birthright - Erez Ozir - February 11 2011
Birthright participants at the organization's 'Mega Event' in Jerusalem, February 2011. Photo by Erez Ozir
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Birthright Israel should allow ideology-driven tours, a leading researcher of American-Jewish attitudes toward Israel said this week, in response to a recent controversy surrounding Birthright's rejection of a trip that would have been co-sponsored by J Street, a dovish Israel advocacy group in the U.S. While "some trip organizers represent different religious movements, or Zionist ideologies," according to Birthright's website, the group says it currently does not approve trips that push a political agenda.

"We need to offer a menu of possibilities that are value-based," sociologist Steven M. Cohen told Anglo File this week. "J Street offers one such value basis. As long as there is an interest in one or another value-approach to Israel, it behooves Birthright to offer young American Jews that possibility."

Birthright offers Diaspora youths free 10-days to Israel to strengthen their connection with the state and Judaism. While all trips have a mandatory core curriculum, trip providers offer different options, such as tours that focus on outdoor activities or various religious streams. Last week, J Street, which had announced on January 25 that its student branch, J Street U, would co-sponsor a trip, asserted that Birthright had first approved but later rescinded the planned trip.

Birthright countered on its website that "at no time" did it approve a trip in association with J Street. Birthright did not approve the trip because it "would likely be out of keeping with our longstanding policy of not conducting trips with a political orientation," the organization stated. Birthright CEO Gidi Mark told Anglo File that, "right now we are not allowing politically oriented groups to do trips, based on findings in the past that led us to keep our groups as pluralistic as possible." He declined to comment on whether the organization plans to change this policy in the near future.

The episode was covered in the Jewish press and blogosphere. Some reporters and bloggers noted that previous Birthright trips were co-sponsored by political groups, such as Capital to Capital, a trip co-organized by the hawkish American Israel Public Affairs Committee (or AIPAC ), America's largest pro-Israel lobby. But Jacob Dallal, Birthright's associate director of communications, told reporters that particular trip was "vetted" and "doesn't have a political bent to it," being similar to a political science course.

It's a mistake

Cohen, who lives in New York and Jerusalem, said on a video posted to his blog that Birthright made a mistake by rejecting J Street's application to co-sponsor a trip. "If we're going to have young Jews engaged with Israel, they're going to come to that engagement with certain value perspectives," said Cohen, the director of the Jewish Policy Archive at New York University. "Those values could be left-wing values or right wing values, they could be Zionist or non-Zionist values, they could be Diasporist values, they could be Bundist [Jewish socialist] values - we don't care, we want young Jews involved with Israel."

Cohen said that "all trips are political, even those that claim to be non-political." Every trip is forced to make a political decision, as "even to avoid politics is political," he said. "One can't exclude politics from the menu of trips - it's simply a question of which politics you want to sponsor. That's why I'm saying, let's sponsor all political views." Today's young Jews have moved "from people to purpose. They're not just interested in affiliating for the sake of affiliation, something that my generation found very important," the 60-year-old said. "They want to connect with being Jewish as a result of some value, some purpose - social justice, spirituality, culture, learning, and so forth. If we want to young Jews involved with Israel we are going to have to contend with their search for meaning and purpose."

Mark, the Birthright CEO, agreed with Cohen that today's young Jews are hungry for meaning and purpose but maintained they could find answers within existing Birthright trips. "They offer a huge variety of interests, they deal with social justice, with different political views in Israel - on a pluralistic basis - and they deal with spirituality. The huge variety of trips which are offered now to tens of thousands of participants deals with most if not all of these issues," he said.

Chaim Waxman, a leading American-Israeli sociologist and an expert in Israel-Diaspora relations, concurred that young American Jews are purpose-oriented and that Birthright trips should be promoted as a means of exploring and enhancing a wide variety of purposes. However, he pointed to a potential problem with trips organized by groups with a political agenda.

"When organizations are involved, I am concerned about what sociologists Max Weber and Robert Merton might have included in their analyses of goal displacement, namely the original goal being displaced by the goal of the organization," he told Anglo File. "One of [Birthright's] underlying principles is that the trips are expected to be educational experiences, not political socialization. Can trips organized by political organized steer clear of political indoctrination? I have my doubts."