'Birthright' Tours Pose Jewish Identity Questions for IDF Troops

Almost 4,000 soldiers took part in 2006 in Jewish youth funded visits to Israel.

Almost 4,000 Israel Defense Forces soldiers took part last year in Taglit-birthright trips to Israel for Jewish young people from abroad. The number of soldiers, who spend five days or more with the group, has increased tenfold in recent years. The IDF says there is a huge demand from soldiers to join the tours, and units vie for the limited number of places available.

Taglit-birthright israel is designed for young Jews who have never been to the Jewish State to see the country at no cost and to engender a new relationship between them and Israel. How participation in the trips impacts the soldiers is not clear-cut.

Lotem and Sharon, who asked that their last names not be used, are among 12 soldiers who accompanied a group of 27 birthright israel participants from Canada on a program called "Taglit Extreme," a 10-day trip that, in addition to touring Jerusalem, features a dance workshop, an archaeological dig, hospitality in a Bedouin tent, camel riding, and clubbing.

The soldiers said in addition to the experiences they had, the program got them thinking about their Jewish identity.

Sharon said after the visit to the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial, he thought for the first time about the importance of the existence of a Jewish state.

Lotem says she was insulted when she heard from some of the Canadian participants they came "just because it was free," and she therefore felt she had a role to play in explaining Israel.

"I believe the visit changed their view of Israel. From my point of view, the program led me to understand that I am serving in the IDF for the Jews who don't live here. I never thought about that before," she says.

The tour in which the two soldiers took part also featured a night trek in the desert. "It was pretty scary," Aaron Vincent-Elkaiam, 27, from Winnepeg, said. "I was sure somebody was going to get hurt, but looking back it was the most powerful thing on the tour." Vincent-Elkaiam said that before the visit, he thought Israeli soldiers were "killers and not intelligent," But he found out "they were surprisingly intelligent and with a lot of self-confidence, and they are given a lot of power and responsibility, even though they are very young."

Vincent-Elkaiam said the soldiers helped him understand the Israeli perspective of the conflict with the Palestinians.

Some of his Canadian friends were angry the Palestinian viewpoint had not been presented, he said. "I didn't feel like I was being brainwashed, but in the future I would like to hear the Palestinian side, too," he added.

Before meeting the group, the soldiers who are to join the tours take a preparatory workshop at the Diaspora Museum in Tel Aviv to help bridge possible gaps in mentality.

One of the Taglit counselors, Doron Ezra, says, "We ask the soldiers to avoid racist or chauvinist jokes and not to be too buddy-buddy. We also teach basic concepts of Jewish life in the U.S. For example, at least 60 percent of the soldiers don't know about Reform Judaism or that women and gays can become rabbis."

The soldiers are not required to be in uniform after the first meeting with the group, and they can have almost unlimited fun, but are asked to avoid wild behavior like drinking contests with the guests. According to Ezra, "there are soldiers who come just for the fun and ignore the other participants. When we identify such soldiers, we send them back to their bases."

Non-Jewish soldiers also welcomedMajor General Elazar Stern, head of human resources in the IDF, says that from his point of view, "this is an excellent educational program we are getting for free."

Although Taglit is particularly proud of the participation of soldiers from elite units in the tours, Stern is not in favor of any preference for them, and supports the participation of non-Jewish soldiers in the trips as well.

A cursory check by the IDF department of behavioral sciences of 450 soldiers and officers who took part in the Taglit tours found that more than 90 percent were satisfied with the experience. However, the impact of their participation on the Jewish identity of the program has not been seriously studied.

Professor Leonard Saxe of Brandeis University, who studied the effect of the encounters between the soldiers and the Jewish young people, says they are a "critical component" of the program.

He was surprised that the relationships between the soldiers and the Taglit participants from abroad were so good, considering that they come from two different worlds.