Contested Birthright: The Modern Day Sequel

Few remember that the flagship program had many detractors when it was launched 13 years ago. Today, few initiatives enjoy as much support in the Jewish world.

Anshel Pfeffer
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Anshel Pfeffer

Some critics see Taglit-Birthright as nationalist and right-wing, but the former leader of Israel’s left and architect of the Oslo peace process isn’t worried at all.

“People say Birthright is right-wing but they’re wrong,” says Yossi Beilin, a former head of Israel’s justice, economics and religious affairs ministries. “I’m all in favor of a debate on Israel’s policies and don’t think Jews in the Diaspora should blindly support it, but this has nothing to do with visiting Israel.”

While some critics of the Birthright program say it glosses over matters such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Beilin, who has devoted much of his career to solving that conflict, doesn’t think it should feature on the itinerary.

“The Birthright visit has nothing to do with the conflict. It’s a first meeting with Israel, and naturally what they get in it is the Israeli point of view. They don’t have to go and visit Ramallah on their first trip, too,” he says.

“I think an American member of congress who comes here should go to Ramallah, not young people on Birthright. They’re just beginning to learn about Israel, and I’m not worried what opinions they’ll form. They’re intelligent people who will all be Democrats and vote Obama.”

Terms like “Jewish peoplehood” and “continuity” have become buzzwords in the world of Jewish organizations, but Birthright was before its time. It stressed the connection between Israel and an entire Jewish generation for its own sake, not as a lever to extract donations or encourage aliyah. The way it aimed to portray Israel, not as a needy society but as a successful country with a high living standard and cutting-edge technology, was also innovative for its time. It preceded the start-up-nation image.

In any case, Beilin is used to questions about Birthright; he says he often gets them from liberal American parents who are concerned that their children are about to embark on a jingoistic nationalist journey. He reassures them they can send their kids with a clear conscience.

Many readers will be surprised that Beilin is one of the most ardent defenders of the organization, which is heavily financed by Sheldon Adelson, the mega-donor to right-wing politicians in the United States and Israel. Such readers will be even more surprised to discover that it was Beilin who first came up with the idea. Still, he has no problem with that partnership or the fact that his ideological adversary, Benjamin Netanyahu, has long been one of Birthright’s most prominent political patrons.

“Birthright succeeds because it’s the project of an entire generation, supported by private donors and the Israeli government,” he says. “I think it’s good that Bibi has always supported it, and I’m very happy with Adelson’s donation. This is the place where all our interests meet.”

Early criticisms

But Birthright, which many see today as the Jewish world’s flagship project, was anything but a consensus issue when the concept of giving every young Jew a free ticket to Ben-Gurion International Airport was first mooted by Beilin in 1994.

“As deputy foreign minister, on most of my trips abroad I visited the local communities and had many meetings with international Jewish forums. I told them that Israel was wealthier than many of the countries they were representing and that it was about time we stopped with this paradigm of donating to poor Israel,” he says.

“I said that the problem of poverty in Israel stemmed from bad distribution of income, which is an internal problem. The problem for the Jewish world is not Israel’s income but its own continuity.”

Not everyone at the time was prepared to accept the idea that the Diaspora should focus on itself rather than Israel. “An acrimonious debate began. People said I was giving up on the Diaspora and that their donations were a way of expressing love and connection to Israel,” Beilin says.

“I told them that what’s important is that your children remain Jewish, and that with all due respect, all the Diaspora’s donations are worth about as much as the cost to the Israeli economy of a strike a few days long at the ports. I said it would be much better if they spent the money on sending their children to Israel.”

Beilin approached a number of major players in the North American Jewish establishment to promote the idea and had the highest hopes for two major philanthropists, Michael Steinhardt and Charles Bronfman. But they were lukewarm at first, especially Bronfman, who felt that it was wrong to give the trip to Israel as a gift.

“I said to them at the time that it was a bad idea because you get what you pay for and the kids will go and have a hell of a good time on their free trip, but it would be meaningless to them,” Bronfman said.

Birthright’s free aspect was a point of controversy from the start, with Knesset members saying it takes money away from poor children in Sderot and gives it to rich children in Manhattan.

This aspect disturbs some people even today. Canadian philanthropist Seymour Schulich told Haaretz a few months ago he turned down requests to donate to Birthright because he thinks “people should have skin in the game” and that participants should pay at least 15 percent of the costs.

But Birthright’s supporters are convinced that the free model has proved itself. “It has been a very wise decision,” says Bronfman. “Brandeis University [which has been researching Birthright since its inception] asked young Jewish adults where they want to go for 10 days and Israel wasn’t in the first 20 destinations they selected. So you have that kind of resistance.”

Shimshon Shoshani, Birthright’s first CEO, doesn't believe anyone should be asked to pay a cent. "The program focuses mainly on people who aren’t affiliated to any Jewish organization or group how else can you bring them to Israel for the first time?" he asks. "I think the best proof of the concept’s success is that 10 percent come back to Israel, at their own expense, in the first year after Birthright.”

Shoshani’s successor and current Birthright CEO, Gidi Mark, is confident the program’s vision as the Jewish people’s “universal gift” is the right way to go.

“It comes from the belief that Israel should be an elementary component in the identity of every Jew. But there is also a principle here of not distinguishing between those who have the funds and those who do not. If we started to do means-testing and checked their parents’ income, no one would come,” Mark says.

“We focused here on an age group that’s not normally popular with Jewish organizations people between 18 and 25. They’re no longer children but they’re not yet involved with their communities or donors themselves. With these people, our competition is destinations like Cancun or Barbados, where they can go for their college break for less than $300. So we said to them, we don’t want your money, we want you.”

Another serious obstacle to Birthright in its first stage was organizational established Jewish movements felt that a project bringing thousands of young Jews to Israel for free would disrupt existing programs.

“The Jewish Agency was against it; they saw it as an existential threat,” says Beilin. The agency and other venerable Jewish organizations tried to dissuade philanthropists from donating to Birthright and local Jewish federations from cooperating with it on sending people to Israel.

One senior agency official said back then that “Birthright isn’t serious. All it does is bring students to Israel for a couple of weeks of sex and rock and roll.” Zeev Bielski, who was the Jewish Agency chairman from 2005 to 2009, admits that when he started out as chairman, Birthright was indeed seen this way.

“We had major doubts that Birthright could contribute to aliyah, which was the Jewish Agency’s overriding aim at the time,” he says. “This was an organization started by private individuals with a lot of question marks.” But Bielski quickly realized that larger question marks loomed over the agency’s mission.

“I saw the situation of our relationship with the Jewish world that there were no more immigration waves and the younger generation was less interested in maintaining a connection,” he says. “I thought that even though it may not promote aliyah, bringing thousands of young Jews to visit Israel was worth the investment.”

From Chabad to the Reform movement

Under Bielski, the Jewish Agency became a partner of Birthright, as part of a wider shift from focusing on immigration to an emphasis on Jewish education and community-building in the Diaspora.

Today, more than half of Birthright's funding comes from private philanthropists, among them Sheldon Adelson, Charles Bronfman, Lynn Schusterman, Michael Steinhardt and Marlene Post. The government of Israel covers another quarter, and Jewish organizations worldwide, including the Jewish Agency, much of the rest.

Birthright has always striven to show Israel at its best. “We present Israel as a high-end destination, not as the poor cousin who needs a handout but a potential partner for business and a joint future,” says Mark.

The program is carried out by subcontractors who must conform to a long list of standards like the quality of tour buses and the size of hotel rooms. But the 10-day experience that tries to cram in as much as possible has been criticized over the years for manufacturing a shallow and saccharine version of Israel.

“Some claim that Birthright is indoctrination, but that’s ridiculous. We show a positive face of Israel that’s authentic; there are lots of positive things in Israel,” says Shoshani.

“Does anyone expect us to say that Israel isn’t a good place? Most participants are secular and lead a secular life, so can you say we’re a religious organization because we take all our groups to Jerusalem and usually take them to the Western Wall on Friday and don’t drive anywhere on Shabbat? It’s a Jewish state. On the other hand, we don’t visit the West Bank, so are we left-wing?”

According to Mark, “There is no homogeneity in Birthright. We currently have 14 organizations carrying out our trips, and they range from Chabad to the Reform movement. And the accusation that the Birthright experience is shallow is ridiculous. No one said 10 days are equal to 50 years. What we are doing is giving them an entry ticket to Israel and the Jewish world in the best way possible. It’s just the beginning.”

In recent years, as its success has grown and tens of thousands of young Jews have gone on Birthright trips, there have been more claims of indoctrination, pre-trip screening and a more overt political tone to some of the activities and discussions. Mark denies that the participants need some kind of Zionist prerequisite.

“Every Jew should get to know other Jews from around the world, and even if they are not Zionist, it’s important for them to know what Zionism is,” he says. “We live in a pluralistic world, and they are intelligent enough to make their own decision.”

The program has pre-trip interviews, but Mark claims that this isn’t political screening. “We don’t disqualify anyone with a Jewish parent from joining unless as has happened a few times in the past someone says they’re coming with an agenda to specifically criticize Israel.”

The participant number is approaching 50,000 annually, and the Brandeis studies show a high level of affinity to Israel among young people who have been on Birthright. Just as much, Mark sees a success in the fact that other countries with large diasporas such as Armenia, Ireland, Korea and Greece are creating their own versions of the program.

Bronfman has an intriguing insight into the role Birthright has played in its 13 years on the way Israel and the Diaspora see each other, a vision that in many ways flies in the face of the old Zionist orthodoxies.

In the past, many Israelis believed that all Jews should live in Israel and there was a feeling of estrangement among many Diaspora Jews that “this was leading to a situation in which we would have had two communities standing alone,” Bronfman says. “Instead, we now have the beginning of an understanding that we need each other that a strong Israel is a wonderful thing for the Diaspora and that a strong Diaspora is great for Israel.”

Birthright participants landing at Ben-Gurion International Airport last year. Credit: Kobi Wolf - Gini
Birthright Israel participants waving Israeli flags.Credit: Kobi Gideon
Yossi BeilinCredit: Tal Cohen
Sheldon AdelsonCredit: Bloomberg
Lynn SchustermanCredit: Olivier Fitoussi
Charles BronfmanCredit: Olivier Fitoussi
Michael Steinhardt: Selling his Judaica collection so others can enjoy it.Credit: Taglit-Birthright

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