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

Adam Kirsch
June 15, 2010
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.

Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.

Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.