Taglit-Birthright, the organization which brings tens of thousands of Jewish youths to Israel annually, is planning to forbid participants from attending military funerals. The issue was raised in recent days following the presence of groups of Birthrighters at a funeral on Mount Herzl and the death in action of Birthright alumnus and Golani soldier Max Steinberg ten days ago. Birthright CEO Gidi Mark said that "to attend a funeral, you have to understand the fuller context of what is happening here."
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Attending funerals of any kind is not part of the official Birthright itinerary but the organization was forced to address the issue following the death of Steinberg, a Los Angeles native who decided to join the IDF following his own visit to Israel, and after requests were made by a number of participants and tour guides to attend his burial.
On Sunday, at a funeral of another soldier killed in Gaza, Amit Yeori, two busloads of Birthright participants joined the mourners. "They acted in a very respectable way," says a family member who was at the funeral, "but it was rather strange. They stood at the back of the crowd, wearing baseball caps, and an IDF officer who was with them explained to them in English about military funeral procedures. They didn't disturb anyone but it wasn't really clear why they were there."
Mark said that he wasn't aware of any participants attending a military funeral. "We have groups nearly every day at Mount Herzl, out of 45,000 participants this year, about 40,000 went there. It's part of the narrative of Israel's rebirth; they start at Herzl's grave, then Rabin's and then they visit the military cemetery." Mark noted, however, that the groups were instructed not to join funerals taking place there, and that this directive was in place when there were suggestions that Birthrighters attend the Steinberg funeral last week.
Following the death of Steinberg, who had very little contact with Israel before his Birthright trip, which ultimately led to his decision to volunteer as an IDF combat soldier, there has been some criticism of the organization in the American media for "brainwashing" participants. Birthright works closely with the IDF and soldiers join each group during their tour to create personal relationships between the participants and their Israeli peers. This criticism is probably one of the reasons that Birthright is now planning to formally address the funeral issue and will most likely forbid its participants from being there.
"This is a new issue, and we didn't have a policy, so we discussed it this week and will finalize our decision next week," said Mark. "The direction is to forbid them from being at funerals because to attend a funeral, you have to understand the fuller context of what is happening here. These people are here for the first and they don't have that understanding."