Did you hear the one about the Birthright trip?
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Most good jokes are born out of misunderstandings. So the Taglit-Birthright Israel experience − where young American Jews, many of them on their first trip abroad, full of ideals, misconceptions and hormones − is fertile ground for humor.
“You’re taking 40 young people from America and dropping them in a place that’s very different from theirs − it’s going to be funny,” says Benji Lovitt, a comedian and Jewish educator who has led Birthright trips.
“You get people who are used to a society where people are polite and have manners, and suddenly are dealing with blunt Israeli tour guides and bus drivers and storekeepers who say whatever they think − it’s hilarious. Add to that the fact that these 40 people are in a bus together all day, and not sleeping at night. People become themselves − more themselves than usual.”
Israelis are more aware of Birthright today than at any other time in its 13-year history − and it’s all because of the jokes.
Until 2011, most Israelis with detailed knowledge of Birthright were in the small minority who work in the tourism or education industries − those who had contact with the groups at hotels, museums or visits to army bases. The average Israeli was mainly aware of Birthright through promotional efforts by the government and the Jewish Agency, which ran commercials where fresh-faced Birthright participants spoke of their experiences, ending with a chirping of the tagline “Thank you, Taglit! Thank you, Israel!”
Birthrighters have also been artfully placed as contestants on Israeli reality television shows − in short, whenever Birthright was mentioned in the past, it was very idealistic and sincere, bordering on the hokey.
But all that changed a year ago, when the television show “Eretz Nehederet” (“A Wonderful Country”), the Israeli equivalent of “Saturday Night Live,” parodied a group of hapless Birthrighters documentary-style.
The first sketch featured an overly macho Israeli guide named Ze’ev leading the overly enthusiastic group of young Jews − a Jewish American princess, a chubby party animal, a horny South American guy and a chubby, awkward but sexually aggressive young woman, played by a man in drag. Ze’ev asked them how they liked Masada. The party guy cried out “Awesome!” And the princess said “it was so EMOTIONAL. So POWERFUL and MEANINGFUL. We all felt so CONNECTED.”
Absurd escapades of cultural misunderstanding
As Ze’ev discussed the rest of the trip, the Birthrighters got cheery and overly excited about Yad Vashem. Ze’ev said they would learn there that a second Holocaust must be prevented “since the sequel is always worse than the original.”
He also promised them a break in which “we will give you time to send text messages to your parents telling them to donate to the State of Israel.” After the participants enthusiastically agreed to badger their parents, the guide passed around a Jewish National Fund charity box with a credit-card machine attached to it.
At the end of that first episode, Ze’ev was blown up on a hike while accidently leading the group into a minefield, and the kids continued their absurd escapades of cultural misunderstanding.
The “Eretz Nehederet” sketches were popular in Israel and raised Birthright’s profile. But not everyone found them amusing − some American Jews considered them offensive. Liel Leibovitz wrote in Tablet Magazine that the need to ridicule Birthright was a reflection of Israeli insecurity.
“American Jews are an easy target. They’re gullible − can you believe all the money those suckers are giving us?!? They’re soft, what with spending four years in college instead of three years at some silly desk job, which is what the majority of Israel Defense Forces soldiers end up doing,” he wrote. “They’re Diaspora. Let’s make fun of them.”
The show’s producers defended themselves against such criticism, saying the satire’s real targets weren’t the Birthrighters, and “the sketch primarily reflects criticism of the Israeli society that takes advantage of the innocence and utter enthusiasm of these young Americans.”
Indeed, in almost every episode, the perky, naive Americans got the best of the jaded Israelis who tried to cheat or mislead them.
David Abitbol, a former Birthright trip leader who runs the website Jewlicious, said he didn’t find the sketches offensive. The portrayals “were based on a realistic depiction of the exuberance of the kids on Birthright. Although having led 12 trips, I can say that I never saw anyone go to Yad Vashem and call it ‘fuckin’ awesome!’”
‘Have you killed people?’
“Eretz Nehederet” certainly didn’t invent Birthright humor. Trip participants have been laughing at themselves and the Birthright experience long before Israelis began poking fun at them.
In addition to the culture clashes, Birthright insider humor often targets the hooks-ups with people one would never meet at home − particularly the female Birthrighters’ proclivity for men in an Israel Defense Forces uniform. (“You’re a real Israeli soldier? Do you know krav maga?” − the martial-art system. “Have you killed people?”)
Birthrighters “know that they are a stereotype,” Lovitt notes. “While they want to believe they are unique, they know every group is kind of the same.”
Birthright-inspired humor created by its participants is easily found on the Internet, collected on blogs like Thisonetimeonbirthright or immortalized on Youtube videos like “Sh*t Girls Say on Birthright.”
Still, not all Birthright humor is for humor’s sake. Abitbol’s website uses humor to deliver meaningful advice for those about to embark on their Birthright experience, the kind the official organization would never dispense. On the Jewlicious’ Unofficial Guide to Sex on Birthright Israel, one can find tips such as “you may meet Israeli soldiers or former Israeli soldiers in bars, cafes or restaurants during or after your trip. If they tell you or even hint that they were in a top-secret elite unit, it’s pretty much guaranteed that they weren’t.”
And in the Unofficial Guide to Drugs on Birthright Israel, Abitbol himself urges Birthrighters against scoring drugs: “At best you’ll get ripped off − you’ll either be sold something that isn’t drugs, like a bag of dried parsley instead of weed or an aspirin instead of ecstasy − or the ‘drug dealer’ will simply take your money and give you nothing in return. What are you going to do? Complain to the Police? Not likely. Fight? I doubt it. Heck, if I had the opportunity, I’d rip you off too, just on principle.”
Abitbol says it isn’t simply cultural differences that make Birthright easy to joke about − it’s the preconceived notions.
“Some critics − who have mostly never been on a Birthright trip − depict it as a big orgy and a big drunken mess, which it’s not,” he says. “Critics on the left portray it as this big right-wing indoctrination thing, and nothing could be further from the truth. Basically, you have the entire complicated religious and political situation in the Middle East having to be boiled down for a bunch of kids going to Israel for 10 days,” he says.
“To the ideologues and propagandists, it’s part of some grand vision and plan of [billionaires] Sheldon Adelson or Lynn Schusterman or one of the big donors. It’s ridiculous. At the end of the day, it’s not about any of these larger-than-life things, it’s a trip to Israel, it’s about hanging out with your friends for 10 days over school break, being introduced to the country, so that hopefully you will want to learn more, read more about it, and come back and take a closer look at it on your own. And of course it’s about having a good time.”