Opinion

After the Gaza Deaths, Can This Summer's Birthright Trips Just Carry on as Usual?

For years, Birthright has done its best to avoid a critical discussion of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. After Gaza, is that sustainable – or credible? Are Birthright participants growing weary of its 'sugar-coated Israel'?

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a Birthright Taglit event in Jerusalem, December 2017
Kobi Gideon/GPO

As tens of thousands of Jewish young adults from all over the world prepare to go on their Birthright trips to Israel this summer, one has to wonder about the impact of this May's events in Gaza.

The 10-day free Birthright trip to Israel aims, among other objectives, to increase attachment to Israel and, indeed, as years of research have amply demonstrated, the experience does indeed have the intended effect.

But never before have Birthright trips followed so closely upon such controversial events as the Gaza protests and the 62 Palestinian fatalities that resulted.

An injured Palestinian protestor is carried by fellow demonstrators during clashes with Israeli security forces east of Khan Yunis, southern Gaza Strip. April 6, 2018
SAID KHATIB/AFP

Will this summer on Birthright be like any other? Or will we see the beginning of an historical shift that will make connecting young Jews with Israel more difficult and complicated than in the past two decades?    

Our research on the factors that distance young Jews from Israel suggests that contemporary Jewish youth have a hard time connecting with Israel for several reasons.

Outside of Orthodoxy, a clear and growing majority of Jewish young adults derive from intermarried homes,  a factor that has classically been associated with lower levels of Jewish engagement in general and Israel attachment in particular. In addition, Jewish identity has become increasingly individualized and personalized, as well as detached from collective concerns. 

Read more: Birthright's So Scared of Arabs It's Banned Them | Opinion | The Day Donald Trump Was Crowned King in Jerusalem | Opinion | Intoxicated by Trump and Netanyahu, Diaspora Jews Are Abandoning Their Conscience | Opinion

But beyond the changes in Jewish identity are changes in the lenses through which young people are viewing Israel.

Increasingly college campuses are home to Palestinian solidarity organizations – Students for Justice in Palestine claims a presence on 189 campuses. The appeal of SJP and related organizations is rooted in their construction of a compelling moral narrative that unifies different minority groups, a phenomenon known as intersectionality.

The narrative that depicts Palestinians as indigenous to the land and as dispossessed by Westerners holds special appeal to a wide range of minorities including indigenous and immigrant groups, Latinos, Muslims, African-Americans, and sexual and gender minorities.  

A Birthright tour arriving in Israel, May 2015
Birthright

The themes of oppression prevalent in the Palestinian story - such as state violence, displacement, prisons, and border walls - are also central to the collective narrative of these and other groups. The shared narratives and symbols of oppression depict supporters of Israel as racist.

Concomittantly, pro-Israel students are attacked as holding an immoral stance because they are accused of legitimizing the oppression of minorities and the dispossession of the weak.

Birthright’s historic pedagogical approach, honed over nearly two decades – its attempt to transmit enthusiasm for Israel without too much political nitty-gritty - may well pose an additional obstacle to connecting its participants to Israel this summer.

At one time, Israel served as the most unifying and mobilizing force in American Jewish communal life. Today, it has become a divisive and polarizing force. Consequently, many professional and lay leaders in Jewish life have avoided critical discussions of Israel for fear of alienating donors, volunteers and members, left and right.

Palestinians run for cover from tear gas shot by Israeli forces during a demonstration along the border between Israel and the Gaza strip. May 25, 2018
MOHAMMED ABED/AFP

So, like much of the organized Jewish community in the United States, Birthright tour guides seek to avoid presentations that could be accused of being politically biased in one direction or another – and that means Birthright trips generally avoid a nuanced and critical approach to Israeli politics and policies. Its tour guides are charged to adhere to Birthright’s educational guidelines that call on them "to respect the integrity and sensibility of participants and not attempt to missionize." 

For years, Birthright trips - in all their variety - have managed to hold the lid on trip participants engaging in critical discussion of the political situation and conflict with the Palestinians. But that effort is already splintering under pressure.

Read more: After Birthright, Lured into a Pro-Kahane Hostel | Birthright Is Resilient: We'll Weather This Current Criticism Too | Opinion | After Israel Travel Ban, Jewish Students Ask If Birthright Will Vet Their Views | Why Is Reform Chief Rick Jacobs Mimicking the Lies of Birthright and Israel Detractors? | Opinion

This last November, Birthright education department instructed its trip providers to stop encounters between Birthright participants and Arab Israelis. This move and the increasing presence of religiously Orthodox trip providers have led to increased concerns that the Birthright trip is providing a narrow view of Israel. 

Ben Hagai’s interviews with Birthright participants in recent years find that many report little discussion on the trip of the conflict with the Palestinians, the Occupation of the West Bank, or the siege on Gaza.

Birthright Taglit event, Rishon LeZion. 25 June 2017
David Bachar

Instead, participants reported that the trips in which they participated typically focused on creating an emotional bond between Israeli soldiers and participants, as well as a sense of collective mourning as experienced in visits to Yad Vashem, memorializing the Holocaust, and Mount Herzl, Israel’s national cemetery.

The lack of discussion about the conflict on many, if not most, trips – along with the exclusion of the voices of Israeli Jewish leftists and Palestinian activists - created a sense among many Birthright participants that the trip "sugar-coated Israel."

Truth be told, the conflict-avoidance approach has "worked" in the past. Birthright participants have come back displaying higher levels of Israel attachment, Jewish engagement, and propensity to marry Jews.

4,500 pairs of shoes, representing every life lost in Gaza over the last decade, laid out in front of the European Parliament as part of the AVAAZ 'Palestinian Lives Matter' campaign. Brussels, May 28, 2018
Olivier Matthys/AP

But is the summer of 2018 different from all other summers? Will the dramatic confrontations of Gaza demonstrators with Israeli soldiers, and the number killed and wounded by the IDF, affect the way Birthright participants view the soldiers on their tour buses?

Will the highly critical coverage and editorializing around the Gaza events impinge upon their Israel experiences more generally? Will more participants feel uncomfortable with Birthright's historic pedagogy of avoiding sustained and serious attention to the most conflictual and vexing issues?

Will this year’s Birthright participants react differently than their predecessors have done over the last 20 years? And if so, is Birthright able to respond? 

Ella Ben Hagai teaches at Bennington College, Vermont.

Steven M. Cohen is Research Professor at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, New York.