Birthright Israel’s education department recently announced that all providers of its signature 10-day trip to Israel for young Jews must stop including meetings with Israeli Arabs in their programming.
The move has hit a nerve. It has brought out the raw feelings surrounding the funders of the program, those who safeguard the educational content and those who lead the largest segments of the US Jewish community.
Birthright continues to be a crown jewel in the crown of US Diaspora relations. Given Birthright’s prominence, both in terms of costs, impact and cultural significance, it should not come as a surprise that people care deeply about what trip participants are exposed to.
Gil Troy, the chair of Birthright’s educational committee, in his passionate response to Rabbi Rick Jacobs’ press release on the decision which called Birthright “out of touch,” couches the adjustment of the program as a result of evaluative feedback rather than a rejection of the values of shared society:
“We’re perfectionists in Birthright. We reevaluate any program that gets mediocre feedback… When our Beit Midrash (religious study hall) tanked, we didn’t oppose Jewish learning. When our entrepreneur track sputtered, we didn’t stop celebrating Israel as “start up nation.”
While I’m sure that it was internal evaluations that lead to the adjustment, Israel’s relationship with its minorities is more than a little different from the virtues of the “start-up nation” or the values of Jewish textual learning. While the aim of Birthright is to connect unconnected Jews to themselves, there is an ethical question of whether or not one can ignore the impact the Jewish nation state has on its non-Jewish citizens. To what extent does the efficacy of the Birthright experience trump the ethics of editing Israeli Arabs out of Israeli society?
There are 1.8 million Arab citizens of Israel, a full 21.6% of the population of Israel, according to the latest census data. They are an essential part of the story.
I don’t envy the curriculum authors or the educators on the ground. Birthright participants are not blank slates who soak up whatever they are told. Participants come with their own array of ideas, political assumptions, experiences and backgrounds. Trying to get anything to stick on a 10-day emotional and hormonal visit is extremely hard. Arab citizens of Israel, however, are an essential part of the story of Israel — and how the Jewish majority relates to them is a test of our values on a national level.
Rather than assume that Birthright will forever ignore the complex relationship between Israel’s Arabs and Jews, I do think that they will continue to attempt to find a way to address this issue. The organized Jewish community in the US and UK provide a workable model worth considering.
The Interagency Task Force on Arab Israeli Issues (and its UK equivalent) have for years been bringing together the major forces in the diaspora Jewish community, from federations, to advocacy organizations and funders, to have a deep understanding of the realities of the situation of Israel’s Arab minority. Together, a subgroup created the Social Venture Fund, now run by the Jewish Funders Network, which finds the best and brightest organizations working on these issues and collectively gives to them.
An educational module crafted by these organizations, and adapted for the different types of Birthright trips could provide credible, and at times challenging, programing that the heart of the organizational Jewish community supports. It could provide the follow up bridge for the Birthright alumni to get involved, if they so chose, to access these issues with expert information and giving circle opportunities.
Another option is to connect Birthright groups to programs that are supported by the US government. A little known fact is that the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) is one of the largest funders of shared society programing in Israel through the office of Conflict Management and Mitigation. Here groups can visit organizations vetted and supported by Uncle Sam, who are working on a range of issues spanning education, employment, sports, technology and environment.
Again the experience would not have to stop when the trip was over, with Birthright alumni being able to convey their experience to their Congressional representatives, having seen first hand what the US is doing in the Israel.
The more taut the relationship between the US Jewish community and the Government of Israel becomes, the greater the friction on the signature program between the two communities. In today’s Israel, coexistence is not an apolitical concept and we would be foolhardy to assume that programs that create a shared society would be entirely uncontroversial.
Yet rather than abandon the hard educational challenge, this crisis can be converted into a showcase of how the U.S., both as a country and a Jewish community, are tackling this complexity in a ways that can both educate and connect the most unconnected among us.