Is Birthright Really Apolitical?

Israel is a deeply political, ideological place, with divergent voices constantly debating critical issues. It's time that these conversations make it onto the itinerary of the Israel trip.

Dr. Alex Sinclair
Alex Sinclair
Dr. Alex Sinclair
Alex Sinclair

Birthright season is upon us again. By summer's end, thousands of young Diaspora Jews will have spent 10 days touring Israel for the first time. These experiences are, by all accounts, powerful and transformative. But what political messages do such trips convey?

This is a question that has been raised before (most notably last year when J Street's application to run a Birthright trip was rejected ), but never resolved. Taglit-Birthright Israel - the organization that runs the Birthright trips - claims that it has "never conducted trips with a clear political orientation or declared political ideology," adding that, "these criteria are critical for us to continue our work as a mainstream, nonpartisan, apolitical organization."

Israel trips, however, simply can't be apolitical, and claims to that effect are disingenuous and incorrect. An Israel itinerary is almost by definition political, depending on where the group is taken and how this is framed.

Take, for example, Jerusalem. You may have a wonderful experience in the archaeological excavations at the City of David, sponsored by the right-wing settler organization Ir David, but if you are new to Israel, and that is the entirety of your exposure to that part of Jerusalem, then you are likely going to become more sympathetic to the right-wing narrative that sees the city as "Israel's eternal, undivided capital." If, on the other hand, your tour also includes a discussion with Ir Amim (City of Peoples ) - an organization that highlights the political, social and religious diversity of Jerusalem, and the damage being done to East Jerusalem Palestinians by Israeli policies - then you are more likely to view that right-wing narrative in a more nuanced and critical manner.

It might be claimed that a visit to Jerusalem's archaeological excavations isn't political in nature, but merely educational, but this argument is false. Absence of evidence - in this case, of other narratives about Jerusalem - might be, and often is, interpreted by tour participants as evidence of absence.

Each curricular option - whether to visit Ir David or tour with someone from Ir Amim, or both - has an implicit political agenda, and it's wrong to claim otherwise. Of course, one hopes that, regardless of the itinerary, a good tour guide would frame a visit to Jerusalem in an open-ended fashion, bringing participants into a thoughtful conversation about what it means to be committed to Israel while also thinking critically about many of the country's aspects, policies and directions. But either way, those decisions have political ramifications.

Perhaps the most egregious demonstration of the inevitability of politics entering Taglit-Birthright's work appears in its own promotional YouTube video. A centerpiece of the video is a map of Israel: Greater Israel. There is no Green Line, and no indication of territories that are disputed under international (and Israeli) law.

This can't be put down to a mistake, or the desire for graphic simplicity. The erasure of the Green Line as official governmental policy over several decades has been documented comprehensively by such researchers as Gershom Gorenberg. My point is not whether I agree or disagree with the politics or rightness of that policy - just to note that even something as simple as choosing a map for a graphic is an inescapably political act. If Birthright's map marked off Israel's territory as the pre-1967 borders, you can be sure that those on the right would deem this a political act. But tipping the scales in the other direction is no less political.

Don't misunderstand me. I am in favor of Birthright and of trips to Israel. Israel travel is the most significant part of any Israel education curriculum, at any age. It opens up new vistas of Jewishness and Jewish identity for American Jews, and is to be encouraged and funded. But let's stop pretending that Israel trips don't have political ramifications. The Israel trip is a deeply, completely, inescapably political animal.

What are the educational implications of this analysis?

We must embrace Israel travel's political nature, not deny it. Political debate can be galvanizing, and if Israel travel (and Israel education in general ) can be reconceived to encourage participants to explore political issues and express their own voices on them, it could greatly enrich the long-term relationship that alumni of Birthright and similar trips have with the country. Especially for participants who arrive here with very little background in its history, initiation into its political conversations can be a powerful way to boost their knowledge and give them some scaffolding to further explore these important issues after the trip.

This means re-imagining Israel trip itineraries; training tour guides to be more sophisticated educators (happily, Taglit-Birthright is currently embarking on such a project through its new Institute for Tour Educators ); and editing educational content so that it invites people into open political conversations, rather than covertly presenting particular conclusions as faits accomplis.

Israel is a deeply political, ideological place, with divergent voices constantly debating critical issues. That's one of its great attractions. It's time that these conversations also made it onto the itinerary of the Israel trip.

Dr. Alex Sinclair is director of programs in Israel Education for the Jewish Theological Seminary. He runs Kesher Hadash, the Davidson School of JTS' Semester in Israel program. The views expressed here are his own.

Birthright participants wave Israeli flags.Credit: Haaretz Archive

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