It’s summer, which means that Israel is hosting scores of young American Jews touring the country as part of the Taglit Birthright program. But this is no ordinary time for a visit, and Birthright participants have requested to alter their itineraries and allow them to attend the funerals of IDF soldiers killed in Gaza during Operation Protective Edge. This is a particularly poignant request given the fact that one of these soldiers, Max Steinberg, is a Birthright alum. The organization, however, remains unmoved, refusing to allow its members to witness the fallen soldiers’ last rites.
“This is a new subject, and so we had no prior policy,” said Taglit Birthright’s CEO, Gidi Mark. “We’re inclined to prohibit [participation in soldiers’ funerals], because attending requires understanding the context of what’s going on here, and this is their first visit so they lack this understanding.”
It’s kind of Mark to want to spare the tender feelings of the brittle American fledglings under his charge, but the decision—and the logic that propels it—are both misguided. Of all the sites one might witness in Israel, a soldier’s funeral requires the least context. It is tragic in part because of how lacking it is in nuance: it always tells the same blunt story, that of a young life sacrificed to defend the Jewish state from very real threats to its existence. Anyone even remotely interested in Zionism—which, presumably, describes all of Birthright’s participants—realizes that instinctively.
So, please, spare no one’s feelings. Birthright is such a powerful program precisely because it provides a direct, however mediated, experience of Israel. Let the young visitors, then, soak it all in, but let them also see the price we have to pay.