by Elan Ezrachi, PhD
It came as good news for many Jewish young adults, ages 18-26 who have been to Israel during their teen years. The Steering Committee of Taglit birthright-Israel approved the Israeli government’s request to accept individuals who previously visited Israel on educational trips while in high school. This decision marks the end of an era in which Taglit’s policy excluded a large group of Jewish young adults from participation in a birthright trip. The changes will take effect this coming summer, the announcement said.
There was no explanation given as to why the policy change is happening now. Rumor has it, that Taglit is having difficulties filling up the buses and therefore this policy change will allow thousands of young adults, who were previously disqualified, to apply. Another possible explanation is the relentless advocacy efforts that were made by Lapid, the Coalition of High School Age Israel programs, arguing that their constituencies have been systematically discriminated against. Clearly, all parties involved are positioning themselves in light of the upcoming “Prime Minister’s” plan that is intended to boost Israel travel on the whole.
This new policy change raises serious questions regarding how eligibility policies are determined in the Birthright project given that it is a partnership between key stake holders in the Jewish world and the Israeli government. The current policy, practiced for 15 years, says that Taglit-Birthright Israel is a “gift” available to all Jewish young adults, ages 18 to 26, post high school who have neither traveled to Israel before on a peer educational trip or study program nor have lived in Israel past the age of 12. This policy was set in the end of 1999 as the first BRI groups started arriving in Israel. From the start, these criteria did not receive the proper public discussion that is required when such a policy has an impact on wide populations.
The vibrant domain of organized high school age programs suffered from this policy from the onset (it is important to add that the high school age programs also took a major hit during the Second Intifada that dramatically affected the 2001-2003 seasons). In 2000, the best year even in the history of teen travel, there were some 20,000 teens who visited Israel. From that year, those numbers dropped significantly. The negative impact on the high school domain was observed in several dimensions: changing the focus of normative travel during high school to a shorter trip in the later college years; setting an unfair competition by offering a free trip and; finally, sending a message of exclusion and even punishment to those who traveled on teen programs.
Above all, motivated teen alumni who grew older, and were ready to come back to Israel faced a “no entry” sign from Birthright. If we estimate that over the years there were around 10,000 teens that came on average to Israel every year, then the cumulative rejection from participation on birthright reaches the number of 150,000.
Clearly, the leadership of Birthright had to work within financial constraints and set priorities. They believed that people who have not been to Israel should be given priority over those who had the opportunity to experience Israel during their teen years. While this prioritization seems reasonable if you just compare these two populations, it still leaves a bad taste and raises questions.
There is no full blown history of Taglit Birthright Israel (and perhaps the time has come to look into the broader story beyond the impressive impact studies issued by Brandeis University). All testimonies allude to the fact that the original idea of Birthright, inspired by Yossi Beilin and later on formulated by professional teams that worked under Michael Steinhardt and Charles Bronfman were planning a system whereby a universal gift will be given to every Jewish teen from age 16 (See Yossi Beilin’s book: My Birthright, in Hebrew, 2009). Later on Scott Shay, a prominent layman from New York repeated this idea in his book: Getting our Groove Back: How to Energize American Jewry, 2007. But Birthright, one of the largest initiatives in modern Jewish history, chose not to go this way, and in turn created the known policy. Looking forward, even though several thousands young adults will now be invited to join a Taglit program, the fundamental problem will not be resolved. The question will still remain: why do parents of high school age teens need to pay obscene amounts of money to send their kids at age 16, when it is clear that teen Israel programs provide a powerful boost for Jewish identity development and Israel engagement well before the challenging college year.
It’s possible that the answer lies within the parameters of the new Prime Minister’s initiative that will bring new resources into this field. If this initiative will restore the original universal gift, then something good will happen to the field of Israel travel. It is my hope that unlike 15 years ago when turf and competition were seen to dominate the decision making, that this time a holistic and comprehensive plan for subsidized Israel travel will be designed for the benefit of future generations.
Elan Ezrachi, a Jerusalem-based consultant to Jewish organizations, was the first CEO of Masa – Israel.Journey