Sorry, Haters: Birthright Had Its Biggest Year Ever
At the end of last year, Haaretz reported that Birthright had seen a drop in numbers, of up to 50%. This was shocking news, and seemed to confirm the growing disaffection among young Jews with Israel, emblematized by activists staging walkouts of their Birthright trips.
But it turns out that this narrative is far from the whole picture. The opposite in fact is the case: In 2018, Birthright had a record of 48,000 participants from across the globe, its highest number yet, CEO Gidi Mark told JNS. “The project continues to excite young Jews around the world and participants say the tours are extremely meaningful,” Mark said.
Of course, he’s right. Despite two campaigns to besmirch the trip, one by the far-left anti-Zionist group Jewish Voice for Peace and one by If Not Now, Birthright remains a deeply meaningful experience for young Jews, especially at a time of rising anti-Semitism.
It’s something I can confirm having just staffed a Birthright trip.
Critics of Birthright will tell you that the trip is corrupt because it’s paid for by right-wing Jewish billionaires, including Sheldon Adelson, President Trump’s largest donor. Additional funds come from the Israeli government. But I can tell you first hand that the source of the money has virtually no impact on the content of the program.
The premise of Birthright is simple: to immerse Diaspora Jews in a cultural exchange where participants strengthen their Jewish identity in relation to the land of Israel. Other countries like Greece and Hungary have similar programs, but the work of Birthright is especially significant since Jews represent just 0.2% of the world’s population. Efforts to unite our community have always been a challenge, and Birthright provides an answer to the fear of younger generations losing their identity and understanding of Jewish culture.
Birthright’s detractors focus on a vague political agenda. But it just doesn’t exist. If by agenda they mean itinerary, then the program consists of activities that any tourist would take part in, like hiking mountains, eating hummus, swimming in the Dead Sea, riding camels, eating shawarma, visiting the Western Wall and eating more shawarma. On breaks we played card games. At night we sang karaoke, and on long bus rides we played Israeli pop songs like the ubiquitous “Tel Aviv” by Omer Adam and “Toy” by Eurovision winner Netta Barzilai.
The trip is all about bonding and cultural immersion. Throughout the ten days, geo-politics only came up in one segment dedicated to discussing the conflict and history of the country. During the ninety-minute discussion, our guest lecturer gave a general overview of the timeline of Israeli history, and at the end he capped off his presentation by encouraging everyone to do their own research.
All questions were welcomed and encouraged. Never was there a moment where ideas were silenced, as Birthright’s critics are suggesting.
Birthright’s protesters make the claim that the organization is somehow concealing the truth about the conflict. But on my trip, our Israeli tour guide couldn’t have been more transparent. He emphasized throughout the ten days how there are multiple perspectives to the region, and when participants asked me questions like “is Zionism a dirty word” or “why is Israel in this region” I welcomed their questions without judgment.
In its most distilled form, Birthright is meant to be a curated introduction to the country, not a comprehensive education of its history. This is important to note, because for many on my trip, it was very much an introduction to their Jewish identity in general.
For some people, it was their first time being in an environment with other Jews. I had participants who described themselves as being the token Jew in their community, where they were the only ones who had a bar or bat mitzvah. Another participant claimed she hadn’t even learned of her Jewish identity until she was well into her teens. Being raised by a family of pastors, her mother’s Jewish ancestry was never discussed. She said that embracing her new identity as an agnostic Jew was like a coming out moment for her, and this trip was the start of forging an exploration of a community she never knew she belonged to.
This was all eye-opening to me, as I grew up with a more monolithic Jewish experience in the northeast where virtually every Jew went to Hebrew school and had a bar mitzvah and went to summer camp and was immersed in Jewish culture our entire lives. If a Jew didn’t participate in Jewish life, they were the anomaly.
The diversity of Jewish experience in the diaspora is actually essential to the very essence of Birthright’s mission. Not everyone comes from the same background and a trip like Birthright provides an environment where every person of Jewish ancestry is given the same opportunity to explore their roots more deeply.
Birthright is also a necessary corrective to a misperception about the region. Though Israel and Palestine are inextricably intertwined, the conflict is not the sole defining attribute of the country. It is the Jewish homeland, and that means a lot to many Jews, as it should.
Visiting Israel does not imply tacit support for Netanyahu’s administration any more than visiting the US is an endorsement of Trump’s America.
I’m glad to hear Birthright has had a banner year, and that I led a trip during that year. It’s a crucial way for Jews to discover their homeland and themselves, finding unity in our differences and remembering that we are one people.
And at a time of increasing anti-Semitism, we need each other like never before.
Correction: An earlier draft of this article mischaracterized Haaretz’s report. We regret the error.
Peter Fox is a writer who focuses on the intersection of LGBT identity and Jewish world politics. His writing has been featured in the Times of Israel and New Voices Magazine. Follow him on twitter @thatpeterfox.