Birthright Needs to Show Everything

by Dan Herman

This past weekend, two articles appeared in Haaretz that should have come as no surprise to those working in Israel engagement. In one, Chemi Shalev discusses the ever-growing gap, at risk of reaching crisis proportions, between staunchly left-wing American Jews and an ever rightward-moving Israel. In another, Arnon Mentver, CEO of the Joint Distribution Committee Israel, bemoaned that the current young generation of Diaspora Jewry is not interested in donating to Israel – which it perceives as an “occupying nation.”

These articles join a parade of warnings over a split between the world’s two largest Jewish communities in recent years, and that split has already begun to take a toll on one of the great success stories of Israel engagement.

Last month, Haaretz reported that Taglit-Birthright is on the hunt for new participants. In a reversal of trends from the last 14 years, Birthright has seen declining registration for what should be an awfully easy sell. Although it may take several years for this decline to be felt in participation numbers – many participants spend years on waiting lists before being placed on trips – the trend is real, and one of the underlying causes should serve as a wake-up call for how we go about Israel engagement for Jews from abroad.

Birthright is one of many programs looking for what could be called the holy grail of Jewish youth engagement – bringing in the low-affiliated and unaffiliated. When these unaffiliated young Jews were asked why they were not interested in signing up for Birthright, more than half responded that it was because they thought Birthright pushed pro-Israel propaganda.

It is not only the low-affiliated and unaffiliated who view Birthright in this way. Many of the participants in our international program, Tikkun Olam in Tel Aviv-Jaffa, who are at least moderately affiliated with their home Jewish communities, report that Birthright carries the stigma of leading tours of the “Jewish Disneyland” – a one-sided view of Israeli society and history that ignores the complex reality.

This stigma would seem to fit the reports of a cultural-political gap between Israeli and American Jews. As American Jews remain staunchly left-wing in their outlook, Israeli society seems to be moving rightward. When the news carries stories of continued settlement building, anti-democratic legislation in the Knesset, and the imprisonment and deportation of African asylum seekers in south Tel Aviv, the young American Jewish mainstream will continue to view one-sided Israel education with suspicion.

Initiatives have come forward seeking to “change the discourse” on Israel, but all too often, these initiatives are simply avoiding the tough issues. Questions about settlements in the West Bank cannot be answered with “We invented cellphone technology!” or “Hummus is delicious!” (Although that is absolutely true). Recently, comedian Benji Lovitt wrote a piece for eJewish Philanthropy on how Birthright should spend more time in Tel Aviv, in order to emphasize aspects of Israeli society that will interest the young adult crowd. I agree, but think we need to take it a step further.

We need an approach that allows Jews from abroad to ask tough questions about the challenges Israel faces, without being accused of being traitors or self-hating Jews. This approach should encourage participants to feel a sense of responsibility for Israeli society, and to feel a sense of ownership. For this to happen, they need to see all of it – the good, the bad, and everything in-between.

Israel education to Jews abroad is not hasbara, and it is not tourism marketing. It is trying to create a deep, personal and emotional connection to a place. And part of creating that connection is being willing to air out all of our dirty laundry, with a credible call to action.

To Birthright’s credit, they are beginning to move in this direction. The Tikkun Olam program has recently begun hosting Birthright groups for tours in our south Tel Aviv location, the BINA Secular Yeshiva. During the tour, we introduce the participants to the asylum seeker debate in all of its complexity. Inevitably, a lively debate ensues about the Jewish state’s ethical and historical responsibility to care for the other, which stands in tension with Israel’s responsibility to care for its own weakened citizens. We introduce them to some of the incredible organizations and people in Israeli society who work tirelessly and selflessly on this issue, and we encourage them to continue learning about it and to remain engaged. Israel is a young country still forming its identity, and that’s a journey that we want Jews from around the world to feel part of. Birthright is starting to move in this direction, but a stronger emphasis is needed.

This is an emotionally difficult request of Israeli society. We are not comfortable airing our dirty laundry to the outside, and are afraid that Jews from abroad will be turned off to Israel altogether. But if we really want the next generation of diaspora Jewry to feel a deep and meaningful connection to Israel, we cannot continue to relate to them as outsiders. We have to make them feel responsibility and ownership. We have to show them everything.

Dan Herman is Director of Tikkun Olam in Tel Aviv-Jaffa, an international service-learning program operated by the BINA Center for Jewish Identity and Hebrew Culture, and the Daniel Centers for Progressive Judaism.