threat of intermarriage. I wouldn’t go so far, as others have, in citing intermarriage as another holocaust, but the threat it poses to Jewish continuity cannot be overlooked. I’m sure enterprising sociologists have begun to compile and mine through data on how likely Birthright participants are to start a family with a Jewish spouse as a result of their visit here. This indeed is something that should be shared, once something conclusive has been determined.

There have been, nonetheless, more than occasional protests against this program for reasons that have absolutely nothing to do with costs and benefits. Those whose political ideology leans to the left have accused Birthright officials responsible for designing the program agenda of ignoring the Israeli Arab experience and pretending that Israeli suppression of the Palestinian people is not taking place. The program’s organizers have, for the most part, dismissed these charges and have repeatedly referred to the protesters as agitators and publicity seekers. They point out, moreover, that Israel’s complex place in the world and Middle East is most certainly open to discussion by the participants, but objectively and apolitically; they have no intention of including as part of the tour’s itinerary activities that include anti-Israel sentiments or demonstrations, or inviting to engage in discussions with the program’s participants those who have expressly stated their opposition to the existence of Israel or justify the use of terrorist activities as political statements or a means to an end.

As astonishing as it undoubtedly sounds, Jewish students on a number of American campuses are encouraging others to tear up any invitation to join the Birthright tour, arguing that participation in the program is enabling oppression and apartheid. They have proven to be quite adept in the use of Twitter, Facebook and Instagram to get their distorted and prejudicial points heard and have managed to malignly manipulate public opinion against both Israel and the Birthright program. I certainly hope that these anti-Israel rabble-rousers are being red-flagged as BDS supporters, for that is exactly what they are.

More importantly, though, Birthright Israel must now must contend with matters more serious that a post-pandemic universe. Considering the events of the last several weeks, I would guess that potential participants must be more concerned about the possibility of a new intifada rather than the need to wear masks while visiting museums or nightclubs. It should come as no surprise if, as a result of recent acts of terrorism in the heart of Israel, Birthright may again that there is a pandemic-like hesitation to board the plane. Terrorism, of course, is not new to Israel, and Birthright participants have never wavered in their readiness to visit Israel even while avowed enemies are sending incendiary balloons and threatening the Jewish state with destruction and mayhem. The current situation, though, is somewhat different. With a government that is shaky to say the least, one could very well understand if participants chose to postpone a planned trip for a stabler, less stressful period.

I can’t help but wonder, moreover, how concerned and sensitive the bright youngsters who take advantage of Birthright are regarding increasingly frequent and violent expressions of vile antisemitism. Do they, for example, regard the mass shootings that have taken place in in Jewish community centers and synagogues over the last several years as just routine items of current events and gave a greater amount of attention to weather reports and movie reviews? That young Jews throughout the world view Israel nonchalantly is no small problem, and will not, I fear, change with a free or heavily subsidized sightseeing venture.

In a recent interview, Birthright CEO Gid Mark was forthcoming when he admitted that many of program’s participants who come have no more than a vague knowledge about Judaism. It stands to reason, then, that they have little familiarity with what it means to be Jewish, or what being Jewish means to others. I will not deny that opening these students to a world they know little of is of great importance and will have benefits to all concerned in the long run. I just don’t think that an expensive program like Birthright should be the first step on that journey. Mr. Mark is quite correct when he asserts that new ways must be found to remind Jewish youngsters of their background and heritage. Birthright might indeed be one of those ways, but not at the offset.

About the Author
Born and raised on New York’s Lower East Side, Barry's family made aliya in 1985. He worked as a Technical Writer for most of his professional life (with a brief respite for a venture in catering) and currently provides ad hoc assistance to amutot in the preparation of requests for grants. And not inconsequently, he is a survivor of stage 4 bladder cancer, and though he doesn't wake up each day smelling the roses, he has an appreciation of what it means to be alive.
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