On August 1, Taglit-Birthright Israel, the group that offers young Jews free 10-day tours to Israel, announced a new trip for a particular subset of Jews: professional journalists. More specifically, journalists who are alumni of Birthright.
Since Birthright is in the business of fostering Diaspora Jews’ love for Israel (full disclosure: I went on such a trip last August), one might suspect that the Birthright tour for journalists aims to seed American newsrooms with pro-Israel cheerleaders, especially as the Israeli government faces increased scrutiny in the Western press.
According to Birthright officials, however, the Birthright trip for journalists isn’t about Israel’s image, but about, well, Birthright’s.
The Birthright for journalists trip — which will likely take place sometime this winter — comes on the brink of a major Birthright expansion. In January, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that the Israeli government would be giving Birthright $100 million over a three-year period to help enable the group to increase the number of participants to 51,000 from 30,000 per year, thus alleviating its massive waiting list. In late July, major Birthright funders Miriam and Sheldon Adelson said they would give an additional $5 million in matching donations to encourage funding from grassroots givers.
But to meet its goal of 51,000 participants, Birthright must now get the word out to potential donors and raise an additional $20 million over the next two years. Enter the journalists.
There have been other Birthright trips for journalists in the past. But the upcoming foray is the first exclusively for journalists who are Birthright alumni. The trip aims to give a dozen or so Jewish reporters a tour of the inner workings of the organization itself.
“We really want to give visibility not only to our accomplishments but to this new big undertaking,” said Jacob Dallal, spokesman for Birthright. “Obviously, we need the visibility for fundraising, and so people will know.”
Since its inception 11 years ago, Birthright has taken nearly 300,000 Jews between the ages of 18 and 26 on free trips to the Holy Land. “We think it is a good story,” Dallal said. “This is the biggest heritage story in the world.”
Designed for people who are familiar with the Birthright mission and format, the alumni trip will illuminate the history and day-to-day operations of the organization and also Birthright’s newest endeavors, such as a trip for Jews from India. The tour is limited to individuals who are employed full time as journalists and have worked in the field for at least two years. It is aimed at — but is not exclusive to — journalists in the non-Jewish press. The goal is to increase Birthright’s profile in the secular media.
Whether or not Jewish media professionals will take Birthright up on its offer remains to be seen. Most American news outlets — the Forward included — have strict policies against accepting free trips or meals from organizations or people they cover. The pay-your-own-way rule is meant to protect journalists from pressures that might bias their reporting.
“In most newsrooms, if it was deemed to be newsworthy they would figure out a way to pay for it themselves,” said Kelly McBride, senior faculty for ethics at the Poynter Institute, a journalism school in St. Petersburg, Fla. “When it is not deemed to be newsworthy, then they end up writing about it simply because it is free, which is why most newsrooms are uncomfortable with free stuff.”
Even so, Dallal anticipates a robust number of applications, noting that Birthright has already fielded several résumés from professionals at secular publications.
Birthright’s trip for journalists takes place against the backdrop of a recent bout of bad press for the organization. Though Birthright has long faced criticism for glossing over the Palestinian-Israeli conflict on its tours, a July article in the magazine The Nation criticized the organization for subtly feeding a political agenda to its participants, bringing them to a West Bank settlement to buy Ahava beauty products and stoking fears of Arabs.
“Today, at a time of rising criticism of Israel, the program has taken on a different meaning,” wrote Kiera Feldman, whose article details her own Birthright trip in the summer of 2010. “No longer is it simply a project to shore up Jewish identity; Birthright has joined the fight for the political loyalties of young Jews.”
Feldman’s article received no official response from Birthright. But Gary Rosenblatt editor of New York Jewish Week, wrote in an editorial that Birthright officials were “said to be worried about the impact” of the story, which he said sought to “demean Birthright Israel.”
“We are a mature organization, and we believe very strongly in what we do,” Dallal said when asked if Feldman’s article ruffled feathers inside Birthright. “We feel that this program has proven itself.” When asked, he said the trip for journalists was not offered in response to Feldman’s article.
Contact Naomi Zeveloff at email@example.com
Naomi Zeveloff is the Middle East correspondent of the Forward, primarily covering Israel and the Palestinian Territories.