Birthright Israel: As political as chopped liver

Does Taglit-Birthright Israel have a political agenda? Questions about Birthright’s content have come to the fore, magnified by intense debate about Israel and, perhaps, as a consequence of the program becoming a rite of passage for Diaspora young adults. The questions are not new, and from the time the first planeload of participants landed in Israel, observers have been looking for the political agenda. But political agendas are more in the mind of the spectators than a part of the program itself.

To regard Birthright trips as “political” is to misunderstand the program’s goals and how it educates. Birthright is unabashed in its focus on promoting Jewish identity, peoplehood and love of Israel. By regulations reinforced by voluminous guidelines, its educators are required to offer apolitical, “balanced messages.” The overarching point is that identification with and love of Israel does not require support of a specific political position about Israel. 

The Hebrew name of Birthright Israel, Taglit, literally means “discovery.” What participants discover is not a political position on settlements or international negotiations; rather, it is their personal relationship to the Jewish people and connection to their heritage. Birthright may be political in that it has a particularistic focus to connect Jews with Judaism and with other Jews, but this is no more subversive than an effort to deepen family relationships. This ambitious undertaking helps a generation of young Jews develop self-confident connections to the Jewish people and to Israel.

The content of Birthright programs is fixed in terms of core themes, but the specifics of what is taught varies. Although this flexibility suggests that the door is open to politicization, participants are empowered as learners. In educational philosophy terms, Birthright is John Dewey-inspired experiential education. The program teaches by allowing participants to experience Israel and to appreciate their heritage through interaction with others. It engages a participant’s “heart, mind, and body” and utilizes peers, as well as formal educators, as teachers.

Operationally, Birthright works through trip organizers (TOs) who develop specific curricula. TOs are certified by Birthright, which sets standards and evaluates the process and outcome of the trips. Individual TOs handle the logistics and details of educational programming. The TOs represent a diverse group of public and private educational organizations. Although they differ in philosophy, by accepting Birthright’s support, TOs accept the pluralistic educational goals of the program.

The Birthright journey lasts for 10 days, enough time to stimulate participants’ connection with other Jews and develop a sense of Israel. The trip is about engaging with other Jews in the context of Israel, not about teaching specific content. From a social psychological perspective, the trip serves as a cultural island that allows participants to unfreeze and reform their attitudes about being Jewish.

Although most trips are designed for participants regardless of background and interests, some trips are more specialized. Thus, group itineraries might be tailored to individuals from a particular campus or community, those who are athletic and interested in hiking or biking, or those studying law or medicine. Political ideology is not a factor, and young adult Jews are eligible based on age, lack of prior educational experiences in Israel and acceptance of program rules.

The educators who serve as trip leaders are central to Birthright’s success. The experienced guide knows when to talk and when to walk, when to let group dynamics evolve and when to intervene, when to lecture and when to discuss. The best guides are role models who live their love of Jews, Judaism and Israel. In many cases, participants never discern their trip leader’s political orientation. 

At the core of every Birthright journey is a mifgash (encounter) with Israeli peers. Mifgashim take place over five to 10 days of the trip and enlist as co-participants up to eight young Israelis, most of whom are still doing their army service. The peer-to-peer learning made possible by engaging young Israelis is, perhaps, Birthright’s most potent educational tool. By creating personal connections, participants gain insight into the Israeli polity. Diaspora Jews begin to understand that there is a diversity of views among Israelis, and that the political situation is far more complicated than many previously believed. 

Of course, every guide and educator has a set of personal views — left, center and right — and some express them in spite of the regulations. These views are more than mitigated by the mifgash experience. Any group of young Israelis will reveal a spectrum of Israeli views. The late-night conversations among these peers sort out many contemporary issues, including those that are “political.”

The claim that Birthright is hasbara (propaganda) and not hinooch (education) is at variance with how the program is organized and what has been observed with thousands of participants. No doubt, each participant — and each observer — views Taglit through his/her lens. Some of these lenses are political, but the program is about Jewish identity, not the resolution of conflicting Israeli and Palestinian claims. The three key elements of identity — knowledge, emotion and behavior — are all substantially impacted by the experience.

Birthright is counter-cultural — particularistic in a universalistic world, with programming that tackles issues of identity and group commitment. The program has created a new paradigm, a new way for Diaspora Jews to relate to Israel, that emphasizes connections among people, not mythology or ideology. In an era where political diversions are ever sharper and destructive, it is a breath of fresh air and a sign of hope for the future.

Leonard Saxe is Klutznick Professor of Contemporary Jewish Studies and director of the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University; Jeffrey Solomon is president of the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies.