New Initiative Takes Taglit Grads to Next Advocacy Stage

Birthright Israel graduates explored topics this week rarely explored on their original trips in the first in-depth follow-up trip for outstanding alumni of the Jewish World's most successful Israel program. The initiative, the Israel Diplomatic Fellowship, is a new pilot program which brings back to Israel notable young American Jews who had already come here once with Birthright, and are viewed as committed to Jewish-Zionist activism.

Since 1999, Birthright (or Taglit) has sent some 230,000 young Diaspora Jews on their first visit to Israel, with funding from private philanthropists, communities, Israel's government and Jewish organizations.

In aiming to give the average participant a positive Israel experience, the packed Birthright 10-day itinerary does not leave too much time for developing participants' understanding of Israel's position in the regional and global contexts, as the fellowship program tries to do, say its organizers.

"I hope this program will transcend the 'American-tourist-meets-Israeli-native mode of conversation and begin a more in-depth cultural exchange about what it means to be part of the Jewish world globally," said Daniel Brenner, executive director of Birthright Israel NEXT, Taglit's graduate division.

Prior to its optional and concluding Israel trip, the fellowship program's 90 alumni receive six monthly meetings back in the U.S. about issues such as Israel and the United Nations, branding Israel, Israel's culture through films and its political establishment. In Israel, they hear NGOs and government officials, visit the Foreign Ministry and meet politicians. Almost half of the 90 alumni who participated in the Fellowship program did not attend the Israel segment, which ended this week.

'Access to high-level officials'

Led by Brenner and David Saranga, media consul in Israel's New York consulate, the new program is currently only held in the Big Apple, Los Angeles and Chicago. The Foreign Ministry's fingerprints are visible in the program's stated goals of providing participants with "access to high-level Israeli officials and connecting them to young Israelis working as ambassadors for Israel."

But that apparently doesn't mean all participants see themselves as ambassadors for Israel. "My goal for advocacy is not to bear the Israeli official line, because I don't believe in it," said alumnus Matthew Goodman from Chicago. "I believe in Israel, but not the way it's presented. I and many other pro-Israeli Americans don't accept the full Zionist narrative." Goodman, who studied Middle East anthropology, says he will take from the fellowship what he deems viable and "leave the rest." Though he describes his first Taglit trip as a positive experience, it doesn't match the fellowships' level, he says. "Israel advocacy at Birthright did not work," he said. "We got images of the waving Israeli flag and 1980s music. It was hilariously bad."

Rachel Gross from California said that highlighting Israel's "ability to admit some of its mistakes" can be a powerful tool explaining the country and culture to outsiders. "People telling Israel's side of the story need to also study the Palestinian narrative because no one's working in a vacuum here," she added, after watching a selection on Palestinian television clips with the other 49 participants.

One discussion involved comparing Palestinian militants and members of the pre-state Jewish underground. There may have been anti-British rhetoric among Jews in Mandatory Palestine, but it "wasn't institutional and didn't speak about annihilation," said Barbara Crook from Palestinian Media Watch, who spoke before the fellows last week in Jerusalem on Israel-hatred in the West Bank.

But while Gross and Goodman remain skeptical of the "official line," others seemed supportive of it during a scathing lecture by Danny Seaman, director of the Government Press Office. Seaman, who was born in the U.S. before settling in Ashkelon with his family as a child, linked negative coverage of Israel to Western anti-Semitism, naivite, arrogance and oriental fascination.

"Why aren't we seeing more of you in the media?" one young woman asked at the end of his speech.