Eyal Clyne writes a powerful blog post about the Birthright and Israel Experience youth “education” programs, which have brought several hundred thousand Diaspora Jews to Israel. He begs Jewish mothers to refuse to send their children on these trips:
I ask this as an Israeli, who is trying to make Israel a better place, who served his country, and continues to struggle for a better society, for peace, for human rights…Please, don’t send your children to Birthright Israel (“Taglit“), The Israeli Experience, or any similar project.
I am certain that those of you considering this step have nothing but the best intentions, and that you have a high regard for Israel and us Israelis…I wish to show you what these projects really do, and why they do it. These programs may have some positive sides, but on the whole…they are…highly destructive.
The first thing that needs to be said…is that ‘Taglit’ is a political project, with militant and militaristic undertones. Think about it, would you send your teenage child to summer camp, if it was run by acting military officers inside an army facility? I am guessing that most of you would be rather suspicious of the aims of such a camp…Birthright, by invoking a sense of emergency, conveys the implicit message that whatever happens in Israel…is a true emergency, and through this sense of urgency pressures your child into becoming a Yes-Man to any policy, present or future, with no discussion, argument or thought. It…portrays us as always right, no matter what.
As an Israeli, I am deeply perturbed to admit that such programs do succeed in casting many young Jews into the impossible and unfair role of loyal advocates for Israel. By telling these youngsters that ‘they are Israel’ they are manipulated into giving up individual identity…and instead are encouraged to accept and support Israeli policy unconditionally. To give up one’s individual critical faculty is…problematic, to say the least.
Israeli politicians and generals are only human, they make mistakes like the rest of us, and like the rest of us, they should be held accountable…By having been given such blind and unconditional trust and support for so long, it has become almost impossible for concerned Israelis to voice earnest and loving criticism of Israel without being silenced.
…I often find that this picture they [tour participants] have of Israel (and me) is a mere construct. It’s an abstract image, or a collage of well-known Israeli figures and institutions like the Kibbutz, the army, holy places, the dead-sea, some news-feeds, and maybe a few relatives. This image is not however the Israel in which people live their everyday lives and struggles. The Birthright experience is not the ‘Israeli experience’ of an Israeli. The Israel many of them carry in their heads is a myth.
…Birthright is cynically using young people’s need for a collective identity symbol. It presses the buttons of fear abroad to serve the concrete political aims of the ultra-nationalists, in my home. These projects, which have vast resources from the state, the Jewish Agency, benefactors and participants, serve the most militant actors in Jewish Israeli society. This is the sector that bags for more cannon fodder, for unconditionally supportive ambassadors, for immigrants to join the baby-count race (aka ‘the demographic balance’), that looks for funding of wars and settlements.
The trips are financed by wealthy right-wing American Jews like Michael Steinhardt and Shelly Adelson, who believe that offering a child a free trip to Israel and indoctrinating them in the wonders of pro-Israelism will bolster Jewish identity, attack the issue of assimilation, and strengthen support for Israel among Diaspora Jewry.
I haven’t read any serious academic research which confirms the untested premise behind this project. If Steinhardt or Adelson bought a new business doing as little due diligence as they seem to have done on this their competitors would eat their lunch. Which only goes to show that even hardened businessmen relax or abandon their standards when it comes to personal issues like religion and politics.
Clyne’s post was inspired by a compelling new documentary, Israel LTD, by Israeli filmmaker Mor Loushy. She somehow persuaded the Israel Experience to allow her to film a tour. Maybe they expected positive PR to result. If so, they’re bound to be deeply disappointed by the results which you can see in this trailer.
There are several remarkable portions of the video: one is the display of pictures of anonymous Arabs by counselors to the tour participants. These pictures are as close as any of these teenagers will ever get to a real Arab on their trip. A picture…of a vaguely threatening Arab with a bushy moustache. That’s it. That’s the Arab part of the Israel Experience. There might just as well not be any in Israel as far as tour leaders are concerned.
If you want to give your child a well-rounded view of contemporary Israel you’re better off looking into Birthright Unplugged, which an antidote to Birthright; and which will actually allow you to meet both Israeli Jews and Palestinians and not treat the latter as if they are some exotic plant infesting the Israeli garden.
Silverstein has published Tikun Olam since 2003, It exposes the secrets of the Israeli national security state. He lives in Seattle, but his heart is in the east. He publishes regularly at Middle East Eye, the New Arab, and Jacobin Magazine. His work has also appeared in Al Jazeera English, The Nation, Truthout and other outlets.