Birthright Israel tours are insulting young Jews' intelligence
Birthright, which offers young and successful adults trips to Israel to strengthen their Jewish identity, should start rethinking their target audience, says Anshel Pfeffer.
I did an extremely rash thing last week, promising this column would, for once, not just be about criticism, but also try and propose ideas for bridging the widening chasm between a young generation of American Jews and their counterparts in Israel. Thinking about it over the last few days, and actually sitting down now to write it, I feel all of a sudden very presumptuous.
After all, everyone’s a critic, but to set out an actual program, even in the most noncommittal form of a newspaper article, feels like the kind of thing that you need a track record of decades of experience to do, but as Rabbi Nahman may have said − if you believe you can ruin, believe you can also mend. Let’s see if I can actually write something constructive. How do we build the bridge?
First we have to accurately pinpoint the target group. A great deal of resources already go into various projects that are ineffective or just don’t deliver a sufficient return. At any given moment, there is a fact-finding “young” leadership mission doing the rounds, meeting the same politicians, rabbis, IDF officers and social leaders and visiting the same “groundbreaking” institutions.
Sometimes more than one mission is here and they bump into each other. The effort that goes into organizing these tours will not close the gap one inch.
All the participants are already involved in some way or another with Jewish or Zionist organizations, or have some kind of professional attachment to the issues.
These are not members of disaffected Generation Oy. For them, they came up with Birthright, the condensed, 10-day version of “cool Israel.” Birthright is almost universally hailed in the Jewish establishment as a success story. Its patrons have the numbers, nearly a quarter of a million alumni, rising rates of identification with Israel among young Jews and a mega-millions budget. Well, I don’t buy it. There is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all Israeli experience.
A Jewish Agency staffer once described Birthright to me as “sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll with Jews in Israel,” and despite the obvious envy that motivated that description, after meeting Birthright groups at different locations, including the President’s residence, and seeing their rock concert-style annual event, I have reached the conclusion that most of the sanitized infantile content spoon-fed to Birthrighters is an insult to their intelligence.
Israel is a much more interesting and complex country than Birthright would have its alumni believe and if the majority of participants, who rarely bother open a newspaper and whose websurfing habits are confined to celebrity gossip, enjoy the trip, that’s fine, but once they get back to their countries of origin, some of them may act as pro-Israel activists on campus for a while, but the rest will be looking for the next thrill.
The serious minority, those who in a few years from now will be the real opinion-makers and leaders, are either already involved and informed, and therefore Birthright was superfluous for them, but most of them are simply too intelligent to buy into this saccharine alternative to the real Israel. And they are the target audience.
Them and their Israeli counterparts, who don’t see today any advantage or interest in knowing anything about or cooperating with the Diaspora. Not the hundreds of thousands brought in by planeload by Birthright, nor the tens of thousands of IDF soldiers who get to accompany them as a fun treat toward the end of an arduous service.
The real target has to be the thousands of men and women in their 20s who are going to succeed in whatever walk of life they select and have no reason today to belong to a Jewish elite. Because they are going to succeed anyway and the Jewish collective as it is represented today by the old community establishment figures and by Israel’s current political leadership has nothing to offer them in the shape of up-to-date ideals and challenges.
This disaffection is true not only of Jews in the Diaspora but of a growing number of young Israelis. You can tell them that they are wrong, that they belong to an ancient tradition that they should not let go of, that their communities, their people and Israel have need of them and their talents, and you may be right, but the ossified versions of religion, culture and Zionism just don’t cut it for them.
What do we know about them? Well, they all share three very Jewish traits: a thirst for knowledge, wanderlust and a desire to make the world a better place. Almost all of them go to college or university, not just to learn a profession, and continue studying in a huge variety of ways after they gain their degrees. And they all travel. Whether in their gap-years or the traditional “after the army” tour and whatever other opportunities they have. Many of them would like to volunteer, somehow, somewhere, and some of them find the right outlet for that.
Others just waste their time. Any serious program to get them interested in their Jewishness and in Israel will have to take these characteristics into account and use them.
The argument over why should Israel and the big Jewish organizations get involved in relief work in developing countries is already old hat. It’s not about some fuzzy notion of Tikkun Olam or for the PR-Hasbara value, it should happen because there are thousands who would give a year of their lives to such projects and Israel has the knowhow and facilities to properly train and prepare them for that.
Just imagine the effect of a joint Israel-Diaspora global relief work project on its participants first of all. And then how about a worldwide year-long program of Jewish studies, with brightest academic stars taking students from the original biblical texts all the way to the great Jewish philosophers of the last century? Taking place at 10 different locations on five continents, under the auspices of the leading universities in every country with a sizable Jewish community, freed from the shackles of religion but with the fervor of a yeshiva beit midrash. Thousands would enroll and it would revive the entire academic discipline from its languishing state.
Of course these are elitist programs, but when has the Jewish people, or any human society for that matter, not been motivated by its elites?
Neither of these ideas are very original. Here and there, projects are underway along similar lines, but they are much too small-scale to have much effect, while the big money and the leadership’s attention continue to go on flashy Birthright, and to propping up the old community apparatus or paying for more fruitless hasbara initiatives.