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Breeding Zionism

Is the Birthright Israel tour designed to foster a love of Israel or is it simply a chance to hook up?

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Birthright group at the Dead Sea, 2006. (Another Group Pic! by Brandon Steinmetz)

If you read Tablet and are less than 30 years old, there’s a pretty good chance that you have first-hand knowledge of the subject of Shaul Kelner’s new book, Tours That Bind: Diaspora, Pilgrimage, and Israeli Birthright Tourism (NYU Press). Since it was launched in 1999, the Birthright Israel program has brought hundreds of thousands of college-age American Jews to Israel for short educational tours. In terms of scope and cost, this is one of the biggest Jewish philanthropic initiatives in effect today, and as its biblically resonant name suggests, it has high ambitions. At a time when, as Peter Beinart has influentially argued, young American Jews are increasingly disaffected with Zionism, Birthright hopes to convince them that both Judaism and Israel are an inalienable part of their identity.

Does it work? And what exactly happens on those tours? These are two of the questions that Kelner, a professor at Vanderbilt University, sets out to answer. Kelner himself went on a similar “Israel Pilgrimage” in 1987, sponsored by the Conservative movement’s United Synagogue Youth, and to write this book he tagged along with several Birthright tour groups and conducted surveys of participants. The anecdotes he shares from these trips make up the richest, and often the most revealing, parts of Tours That Bind.

But as an academic sociologist, and a practitioner of “tourism studies,” Kelner is concerned not to sound simply personal and anecdotal. Partly for this reason, and partly because of the nature of the academic monograph, Tours That Bind is for long stretches highly abstract and theoretical, with much translating of fairly straightforward ideas into conceptual jargon (e.g.,“Premised on the actual placement of physical bodies in tangible locations, tourism’s materiality ensures that the conceptual distancing of tourist and toured can never be absolute”). Not, plainly, a book for a general audience, it still offers some intriguing insights into a phenomenon of considerable importance in the American Jewish community.

At the heart of Kelner’s inquiry is a suspicion that must be shared by many people who hear about Birthright, and probably many people who go on it: Is it a kind of indoctrination? The very fact that the program is free for participants—funded by individual philanthropists, community groups, and the Israeli government—makes the question plausible. [Editor’s note: Tablet’s parent organization, Nextbook, Inc., has partnered with Birthright in the past and may do so again in the future.] Everyone knows there is no such thing as a free lunch: Is the price of this one adherence to a particular political line? “In light of the common assumption, shared by proponents and detractors alike, that state- and community-sponsored tours of Israel are a means of enlisting Diaspora Jews as partisans in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” Kelner asks, “should we not expect the [tour] guides to ignore Palestinian points of view, to present only the Israeli government’s perspective, and to discourage tourists from expressing dissent?”

Kelner’s answer is no, and for several reasons. First, he shows, the program guidelines emphasize that Birthright trips—which, though funded by Birthright, are organized by other groups, especially Hillel—are meant to be educational experiences, not political ones, and the tour guides seem to take this seriously. In fact, Kelner shows, much of the value of a student’s experience depends on the personality and principles of the guide she is assigned. He tells the story of one guide, Ra’anan (all the names in the book are pseudonyms), who takes a group of young people to the “separation wall” that divides Jewish and Arab areas near the Gilo neighborhood of Jerusalem. The Israeli guide goes out of his way to explain both the Israelis’ perceived need for the wall, to stop suicide terrorists, and the Palestinians’ justified resentment of it. “The reality today [is] that if I’m an Arab farmer,” Ra’anan explains, “I want to go to my plantation, I need to go through a security checkpoint because of the security fence that those Israelis built to me.” (Here, as throughout the book, Kelner reproduces speech literally, both Israeli grammatical mistakes and the torrential “likes” used by the Americans.)

Still, Kelner observes, this admirable even-handedness exists within the fundamentally Jewish and Israeli orientation of the tour. The students hear about Palestinian grievances from Ra’anan, not from a Palestinian who is actually affected by the separation wall. In general, Kelner writes, they are introduced to many facets of Israeli life—nature preserves, army bases, discos, restaurants, beaches—but hear about Arabs only in the context of “the conflict.” As he puts it, “even in the most balanced of scenarios … when the discourse paints both Israelis and Arabs in shades of gray, the experience of Israel, and Israel alone, occurs in 3-D Technicolor with Surround Sound.”

This is less a criticism than an observation of the nature of Birthright tourism. More intriguingly, Kelner writes about the way Birthright revises, and in a sense contradicts, traditionally Zionist ways of thinking about the land of Israel. As he explains in his first chapter, there is an old Zionist tradition of using experience of the land to inculcate Jewish patriotism. In the Yishuv, an important rite of passage for young pioneers was tiyul, a rigorous hiking expedition “premised on the idea that yedi’at ha’aretz, ‘knowing the land of Israel,’ would breed ahavat ha’aretz, ‘love for the land of Israel.’ ” “Tiyul,” Kelner writes, “was not so much an act of teaching information about the land … as it was an act of sacralizing the homeland”—and also gaining familiarity with a terrain that might one day need to be fought for.

It is a long way from tiyul to the kind of activities Kelner shows us in his anecdotes about Birthright tours. The difference is not simply that American Jewish teenagers, at least the ones he writes about, are not interested in rigor, preferring to travel on air-conditioned buses and shop for souvenirs. It is that the whole premise of Birthright is opposed to the classical Zionist idea that Jews, to flourish as Jews, must settle in the Jewish State. Birthright trips are round-trip, not one-way; as Kelner provocatively puts it, “since the program’s inception, it has funded the departures of almost 200,000 Jews from the Jewish state.” Really, the tours are not Zionist enterprises but “diaspora-building” ones, meant to increase Jewish consciousness among American Jews once they return to America.

For this reason, Kelner spends a good deal of time observing the interaction of tour participants with one another, not just their responses to their Israeli guides. What he finds is not surprising, but it is still a little discouraging: Like all American teenagers, American Jewish teenagers tend to be ignorant about the world and saturated with pop culture. For all his neutrality, Kelner can’t help sounding annoyed when he hears students respond to an Israeli’s talk about the Palestinian intifada with jokes about “the enchilada.” If Birthright programs do not indoctrinate students with any one belief system, the book suggests it is at least partly because they aren’t paying enough attention.

Like most teenagers, too, Birthright tourists are also clearly more interested in sex and drinking than in politics and religion. Kelner notes that the programs are practically designed to encourage hooking up, among the participants and between Americans and Israelis—especially American women and male Israeli soldiers, during the “cross-cultural peer-to-peer encounters known in Hebrew as mifgashim.” (Female soldiers, Kelner observes, are not nearly as interested in the male tourists.) No wonder it has earned the nickname “Birthrate Israel”—which is, come to think of it, not a bad description of the program’s ultimate goal.

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This is an interesting theory.

Having been on two or three very similar trips (although not Birthright itself,) to Israel, while the implicit goal may be tourism and ahavat haaretz, the result is indeed indoctrination into a type of Zionist ideology that can sometimes be hard to shake unless you have very strong critical thinking skills. I am not against Zionism; in fact, I remain a Zionist and active in the Israel community long after the trips, but on the trips I went on, no mention was made of the Palestinian experience or of any faults that Israel had internally.

The country was presented as a shining tourist pamphlet free of wrinkles and full of hot soldiers for both guys and girls to check out, and naturally, made us all want to make aliyah as soon as possible. It was only after I completed a 3-month internship in Tel Aviv that I started to exercise, with difficulty, more critical thinking skills about how Israel works with respect to the West Bank, why the Israeli government mistreats some olim, why, if Israel is supposed to be for all Jews, my particular Jews-Russian olim-were hated and made the butt of jokes frequently, and why Israelis are such awful drivers (including me when I drive in Israel).

That’s what the trips are meant to do: bind you to Israel and whet your thirst so that you later discover for yourself what you want later on. They succeed extremely well. But I wouldn’t disagree that they tend to make participants view Israel with heavy Zionist blinders that shield all of Israel’s faults. But in times like this, we need all the fans we can get. In time, alumni figure out to think for themselves.

I just met a young pharmacist at my local Target who was recently on a Birthright trip. He said that it was a (and I’m reading into it that it may have been his first) positive experience with Judaism in general. I was uplifted to hear someone not affiliated with organized Jewish life say that.
My sister has been a volunteer chaperone (not a tour guide) on several Birthright trips. She attests to the general teen/post-teen party atmosphere, and now only attends the older 22-25 year olds. That cohort (which I’m assuming my pharmacist friend was in), she says, has more questions, more interesting conversations, and less hooking up, which is certainly not to say none at all!

Ariel Dybner says:

Israel is much much more than the Palestinian conflict or the conflict with Iran and it’s great that so many American/diaspora teens are getting to see that. Therefore, doesn’t it seem ludicrous (a) to believe that you could get Jewish pro-Israel philanthropists and the State of Israel to support bringing hundreds of thousands of young Jews to Israel in order to give them an “even-handed” view of the Israel-Palestinian conflict, (b) to think that any but the most boring, politically-inclined people would want to go on these “even-handed”, no hooking-up, no drinking trips, and (c) to think that there would be much of a market among American Jews for trips that make stops in Ramallah, Jenin and Gaza. Shock – teens like to hook up and drink and most don’t care that much about politics. Good for birthright for taking the world as it is, not as some anti-Zionists or “even-handeds” would like it to be.

Michelle Ahronovitz says:

At the end of this summer, I will have traveled to Israel because of the Birthright program. I feel that these claims, while true for a select number of participants, are over-generalized and presented in a very negative light. For many, Birthright is one of the only opportunities to travel to Israel, let alone for free.

As a former USYer, I am familiar with other trips such as “Israel Pilgrimage”. I know that these trips currently cost up to $8000 and finding scholarships is very difficult. All the traits of the Pilgrimage trip can be applied to Birthright, simply with an extended agenda (they are there for up 5 weeks rather than 10 days).

Another facet I disagree with is the so-called “disinterest” and political indifference and focus on hooking up and partying. I cannot speak for all participants, but based on the educational sessions that I have had with members of my trip, there is not necessarily that solid foundation of Israeli history and political knowledge, therefore many of these young Jewish teenagers simply do not feel comfortable formulating opinions with no prior knowledge. Also, hooking up between Jewish teenagers will occur regardless if they are in Israel or not. Teens have the opportunity to meet and connect with other Jewish teenagers. If hooking up is a side effect of that, so be it and it is not something I can control. It is not the purpose of this trip, however, to hook up and I am insulted to be placed into this generalized category.

Perhaps the trip will not give me the “bigger picture” and I will only see the brighter side of Israel, but I have chosen to take it upon myself to remain informed on the issues of the Israeli conflict, its politics and other facets beyond what technicolor presence I am shown. I’ve waited 19 years to have the opportunity to travel to Israel and I, like many others, plan to take full advantage of it.

I felt that the points of Kelner’s book, as summarized here, were based more on opinions rather than facts.

Ilan Chaim says:

After seeing some 200,000 birthright participants come and go over the years, I am still of the opinion that this program is a colossal copout on the true nature of what Diaspora Jewish youth are really entitled to by birth: fundamental Jewish literacy. Most birthright participants are abysmally ignorant of their Jewish heritage, because they have been denied a decent Jewish education by their parents and, by extension, the entire Diaspora leadership. A few misguided philanthropists are attempting to assuage their guilty consciences by funding an “educational tour” of Israel in the absurd belief that these kids’ “lives will be changed forever” by a 10-day free party. Of course most birthright participants will get a momentary boost to their Jewish identity from their superficial feel-good experience in Israel, but this will ultimately be worth what they paid for it–virtually nothing.

Rifka says:

Vicki says:
“I am not against Zionism; in fact, I remain a Zionist and active in the Israel community long after the trips, but on the trips I went on, no mention was made of the Palestinian experience or of any faults that Israel had internally.”

Come on Vicky, I suspect that you know more about “the Palestinian” experience than you do of the Israeli experience.

You are just another Jew trying to follow what is hip right now, and being pro Jewish or pro Israel isn’t hip.

The whole article is premised on the assumption that people going to Israel are ignorant and only what they are told. This is far from being the case.

David says:

I was a participant on the first Taglit-birthright Israel experience in the winter of ’99-’00. I was a Freshman in college and I will admit til the day I leave this earth I was not mentally ready for the experience. It was cool, sure, but I did not leave with ahavat ha’aretz, as you list in this post here. Since that time, I have been to Israel 4 additional times, 2 of them being to staff a Taglit experience. I think a critical thing to remember is that the Israeli “guides” as they are called here. They are tour educators, a guide is someone who tells you where you are and what you’re looking at outside your window. The tour educators are exceptionally bright and (mostly) charismatic, really working with bus staff (ideally) to maintain a high level of excitement throughout the 10 days of the birthright experience.

College students are notoriously fickle people, and their attention spans are limited at best. Since this is largely their first time in Israel in this sort of context, you can only imagine the distractions that staff and organizations have to deal with. It all comes down to the trip organizer. Some do it better than others. I’m biased towards my trip organizer because I went with them, I think their program is the most comprehensive and most educational. Others, are not. Fact.

Some alumni come home and tell me that all they did was drink and go out clubbing and hook up. Fine, 18-26 year olds do that. They want to meet people, drink and have sex, it’s part of life. However, of the hundreds of students I’ve taken to Israel over the years, all have gone drinking, some have hooked up (or married even), but ALL learned something, and ALL are passionate Jews because of the experience. In my opinion, there is nothing more valuable than this experience.

I also think it’s shortsighted to minimize mifgashim as grounds for hookups. They provide such a unique view of life in Israel that to call them hookup sessions disgraces the IDF and program.

As an Israeli I must agree with the earlier comment. Israel is much more than the Arab-Israeli conflict. Most Israelis don’t give much thought to Arab-Israeli conflict. We are busy raising our families and earning a living. It would be as if if on a tour of the USA participants were disappointed that there was not more discussion of the war in Afghanistan or how the United stole the southwest from Mexico in 1848.

simkhe says:

I had the misfortune of flying to Israel on my last trip there amid a plane-load of Birthright youngsters. They were extremely loud, rude, inconsiderate, foul-mouthed: shocking, actually. I politely asked a young woman standing in the aisle and leaning over me and shouting to talk to her friend by the window whether she would be willing to change seats with me because I was trying to sleep. She told me I had no right to sleep in “the Birthright section” if they, the “future of the Jewish people” felt like talking. The adult guide in the group backed her up. Astonishing. Members of the group ran up and down the aisles, threw things to each other, shouted -with no consideration whatsoever of other passengers. I agree with some others posting here that it is a shame that many of these young people have so little Jewish education. Even worse that they have so little courtesy and thought for others. I fear the Birthright trip only gives them MORE of a sense of entitlement. I could hardly expect kids like this to think about the point of view of Russian olim or Thai guestworkers or Palestinians or anyone else the guides may or may not discuss or expose them to.

Emily says:

I went on a Birthright trip a few summers ago and while I admit that the program is flawed in some ways, I absolutely agree with many of the prior comments that Kelner’s and other readers’ descriptions of teens on these trips is entirely judgmental and at many times, insulting.

One major feature of the Birthright trip which is not discussed here is the option of extending your trip for many more weeks (I think the limit is 6, but I’m not sure) for only $50. While I didn’t take advantage of this because of a summer job and some homesickness, around a quarter of students on my trip chose to stay in Israel long after our trip. Some of these students stayed with friends or family or in hostels but many stayed with the soldiers we had met on our trip through mifgashim. I have heard that this time period, during which they immersed themselves entirely in Israel and poked around without much guidance or direction, was by far the most valuable part of the Birthright experience for these students, and the majority of them developed ties to Israel that clearly will bring them back to show their family, friends, or future generations how Israel made them feel.

I resent the repeated accusations that “all” kids drink on the trip, and that “most” hook up or have sex with each other. The experience is certainly completely unique to each participant, and while some (like me) admittedly did not absorb enough about Israel’s history or present, the belittling of having a “feel-good experience” in Israel is unfair and insulting. The experience that I had was beautiful and poetic and moving, and I have taken away from it much value and pride.

Steve says:

Birthright??? Perhaps just call the trip “Entitlement”…gee a free trip to a country where the legal drinking age is 18, sounds good. “immersed themselves entirely in Israel”…give me a break. “All are passionate Jews because of the experience”…even the BR self-studies don’t make that claim. It seems to me that the BR fans protest too much. How dare this professor look critically at a program that has such good intentions…we all know where they lead!

I am sorry, but only an idiot would consider it indoctrination that a Jew should identify as a Jew.

I met my boyfriend on Birthright and we DIDN’T “hook-up” until a year after the trip itself. Now it’s been a year and we’re planning on marriage. Word.

rebecca says:

oy. ezeh balagan.

went with the first wave in 2000. liked a boy but he didn’t like me.

rifka, i think you came down a bit hard on vicki. there is a problem in the diaspora with glossing over the realities in israel. acknowledging them doesn’t make a person anti-israel. it was a high level israeli official who came to speak at our shul who told me israel monopolizes cell phone coverage in the west bank, for example, and water management, and other things, causing lots of trouble for regular people who don’t deserve it. we need to talk more openly about such things. the problem is going away?

michelle–enough with the big words. trust me, university profs don’t like them. try to relax a little before your trip. try hooking up maybe! i should talk….

Shalom Freedman says:

Does Adam Kirsch want the organizers of ‘Birthright’ to bring young Jewish students to the home of Raed Salah of the ‘Northern Movement’ who will as a genuine voice of Palestinians living in Israel, tell them that there never was a Jewish Temple, and that all these ‘Europeans’ should go home to Germany, Poland and wherever else they came from? Does he want them to know the real Palestinian reality by speaking with Arab members of Knesset who are openly hostile to the Jewish character of the state?
Why does Adam Kirsch imply that Jews are wrong to focus on the culture of the great majority of Israelis who are in fact Jewish?
Why should we be the only people in the world who so bend over backwards to see the other side that we neglect to really see and know our own?

I went on such a trip last year and I find it a great way to get laid!!

Hey, you used to write magnificent, but the last few posts have been kinda boring… I miss your super writings. Past several posts are just a little out of track! come on!

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Breeding Zionism

Is the Birthright Israel tour designed to foster a love of Israel or is it simply a chance to hook up?

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