Birthright Is 'Out of Touch' After Halting Meet-ups With Israeli Arabs, Reform Jews Charge

Many Reform Jews 'are now questioning whether the 10-day trips are exposing participants to a too-narrow slice of contemporary Israel,' Rabbi Rick Jacobs says

Birthright participants hike down a mountain on their trip.
Courtesy of Taglit

The Union for Reform Judaism strongly condemned Birthright, a provider of free trips to Israel for young Jewish adults, for issuing a ban on further participant meetings with Israeli Arabs

As reported in Haaretz on Wednesday, Birthright’s education department recently instructed its trip providers to stop including such encounters on their itineraries. In a response, the organization said there was “a need for further analysis of this module.”

“The fact that Birthright Israel has decided to halt their outreach to Arab citizens of Israel shows just how out of touch Birthright is becoming,” said Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the URJ, in a press statement issued Thursday. “Arabs make up 21 percent of the Israeli population, and tens of millions of dollars of Jewish philanthropy from North America, the U.K., Israel, and elsewhere is being well spent by supporting and integrating Arab citizens of Israel into education, the workforce, and Israeli civil society.” 

URJ Kesher, affiliated with the Reform movement, has been a longtime trip provider for Birthright. URJ represents the largest Jewish movement in the United States.

Two years ago, Birthright launched a new program aimed at fostering connections with Israeli Arabs. The idea was to provide participants with a more comprehensive picture of Israeli society. Prior to that, the organization would often come under 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 new directive, putting an end to these encounters, was issued just a few days ago.

In his statement, Jacobs noted that 40 percent of Birthright participants over the years have identified as Reform Jews. “But many are now questioning whether the 10-day trips are exposing participants to a too-narrow slice of contemporary Israel,” he wrote.

“We believe that young people can fall in love with the real Israel that has so many inspiring aspects while also seeing up close the struggles for religious pluralism and for better ways for Jewish and the Arab citizens of Israel to live together. Young Jews, in particular, bring their Jewish values with them wherever they go, including on Birthright trips to Israel.”

By cutting off encounters with Arab Israelis, Jacobs warned, Birthright “will communicate loudly and clearly that these are trips with a narrow political agenda that is out of step with today’s young Jews and most of their parents as well.” 

Israeli lawmaker Tamar Zandberg, a member of the left-wing Meretz party, submitted an urgent written query to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday morning, requesting to know why the meetings with Israeli Arabs were suspended and how he intended to ensure that Birthright participants get acquainted with all segments of Israeli society.

“It is not clear what they are thinking at Birthright – that if their participants don’t meet Arabs that maybe they’ll disappear, or that they can stick their heads in the sand and hide from young Jews the real situation in Israel?” Zandberg told Haaretz. "Whatever the case may be, this decision smacks of racism, and it won’t work. It’s impossible to censor one-fifth of the state’s citizens and to hide half the burning issues affecting Israeli society in a trip meant to provide a deeper understanding of it.  Birthright has the choice of presenting the truth or turning into a disconnected and ridiculous propaganda organization.”

Zehava Galon, the chairwoman of Meretz who recently resigned from the Knesset, also expressed deep concern. “Jewish Americans have a history of political activism for civil rights,” she said, “and I believe this decision will become a boomerang."