Becca Wertman
Managing Editor / Canada Liaison at NGO Monitor

Stop Trying to Make Birthright-Israel about Something It’s Not — Politics

In recent weeks, various media outlets have reported about Birthright-Israel participants who have chosen to “walk off” their trips. Their complaint — frustration that they are not being shown “the other side.” The American organization “IfNotNow” has also amped up its anti-Birthright campaign this summer, coming to airports in the US from which trips leave with signs stating “Birthrighters Ask Us About the Occupation.”

Their claims are essentially the same — that Birthright-Israel should be taking a deep dive into the conflict.

Except that it shouldn’t.

In its 18 years of existence, Birthright-Israel has brought over 600,000 Jewish youth from around the world on ten-day trips to Israel with the goal of allowing these participants to discover their Jewish identity.

Participants visit Jewish religious sites like the Western Wall. Places of significance in Jewish history like Masada. And they meet with spiritual leaders in Tsfat, among numerous other activities.

And even though politics is by definition not the focus of the trip, it not only undoubtedly comes up, but is part of the educational curriculum — despite what those who “walked off” claim.

From my experience, the “political overview” component of Birthright-Israel’s programming provides participants with a basic understanding of the history of the conflict and the current manifestations of it. Sometimes this can mean that an outside expert is brought in to lead the discussion during one of the evening programs, or sometimes this means that the tour guide heads the conversation. Often it is both.

Beyond this formal educational session, participants are constantly asking – and are encouraged to – ask questions throughout the trip. Tour guides, madrichim (staff), the medic, and the mifgash (Israeli soldiers and/or students that join the trips) can and do offer the participants a diverse set of perspectives to the various questions asked.

I saw this firsthand during the five Birthright-Israel trips I participated in — one as a participant and four as a “Madricha” staff member. Though I am no longer affiliated with the program, I continue to admire it and remain in close contact with my colleagues and other leaders.

The idea that Birthright-Israel is somehow silencing such discussions, as is argued by those leaving the trips, is simply preposterous and is, practically-speaking, impossible.

As a staff member, I constantly had participants coming up to me at sites, on the bus, and during free time asking me about something they heard about on campus, or about something they read about in the newspaper related to the Arab-Israeli conflict. When discussing these questions with my participants — and I use the word discussing deliberately — I always ensured that I explained the complexities and varying viewpoints of the situation. When I was stating my opinion on a particular controversial subject, I made sure the participant knew this so that they could clearly identify bias.

The sessions led by the tour guides I worked with did the same — highlighting the complexities and yes, often leaving the participants with more questions than answers. I never knew their own political beliefs until after the trip.

Secondly, the critique that Birthright-Israel should be exposing its participants to this “other side” is simply wrong. Am I against individuals learning and being exposed to a variety of perspectives? Absolutely not. But IfNotNow and their cohorts are asking something else — to turn a trip meant to expose Jewish youth — many of whom who have never done anything “Jewish” in their life — to their heritage, into a political experience.

And this is what these critiques of Birthright-Israel fail to understand, or willfully fail to acknowledge. Birthright does not pretend to be a trip that focuses on exposing its participants to the ins and outs of the conflict. It does not, and should not, seek to be this either. And contrary to the impression given by a handful of activists, the diverse participants of Birthright come on the trip for diverse reasons — adventure, food, culture are just a few, and discovering Jewish identity should remain the number one throughout.

When it comes to politics, what Birthright-Israel can and is doing is provide its participants with a “101” course — exposing enough so that participants leave and understand that the conflict is complex and that they need to keep learning (if that is indeed what they desire). But not too much that it distracts from the trip’s focus.

To those who have decided to walk off a free trip, provided by generous philanthropists from around the world, and are complaining they did not get what they wanted I have this to say — do a little bit of research before you go. If you do not like what is being offered, no one is forcing you to participate. Feel free to allow the opportunity to someone who is truly passionate about discovering their identity. Or, on the other hand, go on the trip and ask the questions before your 10 days are up, instead of just leaving and accusing Birthright-Israel of not answering them.

About the Author
Becca Wertman is managing editor and responsible for the Canada portfolio at NGO Monitor, a Jerusalem-based research institute. Born in Vancouver, Canada, Becca earned her BA in international relations from the University of Southern California and her MA in political science from Columbia University. Her articles have appeared in The Hill Times, The Province, The Georgia Straight, Jerusalem Post, Canadian Jewish News, Algemeiner, and The Tower.
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