Can Birthright Bridge the Israel-Diaspora Divide?

As one of the most successful programs of the Jewish people to date looks forward to its next ten years, it has the tremendous opportunity to redefine the relationship between the younger generation of Israelis and Diaspora Jews.

Over the past decade there has been a paradigm shift in the Jewish world as Diaspora communities have changed in concern with international developments and challenges. With intermarriage on the rise and Jewish communities’ connection to Israel waning, private philanthropy, the Israeli government and the established Jewish community came together to found Birthright-Taglit, a free 10 day trip to Israel for any young member of the Jewish people who had never been to the country before.

The program, radical at its founding, was deemed “the most successful project in the Jewish world,” by the chair of its steering committee, Minister Yuli Edelstein, a proclamation that is upheld by impressive statistics both in Israel and the Diaspora.

birthright - Erez Ozir - February 11 2011
Erez Ozir

It is overwhelmingly popular, with over 40,000 applicants this year alone. It has, in many cases, staved off intermarriage, with 72% of participants marrying Jewish, and 23% of its participants saying they felt significantly more connected to Israel after participating in Birthright.

Everyone seems to be winning; for the Diaspora, this means more Jewish children, and for Israel there is a greater connection to Jews abroad – the ultimate in the brand Israel approach.

However, Birthright has not increased participation in Diaspora communal involvement, and despite the commendable accomplishments of the program, there is a very real danger that Taglit unintentionally encourages an unhealthy relationship between Israel and its Jewish family abroad.

The Birthright model is consumer-based. It rests on the idea that we need to get our young people to buy Israel and Jewish peoplehood. A ten-day trip serves as an experiential product - a gateway drug of sorts - in which customers consume the environment and programming around them.

The aim is to create a loyalty to the brand, Jewish peoplehood, with the hope that some will indeed join the company and make aliyah.

For the token few Israelis who join each trip, it is a chance for them to take a break from normal army service and join in on the fun and games those from abroad get to have for free. It is also a great boost to the Israeli economy, as the young participants buy a plethora of snacks, drinks and memorabilia, stay in hotels across the country and keep the tourism money flowing at record highs.

Israelis see these Birthright buses as a chance for them to break from their day-to-day lives and to make some money. Diaspora Jewish life is seen as the never-ending holiday, which they can never partake in. The participants from abroad have a good time and feel like they have done their Zionist part.

This dynamic, with Israelis seeing Jews from abroad as cash cows and a respite from their hard reality and Diaspora Jews seeing Israel as a good time for a holiday is a model that does not do either side justice.

With the Israeli-Diaspora relationship at stake, this consumerist approach is more problematic than ever. Jews abroad crave the respect and ear of Israelis in a bid to coproduce the Jewish people’s future, while Israelis want those outside to understand the hardships they undergo, withholding judgment on issues they do not understand.

We are never going to advance a value-based Israel-Diaspora relationship with a consumer model of interaction. We must find a way to facilitate shared experiences in which Israelis see the value of the Diaspora and Jews abroad understand the challenges faced by Israelis.

We have to transform what has become a remarkably successful program into one that can also serve as a tool in building the Jewish people’s future both in Israel and beyond.

Both sides must come together and create an experience that has a reciprocal, lasting impact. A new model must synthesize tourism and mega events with dedicated volunteering and discussion groups with local residents.

For example, a group from Chicago could spend two days volunteering in Lod, sharing huge communal meals and discussions with its residents. The Chicagoans would foster an understanding of the people – not only the problems – of Lod, while the residents could connect with their fellow Jews from abroad at a communal level. A link would be maintained between the Jewish community of Chicago and the city of Lod.

By creating community-based volunteer programs in Israel for Birthright participants, a true connection could be built between Israelis and Jews from across the globe. This would be a value-based relationship in which locals and Diaspora Jews could move forward in cooperation with a newfound mutual respect.

As one of the most successful programs of the Jewish people to date looks forward to its next ten years, it has the tremendous opportunity to redefine the relationship between the younger generation of Israelis and Diaspora Jews, creating a sustainable, healthy and reciprocal connection that will last for generations to come.

Joel Braunold is a Bnei Akiva alumnus and a former staff member of OneVoice Europe who is currently studying at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.