In 1987, my Jewish day school wanted me to experience what it means to be Israeli, to appreciate the labor of the Zionist pioneers who had returned home after 2,000 years in exile to till the soil and live under the perpetual threat of violent Arabs out to destroy our Holy Land. So I spent a summer working on a kibbutz, planting trees and enduring a week of “gadna” army training.
Even as a teenager, I knew there was no such thing as a free lunch. It was an ideological project that I came away from with more questions than answers, launching me into a life of proud Zionism and a career as a professor of Jewish studies at a public university.
If Birthright achieves this with even a handful of its participants then we should all be encouraging young Jews to sign up. And yet, it’s this piece of the puzzle that the current brouhaha over Birthright fails to come to terms with, on both sides of the debate.
IfNotNow, a relatively young activist network whose chief objective is “to end the [American Jewish] community’s support for the occupation” has adopted an aggressively interventionist approach to criticizing Birthright, the Jewish roots trip to Israel paid for by billionaires like Michael Steinhardt and Sheldon Adelson as well as the Israeli government.
Last summer a number of their activists staged dramatic walkouts from their Birthright trips live streaming their speeches. Birthright was not amused, and, as per the waiver all participants are required to sign, they were left to their own devices (and pocketbooks) to find their way home.
To prevent a repetition of such scandalous provocations, Birthright has started to force participants to sign a pledge not to “highjack” discussion by turning it toward the occupation.
Alas, the solution immediately backfired. Last week, several Americans were kicked off their Birthright program for “asking questions” about the West Bank separation barrier.
This is more than a PR disaster. It’s touched off a big debate, between those who support the activists and those who think they are spoiled brats punching a gift horse in the mouth. If you take the free trip, don’t expect to be able to dictate the agenda, they argue.
But these arguments miss a more subtle truth about what the situation tells us. For the truth is, Birthright, like my own high school trip, is an excellent way for young Jews to learn not just about Israel, but about the difference between an Israel presented by an explicitly political organization like Birthright and the reality of the embattled Jewish homeland.
The truth is, in presenting a one-sided view, Birthright does more to encourage Jews to think critically than they otherwise would have.
It’s undeniable that in many respects, Birthright is an exercise in the dissemination of propaganda. The goal is to mold young Jews into card carrying Zionists, to see the proverbial milk and honey, the blooming desert, the muscular tanned sunbathing Sabras who negated the exilic condition that imprisoned the diasporic Jews for centuries.
Although few participants in Birthright become so enamored with Israel that they make Aliyah, they return home – or at least Birthright hopes – with a lifelong connection to the land, and an appreciation for why Israel needs to exist.
It is a utopian spectacle, and like all such spectacles there are actors behind the scenes who go to great lengths to convey their narratives. They must show what is beautiful and hide what is ugly. There is no space for stateless Palestinians victims in this narrative, much as there was no such space for them during the nine-week trip to Israel I participated in as a teenager in 1987.
But this is exactly how Birthright encourages critical thinking.
As a professor my job is to teach students to think for themselves, to approach Zionism and Israel as historical, geopolitical, and cultural questions, to poke holes in narratives and received wisdom we take for granted. Birthright is thus a classroom discussion topic for me, not a brochure to distribute. My students learn about Birthright when we cover “Israel and the Diaspora in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.” We consider the ways in which its existence shapes American Jewish identity in an era of intermarriage and the diminution of Judaic ritual. Our goal is neither to celebrate nor vilify Birthright, but to understand its invention and interrogate its meaning.
I also encourage students who approach me to go on Birthright. College students are cash strapped consumers of knowledge, eager to get out of the classroom and explore the world they read about in textbooks and see on PowerPoint slides. Turning down a free trip to Israel would make little sense, especially if this is the only option they have, which is more than likely, given that they are cash strapped college students.
They are also not children. If they have been paying attention to what their professors have been teaching them, they will be well aware that there is no such thing as a free lunch. They are not oblivious to the fact that they are being offered a thoroughly curated experience.
But there is still much to be gained from such a trip even if they only encounter part of the story. In this sense, Birthright is no different from any other ten-day vacation, be it to a lush resort on an impoverished Caribbean island, a trip to Venice without witnessing the horror endured by unwanted North African refugees, or a trip to China showcasing the splendor of a three-thousand-year-old advanced civilization without the starving dissidents in penal colonies.
The only difference is that Birthright is offered for free to young people of Jewish descent. It should be embraced for what it is, a curated trip with an agenda, and not rejected as little more than an exercise in ideological indoctrination devoid of authenticity.
The students I teach often struggle with separating propaganda from empiricism, but this is a skill they want to develop. They yearn to apply this outside the classroom, on their own, where truth, if it exists at all, is not self-evident, where what is marketed as reality is often curated.
So when one of my students informed me he was going on Birthright and asked if he could use the trip as the basis for an independent study project under my supervision, of course I agreed. I viewed this be an educational opportunity for me, to see if the knowledge and tools he received would yield real world results.
His final paper did not disappoint me, because it was clear that Birthright had strengthened his emotional and intellectual connection to Israel, without engendering his wholesale acceptance of its skewed narrative.
He came home with more questions, much as I did.
Jarrod Tanny is Associate Professor of History at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. He is the author of “City of Rogues and Schnorrers: Russia’s Jews and the Myth of Old Odessa” (Indiana University Press, 2011). He is currently writing a book on Jewish humor in America.