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The Real Birthright: Inheriting Our Jewish Story

June 20, 2019 at 2:00 pm
by Gil Troy Chairman, International Education Committee, Birthright Israel
Foundation Banner Holders in the 2019 Celebrate Israel Parade Originally published by The Jerusalem Post on June 19, 2019

These sleights of hands and oversights rest on a bigger distortion – the barrage of claims that young American Jews are abandoning Israel.

At this year’s Independence Day ceremonies, Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein identified Israel’s – and the Jewish people’s – greatest natural resource, which is pollution-free and ever renewable.

“The people of Israel have a story,” Edelstein said, “a story about slaves who became free, who brought to the entire world a new hope of freedom, new tidings of peace, and a new purpose of justice.”

Then, addressing “you, the child who is watching the ceremony right now,” Edelstein urged: “Keep believing that you are part of a wonderful story that began in this country against all odds, and its continuation depends on you.”

Edelstein’s words reflected his background as a Soviet refusenik, a Prisoner of Zion and an educator. He also captured the essence of Taglit-Birthright Israel, a program whose steering committee he chaired when he was Diaspora affairs minister.

Birthright, which has brought over 700,000 young Jews to Israel since 1999, is not a partisan program. It’s not basic training for propaganda wars, Left or Right. It is a Jewish identity-building program offering Israel 101 – a basic introduction to that great gift Edelstein identified and too many parents deprive their children of today: our story.

So, no, Birthright Israel doesn’t offer “multiple narratives” – students get that from the media, at university, online. And no, Birthright Israel isn’t about the Palestinians – it’s about the Jews. Imagine Birthright Ireland. Would anyone expect its organizers to invite the queen to rationalize why the British were so tough on the Irish? Imagine Birthright South Korea. Would anyone expect to travel north of the 38th parallel to endure a North Korean reeducation camp? So why would anyone expect Birthright Israel to jump-start young Jewish journeys by steeping Jews in the Palestinian narrative rather than our Jewish story? Don’t we have enough catching up to do in 10 days?

Of course, it would be immoral – and foolish – to ignore the Palestinian issue. That’s why Birthright, which has always educated about the conflict, recently added a mandatory two-hour geopolitics seminar for all participants. The reform emerged naturally from Birthright’s perpetual evaluation process, including its international education committee, which I chair voluntarily as a lay leader.

Beyond any lectures, the real education occurs through the touring, the informal Q and A with the tour educators, the dialogues with the Israelis who join each trip, the bus-wide debates. Inevitably, questions about borders and barriers and Palestinians arise. Any educator who would dodge those questions wouldn’t have to wait to get fired. What savvy, 18-to-32-year-old would tolerate such stonewalling – which is why it so rarely happens on these life-changing trips.

Don’t believe me – analyze the Winter 2019 trips’ feedback. Was there “a supportive environment for the exchange of ideas and opinions?” 83.1% agreed. Did the “trip include opportunities to express my thoughts and feelings?” 85.8% agreed. Did participants have “an opportunity to think critically about Israel’s challenges?” 80.3% agreed. Compare these sky-high numbers to other educational programs – including universities charging $70,000-a-year (not nothing). Can’t do it – because few programs invest the money Birthright does in surveying, evaluating and responding to feedback.

Yet, despite all this, despite Birthright’s hall-of-fame high educational batting average, 13 frauds who essentially stole spots from others and came on trips last year to walk off their trips have received far more press coverage than last year’s 48,000 satisfied participants.

The latest example of this media distortion is The New York Times article of June 11, 2019, describing how “some Jewish activists have protested Birthright.” Weasel wording alert: “Some,” not 13; and “activists,” to make them sound romantic. The organization that trained these infiltrators, IfNotNow [INN], is described as “a network of Jewish activists” – that word again! – “who want to end Jewish American support for the occupation.”

Shouldn’t America’s “newspaper of record” have noted that these marginal voices don’t endorse Israel’s existence? According to The Forward, INN “does not take an official stance on BDS or whether an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal should have one or two states.” Hmm, we know what that means. Days before the Times article, some INN members tried banning the Israeli flag or any pride flags with Magen Davids from Washington’s Dyke March.

These sleights of hands and oversights rest on a bigger distortion – the barrage of claims that young American Jews are abandoning Israel.

“The Birthright protests… highlight a generational divide,” the Times reports, noting: “Just 6% of American Jews over the age of 50 believe that the United States gives Israel too much support… while “that view is held by 25% of Jews aged 18 to 29, the cohort that goes on Birthright trips.”

What an odd way to report data. We’re supposed to despair that four times as many young Jews reject Israel; but if 100 minus 25 is 75, perhaps 75% of this supposedly alienated young generation love the Jewish state and its generous American friends?

Here’s the real story: Birthright Israel, the 21st century’s most successful Jewish educational intervention, has been bridging the gap between Israel and the Diaspora with a light touch, an open, ethical approach and dedicated staffers. It must be forever responsive – adjusting, fixing, reimagining – without being reactive. And its secret ingredient – beyond the amazing participants who open themselves up to start thinking about captaining their own Jewish journeys, with no strings attached – is that magic resource Edelstein identified, the Jewish story, especially when discovered in the Jewish homeland.

The writer is the author of The Zionist Ideas, an update and expansion of Arthur Hertzberg’s classic anthology, The Zionist Idea, published by the Jewish Publication Society. A distinguished scholar of North American history at McGill University, he is the author of 10 books on American history, including The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s. The views expressed here are his own.

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Originally published by The Jerusalem Post on June 19, 2019 Foundation Banner Holders in the 2019 Celebrate Israel Parade
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