Birthright Israel has done its best to stay above the political fray ever since its founding in 1999. Like most major institutions, though, in these divisive times it is losing the struggle to remain detached from deep political differences. Over the past months, it has been targeted directly by young activist Jews, angry over what they believe is the program’s refusal to deliver a balanced message to its participants regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The activities have ranged from protests against the Birthright gala in New York, to leafleting Birthright participants boarding their flights to Israel, to the high-profile walkout of five female participants toward the end their trip to Israel last Thursday, opting instead to join a Breaking the Silence tour in Hebron.
This last event kicked off what the activist group IfNotNow predicts will be a long, hot summer against the program.
The original goals of those who conceived and founded the program were indeed apolitical. If anything, the founders themselves leaned to the left of the political spectrum. It was Yossi Beilin, the father of the Oslo Accords, who first proposed giving every young Jewish person a voucher for a free trip to Israel, convincing major donors Michael Steinhardt and Charles Bronfman to team up with him.
Their vision: An Israel-Diaspora financial partnership to subsidize free trips for young American Jews, particularly those who had never been to Israel and whose connection with Judaism might be tenuous, offering them an intensive, 10-day personal experience to get in touch with their Jewishness. Branded as Taglit in Israel – the Hebrew word for discovery – the aim was to give participants a way to connect to Jewish culture and history.
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Back then, Israel was presented as a means to the goal of strengthening Jewish identity – the trip was not intended to center on the Jewish state. At the time, American-Jewish leaders were wringing their hands about “Jewish continuity”: Studies pointed to a meaningful personal experience in Israel among a group of young Jewish peers acting as something of a magic pill against total assimilation – or, at least, a seed that later in life could develop and grow into a connection to the Jewish community. (A rather unsubtle and offensive sub-agenda: Birthright as a speed-dating, matchmaking service in which Holy Land hookups could turn into Jewish weddings, resulting in new generations of identified North American Jews.)
Attempts to politicize Birthright “aren’t something new,” Beilin told Haaretz on Sunday. “Throughout the years, there has been criticism from leftist groups that say people who come on Birthright don’t see the whole picture, and it is kind of a hasbara [propaganda] manipulation.”
Beilin stands firm on his concept. “I did not invent this idea to introduce young Jews to the Middle East conflict. I would like to see them learn more about it, and those who want to stay after their time in Taglit should do so – many do. Some are spending time in the West Bank and learning about the conflict, about the viewpoint of the Palestinians, though while in Israel they hear from both right and left.”
Last year, Bronfman and Steinhardt declared in a Haaretz Op-Ed that they were proud the organization’s guiding “core principles” had helped it survive “the second intifada, or an Israeli government cut of 90 percent in one year, or active opposition to the very concept of Birthright on some campuses.”
But Birthright is having a harder time surviving the generosity of billionaire Sheldon Adelson, who came on board in 2007. This April, the casino magnate gave the organization $70 million to mark the 70th anniversary of the establishment of the State of Israel – the largest single donation to the program ever, bring his total donations to it into the hundreds of millions of dollars.
Adelson has denied having any involvement in Birthright’s programing decisions. And Beilin insists that “the fact Sheldon Adelson contributes a significant amount of money doesn’t mean he has anything to say about the content.”
But regardless, Adelson’s money and his presence at events like the program’s mega-event has, justified or not, created a connection between his hard-line, right-wing Israel agenda and – even more disturbing for young American Jews – his tremendous financial and political support of President Donald Trump, which has tainted the organization for many.
Additionally, there has been some evidence suggesting that the orientation of the trips’ contents could be related to his influence.
Last November, it was revealed that Birthright’s education department had instructed its trip providers to stop including meetings with Israeli Arabs on itineraries. Two years prior, Birthright had launched a new program aimed at fostering connections with Israeli Arabs, following criticism for not including meetings with non-Jews on its trips and for providing participants with a largely one-sided view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The organization claimed last year that the meetings had been suspended as a result of “a need for further analysis of this module in the context of the educational trip as a whole.”
One Palestinian who had spoken to Birthright groups wrote in Haaretz that following the move, “Birthright is going to be exactly what it’s always been expected to be – a sterile utopia that reflects the reality in Israel-Palestine even less than it used to.”
Also in November 2017, the Reform Movement was notified that it had been dropped as a certified trip provider for Birthright, despite having served in this capacity since the program’s launch. Reform leaders were told they were ineligible because they failed to meet participant quotas, not because Birthright had anything against progressive and pluralistic Judaism.
Still, it pointed to a growing trend of Orthodox dominance in the Birthright market, as a result of consolidation. In its early years, Birthright worked with 33 trip providers. The list was consolidated over the years and now totals only 10, three of which are Orthodox organizations: Mayanot, affiliated with Chabad and the group leading the tour that the five young women walked out of last week; Israel Free Spirit, affiliated with the Orthodox Union, Aish Hatorah and Meor; and Ezra World, affiliated with the Orthodox Ezra youth movement.
Agitation against Birthright by the pro-BDS, hard-left group Jewish Voice for Peace began last September, when young activists published a manifesto declaring, “We implore other young Jews on our campuses and in our communities: Don’t go on a Birthright trip to Israel. Don’t take a trip sponsored by conservative donors and the Israeli government, where the ongoing oppression and occupation of Palestinians will be hidden from you, just because it’s free. There are other ways for us to strengthen our Jewish identities, in community with those who share our values. Israel is not our Birthright.”
Alongside the manifesto was a pledge for young Jews to sign, in which they declared: “We will not go on a Birthright trip because it is fundamentally unjust that we are given a free trip to Israel, while Palestinian refugees are barred from returning to their homes.”
The IfNotNow campaign debuting this summer falls short of JVP’s call for young Jews to boycott Birthright. Rather, it charges that Birthright fails to tell Israel’s story accurately and must be pressured to do so. Birthrighters, it says in its #NotJustA FreeTrip video, must “challenge Taglit-Birthright trips until they show us the reality of the occupation.”
That is what last week’s walkout was designed to illustrate.
Beilin believes the young protesters were unfair on Birthright. “They are coming to a store and asking for merchandise that exists in another store. I never asked them to become our ambassadors and deal with hasbara. For me, what happens on the bus is more important than what they hear at Masada. This is a Jewish trip that the Jewish people are paying for.”
He said IfNotNow members who walked out, in what appeared to be a pre-planned action, should have completed their Birthright trip and then joined a Breaking the Silence tour later.
“For me, Breaking the Silence is doing a sacred job and they are real Zionists and we owe them much for their courage. But this doesn’t mean I would like to praise this kind of a game [that the women played]. Because it is not honest.”
As Prof. Steven M. Cohen sees it, “The current situation is more driven by context than by personalities or Birthright’s educational procedures.”
Cohen, one of the preeminent experts on the American-Jewish community, believes that, given the current circumstances, “Birthright is navigating these difficult times extraordinarily well.
“Never have American Jews been so polarized around religion, politics and Israel,” he says. “We have confrontations between people who are religious and those who are relatively secular, conservatives against liberals, and hawks against doves.”
In this context, the fact that Birthright connects Adelson – a conservative, Republican, Trump donor and a hawk on Israeli politics – with young Jews in IfNotNow who are politically progressive and dovish on Israel was a collision waiting to happen.
“We had a situation ready for conflict, and that is what we are seeing right now,” notes Cohen. “In retrospect, there is little that Birthright could have done, or can do, to avoid demonstrations and protests – either now or in the future. If anything is to blame, it is Israel’s hawkish policies and American Jews’ liberal politics.”