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The directive was issued recently by the organization’s education department, Haaretz has learned.
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.
Birthright mandates that all of its trips include meetings with Israeli soldiers. Known as “mifgashim,” Hebrew for "encounters," the sessions are considered a hallmark of the trips. Typically, the soldiers who participate spend five days on the bus with their respective Birthright groups.
Sources familiar with the decision-making process at Birthright speculated that the decision to drop meetings with Arab-Israelis from the itineraries might have been prompted by feedback from the soldiers, who sometimes feel uncomfortable during these encounters. It was also likely, they suggested, that the new directive reflected the wishes of Birthright’s donors.
Birthright’s single largest donor today is casino-magnate Sheldon Adelson, a major supporter of the Republican Party and of Israel’s right-wing government. Adelson and his associates have long insisted, however, that he does not intervene in any way in Birthright's itineraries.
Asked to comment, Birthright issued the following response: “During the summer 2017 season, we introduced a number of experiential geopolitical modules whose introductory implementation was accompanied by rigorous evaluation and assessment protocols. The results of the initial evaluation have shown that there is a need for further analysis of this module in the context of the educational trip as a whole. Therefore the experiential module will not be operational in the upcoming winter season, while additional study is being held.”
Birthright, which was established in 1999, has already brought more than 500,000 young Jews on trips to Israel, and is expecting a record 48,000 participants this year. It is considered one of the most successful Jewish projects of all times.
Trip providers are now gearing up for the start of the winter season, which coincides with the Christmas break on U.S. college campuses.