I went to see the film Bohemian Rhapsody the other day. It reminded me of Birthright.
I know, I am a sad Israel Education nerd who can’t even enjoy movies, but let me explain.
The reviews of Bohemian Rhapsody were overwhelmingly negative. It had suffered all sorts of challenges in production. It was accused of avoiding digging into the real dirt of Freddie Mercury’s debauched parties, chickening out of addressing his ambivalent relationship with the gay community and his secrecy over his AIDS, and more. It was clearly, in the eyes of the reviewers, Not a Serious Film.
But then I went to see it. Surprise! It’s fantastic. It’s a celebration of some of the greatest music and of the greatest musician of my childhood. In watching the movie, I found myself reliving the time a friend had persuaded me to go see Queen perform, remembering when I Want To Break Free dropped on Top of the Pops and wondering what “drag” meant, finally appreciating a band I’d always enjoyed, but never been their full-on fan.
I came away dying for my daughter to see it, because I knew that seeing the film would give her a concentrated version of my own experience of Queen, way back when.
If you like, Bohemian Rhapsody is Queen’s Taglit.
I believe that many supporters, funders, and staffers of Taglit-Birthright hope that the trip will ignite young people’s love and affection for Israel much like the film does for Freddie Mercury – a love and affection that they themselves had gained unmediated before the questions emerged.
Sadly, Birthright does not seem to have fully internalized the key lesson that the producers of Bohemian Rhapsody managed to hone to perfection. In order to celebrate the unique miracle that was Freddie Mercury, you can’t pretend that the guy was a saint. Because the audience already knows that he isn’t. And so the film makes clear and sharp reference to Mercury’s struggles with his sexuality, his hedonistic lifestyle, his secretive AIDS — while not letting these aspects of Mercury’s story overwhelm the music.
Bohemian Rhapsody is, if you like, a perfect expression of the Single Narrative That Is Still Interesting. It is clearly and unashamedly about the man and the music, without denying that other narratives could be told. It manages to maintain authenticity, because it doesn’t deny the existence of the other potential, darker, plot-lines it chooses not to follow. For example, instead of ending with Mercury’s death, it ends with his greatest success on the stage of Live Aid. This, the film says, is the most important aspect of the story they are telling.
The Birthright trip is also a single narrative experience, about the miracle of the State of Israel. It is a wonderful and important story to tell. Learning from Bohemian Rhapsody, Birthright does not have to alter its celebratory drive. It does not have to be what it is not. But in order to be trustworthy, it must at the very least point out the stories it is choosing not to tell.
Haredim and Arabs make up about 40 percent of Israel’s population, but 0% of Birthright’s Israel. The conflict with the Palestinians is a huge issue on the minds of young Jews around the world, but is not an issue in the standard Birthright itinerary.
While, organizationally, Birthright may not be able to tell a different story, educationally there is nothing stopping it. In my extensive work with the Jewish Agency’s Makom, Jewish Education Project, Moishe House, and even AIPAC, I have found many willing partners. There is a growing consensus among educators that it is certainly possible to present a single narrative journey through Israel that can be inspiring without whitewashing, that insists on fun without infantilizing.
If they are lucky, the participants will visit Israel with a more sophisticated tour organizer, or will be accompanied by experienced intelligent tour guides and educators, who will, with or without the itinerary, open up and invite discourse about Israel’s fascinating complexities. But sometimes, perhaps too often, they find themselves with a guide who insists on telling them that Freddie Mercury was happily married and lived to a ripe old age.