At 8 A.M., six buses are lined up at the entrance to Kfar Hanokdim, near Arad in southern Israel. A swirl of 300 young, adrenaline-fueled Americans carrying suitcases and backpacks are exchanging hugs, laughing, shouting and hugging each other again. Two groups had just completed a camel ride in the hot sun – a strange sight, because the riders are still wearing bicycle helmets and white sneakers.
But when the buses leave the parking area, the atmosphere is completely transformed. A place just filled with vibrant young people is suddenly bereft of activity, a perfect example of the impact of the Birthright program on Israeli tourism: The 23-year-old roots program for Diaspora Jews now spells the difference between life and death for many tourism-related businesses.
‘Tell me: Why are American Jews coming to Israel to ride a camel in the desert when twenty miles away Palestinians are living under military occupation?’
In the current climate, the 40,000 young people who join Birthright programs every year are a lifeline. They come to Israel for 10 days, travel around the country, stay at hotels, eat at restaurants, shop, are led by professional guides – and provide a breath of life for a tourism industry that almost perished during the COVID pandemic.
However, given Birthright’s huge power and influence, it’s important to examine what kind of Israel is being shown to the participants. What sites do they visit? How long do they spend at each one? Where do they stay? And, above all, what kind of picture of Israel emerges from their experience – is it an accurate or a heavily concocted one?
What happens in the bus
The idea that Yossi Beilin imagined in the 1990s was simple: a program to bring young Jews from all over the world to Israel for 10 days, and at no expense to them. North American-Jewish billionaires Michael Steinhardt and Charles Bronfman offered to donate $2 to the program for every $1 provided by the Israeli government. Benjamin Netanyahu, who was then in his first spell as prime minister, agreed.
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Over the years, additional philanthropists came on board, including Lynn Schusterman, Susie Gelman and Sheldon Adelson (and now his widow, Dr. Miriam Adelson). Today, Birthright also has Israeli donors such as Meir Shamir.
According to figures provided by the organization, since its first tour in the winter of 1999, some 800,000 youngsters from 68 countries have participated in the tours. Along the way, they have contributed 4.7 billion shekels ($1.3 billion) to the Israeli economy. The tours remain free, but today participants are asked to pay a small deposit to prove they are serious about joining.
Birthright spends about $3,000 on each participant, including airfare, hotels, travel in Israel and tour guides. A quarter of the amount is covered by the government, the rest from private donors and Jewish communal organizations. If 40,000 young Jews participate each year, annual expenses run to $120 million.
Along with the Diaspora Jews, some 115,000 young Israelis also join the program every year. The vast majority are Israel Defense Forces soldiers who participate for five days. As a rule, eight male and female soldiers join the 40 Diaspora Jews on each Birthright bus. “What happens on the bus is more important than Masada,” says Beilin, referring to the visit to the historic site overlooking the Dead Sea.
Studies conducted in the United States (most of them commissioned by Birthright) show that the majority of participants say the visit strengthened their connection with Israel and Judaism. The most powerful memories are sites like Masada, the Western Wall, the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum and memorial, and Shabbat celebrations. They regard the memory of the Holocaust and Israel’s existence as more important than their Jewish peers who have not participated in Birthright, the surveys say.
As regards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, no difference has been detected between those who went on a Birthright tour and those who haven’t. Among participants, 72 percent married a Jewish partner, compared with 51 percent for those who did not. More than half of the participants in the program come from families where only one parent is Jewish.
‘There are subjects that are defined as an essential part of the trip, but we don’t tell the organizers at which sites they have to discuss these topics. It’s their choice,’ says Dr. Zohar Raviv
Known as Birthright in the United States and Taglit (“discovery” in Hebrew) in Israel, the name itself already hints at a problem (more on that anon). Does it imply that Jews from other countries have a right to the land? Does joining a Birthright tour give them that right? How does this work?
Birthright works with scores of travel organizations. These firms are authorized to sign up young people for 10-day Birthright tours. The companies have an obvious interest in enrolling as many participants as possible.
Dr. Zohar Raviv, Birthright’s vice president for educational strategy, says the one requirement is that the tour operators must include the Western Wall in their itineraries. The rest is up to them, but in fact the itineraries are quite similar to one another.
There are subjects that are defined as an essential part of the trip, but “we don’t tell the organizers at which sites they have to discuss these topics. It’s their choice,” Raviv says.
The big questions
A prime example of this is the Holocaust. Participants can become acquainted with this sensitive subject at a rather wide range of sites in Israel – including the Ghetto Fighters’ Museum at Kibbutz Lohamei Hageta’ot and the From Holocaust to Resurrection Museum at Kibbutz Yad Mordechai – but all the tour plans I saw while preparing this article opted to visit Jerusalem’s Yad Vashem, where they chose to acquaint the participants with the subject of the Holocaust.
Raviv explains: “Birthright is not a program based on sites; it’s based on subjects. The trip itinerary is based on large topics, which want to provide an answer to the big questions of the Jewish people and the participants’ connection to Israel. There are sites that almost every group will visit: over 90 percent will go to Masada and the Dead Sea, and visit Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Birthright does not require trips to specifically go to Yad Vashem, but to deal with the subject of the Holocaust.”
And how much has the itinerary changed over its 23 years? Birthright’s education staff “examines the educational program and the new questions that come up,” Raviv says. “The Jewish world and the State of Israel are not frozen in place. A topic that came up in recent years was understanding Israel not just as the land of the forefathers but also as a place that provides inspiration: a democratic country that is dealing with the challenges of the 21st century.
“It’s important to us to change the narrative in which they talk about the Jewish people and the State of Israel – from a narrative that is based on catastrophic crossroads, wars and antisemitism. We want to change it to a positive narrative that shows Israel as a country that develops, contributes and is developing. To do so, we established the Birthright Center for Israeli Innovation in Tel Aviv. One of the goals here is to present a narrative based on development, curiosity, creativity and the desire to change the world. It is part of the conceptual view that observed: We have an excellent story, but sometimes our narrative is missing something.”
“It’s clear to me that there are places that require attention,” Raviv continues. “The education administration works to improve the itineraries all the time. It’s important to remember that we work a lot on pedagogy. We discovered that the culture of dialogue among young people in the Western world has become a culture that makes it difficult for people to express their positions in a safe and brave space. It’s important to us to present alternatives – ways to manage discussions on unity without uniformity.
“We have a core topic of social diversity in Israel. Birthright has never pretended to work out or solve the core issues. It wants to present a portrait and open a window for a continuation of the discussion. It’s important for us to show that we’re talking about Israel as a Jewish and democratic country that has a diversity of colors. It’s important for us to emphasize that there is more than one Judaism.
“It’s important to also present a community that is not Jewish that is part of the State of Israel. It’s important to us to expose them to Jewish-Arab cooperation – for example, Juha’s Guesthouse in Jisr al-Zarqa [a poor Arab town on the Mediterranean coastline]; or the cooperation of Jewish and Arab women in the Galilee who create organic products together. This is a side of daily life that shows cooperation and not conflict. We have a group of geopolitical spokespeople, 25 lecturers, who present the complexity of the Middle East to the participants. It’s a mandatory topic and every group must receive such a lecture,” Raviv says.
Birthright avoids dealing with the occupation and violations of Palestinian human rights.Sam Sussman
Do you face political pressures?
“We zealously preserve the middle road and the ability to provide an unbiased answer; to preserve the balance and not let any side pull us in its direction. No pressure is put on us. It’s clear that [Birthright] has economic value. Every tourist site in Israel wants Birthright to visit. Every new program needs to pass an exacting test that examines biases, pedagogy, professional ability, and the like. The integration is long and complicated. Birthright today represents 95 percent of the common opinions among Diaspora Jews, and the source of support is that we are not identified politically.”
Is the demand for trips increasing?
“The demand is skyrocketing at the moment. Because of the COVID pandemic, 80,000 participants were prevented from coming to Israel – and as a result we’re behind and are working hard to provide an answer for everyone who wants to come.”
The safe way
Comparing the itineraries of four of the organizers – Sachlav, Mayanot, Tailor Made and Israel Outdoors – highlights the huge similarity between the different trips. On all of them, the participants immediately head north after landing in Israel. Most of the organizers stop in Caesarea, on the coast, and continue from there to Haifa, where they visit the Baha’i Gardens. Other possibilities include stopping in the city of Zichron Yaakov, south of Haifa; a visit to the Tulip winery; or driving directly to the Banias Stream (aka Nahal Hermon) and kayaking in the Jordan River. All of the tours include the city of Safed. A few of the trips emphasize kabbala (Jewish mysticism), while others visit the local winery or nearby Mount Meron.
From Safed, the participants move on to the Golan Heights – usually Mount Bental, where you can look out over Syria. After that, they begin the long drive through the Jordan Valley southward to Jerusalem. At this stage, the Israeli soldiers usually join the trip.
All the trips devote three days to Jerusalem. They invariably spend Shabbat here, when there are almost no organized tours. Instead, the time is devoted to rest or free time for the participants.
What do they do in Jerusalem? All the tours go to the Western Wall and tour the Old City’s Jewish Quarter. Many visit the popular City of David archaeological site in the Silwan neighborhood of East Jerusalem. This is a controversial dig because it is managed and operated by Elad, a right-wing NGO that seeks to settle Jews in Arab neighborhoods.
Another site common to all the trips is the Mahaneh Yehuda outdoor market, which has become enormously popular and is almost a compulsory stop-off point. Other sites visited include the Ben Yehuda pedestrian mall, the Davidson Archaeological Center next to the Western Wall and, sometimes, a winery in Gush Etzion.
All the tours visit Yad Vashem, and they almost always visit the Mount Herzl cemetery and memorial site.
From Jerusalem, all of the trips travel southeast to the Dead Sea and Masada. They may pass through the West Bank (via Route 1 and Route 90), but they do not stop there. The sole exception is that one of the trips visits the Ahava cosmetics factory in Mitzpeh Shalem.
All the trips, without exception, visit Masada. Many also visit the streams at the Ein Gedi Nature Reserve. From there, they continue on to learn about Bedouin life and usually have the pleasure of a camel ride.
Some of the trips go on to Kibbutz Sde Boker and visit the grave of founding Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion. In some cases, they follow the Salad Trail – an agricultural tour – and visit hothouses in the Besor region of the northwest Negev.
Most of the tours finish in Tel Aviv. They usually have one night’s sleep in the city and visit the promenade, Jaffa, the Carmel Market and Rabin Square. All of the trips used to visit Independence Hall on Rothschild Boulevard, where the State of Israel was declared – but it is currently closed for renovations.
Almost all of the tours visit the Innovation Center established by Birthright in coordination with the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange. The center presents the achievements of Israeli high-tech companies, and this is where the depiction of Israel ends. Afterward, they head home.
A distorted mirror
I turned to four trip organizers to try to understand better how they build their itineraries, but none would speak with me. Still, I did receive an automated response from one of them, offering to sign me up for a Birthright trip in the near future.
Careful study of the itineraries gave me a strong sense of discomfort. Even after recognizing the inflexible requirements of a first visit to Israel that lasts just 10 days, taking into account the distances traveled and the need to show a variety of aspects – it is still hard to ignore the feeling that something is distorted in this mirror we have placed in front of the face of Israel.
To my eyes at least, secular Israeliness stands out as the most absent element – lost at the expense of too many shades of Judaism and meetings with marginal ethnic groups: sorry, but the Baha’i and Bedouin are not a significant component in the Israeli mosaic. Nor the kabbalists of Safed. In most of the tour programs I studied, there was no representation of the kibbutzim, the older moshavim from the early days of Jewish resettlement in the Holy Land, cities such as Ofakim or Netivot, or the struggle for the establishment of the state. I feel very uncomfortable with the fact that the tours’ representation of the Israeli rebirth is a military cemetery – Mount Herzl.
We must also stress the critical lack of representation for the Arab community, despite it comprising a fifth of Israel’s population. A meeting with a Bedouin camel does not compensate for this – in fact, it only emphasizes it. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is mentioned in debates, meetings, lectures heard by the participants – but it is hard to find representation for it among the sites visited.
Also missing is a more reasonable representation of the Negev south of Sde Boker: this vast area does not appear on any of the Birthright itineraries.
Eight years ago, Prof. Noam Shoval, director of the Center for Urban Innovation and a geography professor at the Hebrew University, conducted a comprehensive study of the Birthright tours. The research lasted for three years and was conducted at the organization’s initiative.
Shoval says most of the tours start in the north in order to build the group dynamic. This has a geographical logic, too, and allows for a gradual building of the narrative: the north allows visits to “simpler” places where they can describe the past and history of the wars – and they participate in nature activities such as kayaking on the Jordan River. Safed is appropriate for these needs too because it is a relatively small place and the group’s participants can bond.
Only after the bonding process in the north do they travel south to Jerusalem, where the visit becomes more complex and loaded, Shoval says. This is the journey’s catharsis and includes the Western Wall and visits to Yad Vashem and Mount Herzl. The study helped to understand the participants’ level of satisfaction and the effectiveness of the trip, Shoval adds.
The results clearly show the trips’ huge emphasis on Jerusalem. Every group visited the Old City, Yad Vashem, Mount Herzl and the Western Wall. Two thirds of the groups visited the Mahaneh Yehuda market and the Ben Yehuda Street pedestrian mall. About a third of the groups visited the City of David and Zion Square in downtown Jerusalem. But it should also be remembered that since things have changed with regard to which sites are visited since the study was carried out.
Ten years ago, Sam Sussman was a political science student in the United States. He came to Israel on a Birthright tour and says he was shocked that the conversation on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was 'extremely right-wing', and that the leader 'banned me from asking political questions to speakers when it became clear I had a critical perspective,' he says. At the time, the participants did not meet a single Arab or Palestinian, and maybe only one or two Israelis who were not right wing, he recounts. He was surprised to discover 'any attempt at a critical or alternative conversation from students was shut down by the trip leader.' That concerned and really disappointed him.
After his Birthright tour ended, Sussman traveled independently to the West Bank to try and better understand the conflict and the occupation. “If the other Birthright participants would have met the young Palestinians living under military occupation in the West Bank, they would have had serious questions about Israeli democracy,” he says today.
When he returned to the United States, Sussman founded Extend – a small organization that offers Birthright participants a chance to expand their trip and stay in Israel for an extra five days, touring the West Bank to complement their trip.
Last year, 300 Americans took part in this program. Obviously, the scale is completely different, but Sussman has still attracted scathing criticism for his efforts. Yet he believes in his stance and is angered by the content on Birthright tours.
“This is a government-affiliated organization, a right-wing one that perpetuates Trumpism in Israel,” he says. “Birthright avoids dealing with the occupation and violations of Palestinian human rights.
“Tell me: Why are American Jews coming to Israel to ride a camel in the desert when twenty miles away Palestinians are living under military occupation? Furthermore, why do progressive, liberal, democratic and leftist Judaism have almost no representation on these tours?”
He continues: “People at Birthright no longer pretend they have no political affinity. This is a right-wing project and there’s no point pretending otherwise. Birthright has punished trip leaders who send their participants to Extend. They don’t realize that they’re losing the monopoly on how American Jews regard Israel. The right was quicker in creating this infrastructure, but the left is now closing the gap. Every day, American Jewish community leaders reach out to Extend for an understanding of the conflict that includes Palestinian voices.”
According to Sussman, many Birthright participations have become left-wing activists after joining Extend’s programs in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, and meeting Palestinian human rights activists. The younger generation of American Jews needs something completely different to what Birthright is offering, he argues. That need is currently being met by organizations such as Extend, Encounter and Breaking the Silence. There are other U.S. organizations associated with the Reform movement and others, offering alternatives to the Birthright trips. But none of them challenge the hegemony of Birthright or offer real competition.
What kind of trip would you organize?
“You have to organize meetings in which they speak with Palestinians as well, representatives of Israeli human rights organizations, civil society activists on both sides. You cannot ignore that millions of Palestinians live under military occupation. A program of camel riding is contemptuous for the intelligence of American Jews.
Birthright’s response: “Our trips offer meetings with many elements of Israeli society. The most significant component is not the visits to various sites, but the personal and unmediated meetings with Israelis who tell Birthright participants about the complexities of life in Israel. The visit includes lectures about the geopolitical situation, and we encourage participants to become involved, to think independently and, mainly, to return and visit Israel in any framework they choose.”
‘Jews meeting Jews’
It would be hard to accuse the initiator of the Birthright trips, former Justice Minister Dr. Yossi Beilin, of having a racist or right-wing approach. He now views Birthright from the sidelines. And though he still talks about the project using the plural “we,” he stresses that he is not involved in the daily operations.
“The first basic decision was that Birthright would not be an organization that prepares the actual trip: It seeks bids from among various franchisees. They include various aspects such as the environment, nature, Judaism, etc. The itineraries are adapted to plans offered by these franchisees. The core element is that anyone coming here visits the Western Wall. Nothing else is compulsory,” he says.
“What was important at the outset was that this would be a collective journey, not a private one; the social element was critical. I wanted them to enjoy comfortable conditions – sleeping in three-star hotels, not youth hostels. For me, the bus was the important thing, not Masada.”
When I ask Beilin what he thinks about the fact that most trips begin with a visit to Safed, he replies with humor: “Nu, wouldn’t you go to Safed first too?”
Regarding the changing itineraries over the years, he says: “An organization that’s been around for over 20 years should examine itself and offer new things. I know Birthright does this in some aspects. They reexamine issues such as the age limits on participants, subsequent visits, partners that are eligible to join the trip. There are changes but, sure, there’s room to refresh things. Clearly, there’s no sanctity to the earlier ways it was done. In the beginning, for example, we thought about having meetings between [Diaspora and Israeli] students. The inclusion of soldiers only arose when it turned out that Israeli students weren’t interested in such meetings. That’s how we came to the soldier solution – and that was really successful. This is now one of the most significant experiences participants have.”
Will Birthright continue in the future?
“I don’t think it will be around in 100 years. Do you remember how we established the Jewish Agency? Now I believe that should be closed. The Jewish National Fund should definitely be closed as well. There’s room for refreshing things, and I hope Birthright will become something different in the future as well. But for me, it’s still an important meeting place for Jews. This is the most natural and attractive venue in which large numbers of Jews can meet other Jews. It hardly happens anywhere else.”