Opinion

Why Is Reform Chief Rick Jacobs Mimicking the Lies of Birthright and Israel Detractors?

Birthright's Gil Troy: Your cheap theatrics and demagoguery about our halting meet-ups with Israeli Arabs fed the League of Birthright and Israel Bashers. You owe us an apology

Birthright
An annual Birthright event in Jerusalem. Emil Salman

Dear Rabbi Jacobs,

I have long admired you. With many Progressives bashing Israel, including many of your Union for Reform Judaism rabbinic colleagues, you’ve demonstrated the thoughtful patriotism Israel - and America - need. You criticize constructively when necessary, but love Israel and the Jewish people unconditionally.

Unfortunately, you lost that balance by needlessly, destructively, Birthright-bashing.

Your demagogic press release - "URJ’s Rabbi Rick Jacobs on Birthright Israel Halting Outreach to Arab Citizens of Israel" - was misleading. Birthright wasn’t doing “outreach to Arab citizens". It’s a Jewish identity-building program encouraging young Jews to launch their own Jewish journeys. Birthright’s about "inreach" more than "outreach."

Haaretz reported the issue more accurately, although still misleadingly. It reported: "Two years ago, Birthright launched a new program aimed at fostering connections with Israeli Arabs." Indeed, Birthright, in its ongoing attempt to improve participants’ educational experience, launched a new 'geopolitics' track with new and updated opportunities for participants to learn about Israeli Arabs through encounters and site visits. Birthrighters’ educational encounters with Israeli Arabs began with the program. Anyone who would try bringing young Jews to Israel while ignoring Israeli Arabs or Palestinians wouldn’t survive.

I didn’t see a press release from you back then thanking Birthright for tackling this sensitive issue bravely, creatively. Today’s controversy centers around a decision to reassess these new programs, because the feedback has been mixed – and we insist on getting it right. 

We’re perfectionists in Birthright. We reevaluate any program that gets mediocre feedback – but when we do it with the Israeli Arab educational piece, you attack us.

Birthright participants hike down a mountain on their trip.
Courtesy of Taglit

When our Beit Midrash tanked, we didn’t oppose Jewish learning. When our entrepreneur track sputtered, we didn’t stop celebrating Israel as "start up nation." Birthright succeeds by being willing to try and fail. Unlike universities and synagogues, it invests heavily in feedback mechanisms and takes them seriously.

Why didn’t you give us the courtesy you would want before being attacked for some URJ decision? Did you contact the Chair of the Taglit Birthright-Israel Education Committee? I know you didn’t - because that’s me.

I wonder why you felt compelled to rush ahead to condemn us (having forgotten to praise us) – and why you went even further. On what basis do you claim that this decision, which you misreported, "shows just how out of touch Birthright is becoming"?

Have you examined the surveys showing the high marks participants give regarding Birthright’s candor and credibility? Or are you simply mimicking the lies of Birthright’s detractors? Regardless, the League of Birthright and Israel Bashers thanks you for providing Haaretz with the harsh headline it sought.

I agree with your next statement. When we launched the Geopolitics track, we acknowledged as you did, that "Arabs make up 21% of the Israeli population" and there has been progress in "integrating Arab citizens of Israel into education, the workforce, and Israeli civil society."

You also nicely define Birthright’s educational philosophy, saying: "We believe that young people can fall in love with the real Israel that has so many inspiring aspects while also seeing up close the struggles for religious pluralism and for better ways for Jewish and the Arab citizens of Israel to live together."

Birthright’s 600,000 young Jewish alumni aren’t suckers. The propagandistic program you claim it is would fail. Birthright seeks balance, offering Israel 101: we don’t go partisan left or right.

A Birthright tour arriving in Israel, May 2015
Birthright

Imagine every Birthright tour educator’s challenge. Let’s say it’s July. Consider the distractions of sun, sand, and yes, sex. Consider the range of participants, including Israeli soldiers on the mifgash encounter program who put their politics on hold to serve their country – and may have suffered traumas defending their country.

But mostly consider many young, thoughtful American Jewish students steeped in postmodern hostility toward nationalism, primed to doubt Zionism, and religion, and pummeled on campus or social media if they don’t bash Israel. And you, the tour guide, have 90 minutes during this packed day to introduce them to the complexities of Israeli Arab identity and life in Israel’s growing democracy.

Given that, I’m proud most participants liked seeing "a reality of coexistence and cooperation between Jews and Arabs in Israel," and enjoyed learning about "social responsibility and engagement, activism, a desire for change, tolerance and respect for the other, cooperation between the sectors and aspirations to live side by side, alongside complexities and challenges in Jewish-Arab relations in Israel." And given all that, I’m not surprised we also received some criticism, which is why we need this re-evaluation.

This isn’t easy. The birthright miracle is that we make it look easy. That’s why you owe Birthright’s educators and administrators an apology for trashing their work so glibly. In the university I see 'virtue-signalling' constantly – condemning an easy target to puff yourself up. I have long applauded you for avoiding such cheap theatrics. Today, you succumbed.  

Nevertheless, reflecting my respect for you, please join us Wednesday in New York, when the Birthright Education Committee meets and debates this and other challenging issues. Let’s think together about this pressing educational challenge, which no Israel program dare dodge.

Professor Gil Troy is the Birthright Education Committee’s voluntary lay chair: this personal statement is unauthorized. He next book, The Zionist Ideas, will be published in spring 2018. Twitter: @GilTroy