Israel Programs: The Case for Sound Educational Critique

by Dr. Zohar Raviv

Comedian Benji Lovitt recently published the article, “Israel Programs: The Case for Tel Aviv“, in which he voiced concern that Taglit-Birthright Israel, among other tour groups, did not allow participants enough time in Tel Aviv and “modern Israel, the ‘start-up nation’” in order for them to develop an appreciation for the State in its contemporary form.

Yet, during the Summer 2013 season, 97 percent of our tour groups spent at least one night in Tel Aviv and about half that amount had a free evening in the city. In our recent concluded 2014 Winter program, the number was again about 90 percent spent the night in Tel-Aviv area with a similar number even having the free time to explore the city on their own. Without fail, 100 percent of Taglit-Birthright Israel groups, which average approximately 42,000 participants each year, spend a meaningful day in Tel Aviv, regardless of where their overnight accommodation may be.

Tel-Aviv is a vibrant, modern, and dynamic hub of contemporary life in Israel. But it is also part of our intricate shared story, and without the whole of which the canvas of its appreciation might be reduced.

Taglit-Birthright Israel’s chief aim is to address contemporary Israel through dynamic, meaningful, relevant and positively experienced lenses. The itinerary in Tel Aviv, as in other cities/locals through the country, allows for a meaningful, intelligent and exciting – albeit preliminary – exposure to Israel.

The strength of this A-Z in 10 days approach in that it opens up Taglit-Birthright Israel participants to experiences and connections that they may not have made without touring the country. Roughly 30% of participants (approximately 10,000 each year) choose to extend their stay in Israel due to their initial experiences. After Taglit-Birthright ends, these participants devote much of that time to further exploration of contemporary Israel.

Taglit-Birthright Israel has also created specialized niche trips for participants who would like to have the contemporary “start-up nation” side of Israel highlighted during their tour. Such niche groups revolve around high-tech, entrepreneurship, business-management, bloggers, artists etc’ and for whom Tel-Aviv features as a central experiential hub.

We craft the Taglit-Birthright Israel experience to show participants the complex and evolving narratives which have shaped, and continue to change the Jewish people and our associations with Israel – past, present and future.
Therefore, Mr. Lovitt’s call to highlight more contemporary sites and reduce historic ones may be premature. Take Masada as an example. True, many participants do not necessarily remember the content-based knowledge concerning Masada; however, it is not merely content that we seek. The context in this case, is the vital exposure our participants receive to the different mechanisms, viewpoints, narratives, controversies and dilemmas which had informed the ongoing relationship between a people and their homeland throughout the ages. Our life as a people in the present State of Israel is meaningless if devoid of the greater context to which it is bound.

Taglit-Birthright Israel tries to achieve precisely that. We are always aiming to further improve our curriculum and experiences for our participants. It is our ultimate goal that in 10 days, our participants gain an appreciation of contemporary Israel within a greater understanding of the complex currents that brought us to present social tensions, as a sovereign state among the nations.

Dr. Zohar Raviv is International Vice President of Education at Taglit-Birthright Israel.