Over the last month, a great deal of press has surfaced about two aspects of the Birthright Israel program that has cast an unnecessarily negative shadow on a program that has been incredibly successful in achieving its goals.
In one case twice in the last month two groups of participants left the program in the middle of their visit to Israel to visit Palestinian families and to “hear the other side” as they put it because they felt the Birthright program was not providing the full spectrum of life experiences in today’s Israel.
The other case has seen representatives from the leftist group If Not Now, harass students at New York’s Kennedy Airport as they embark on their Birthright trip telling them that they will not get the “full story” on their visit and even urging them not to participate.
To put this in perspective it is important to understand the purpose of Birthright Israel. Birthright Israel began with a bold idea—offering a free, life-changing trip to Israel to young Jewish adults between the ages of 18 and 26 and, in doing so, potentially transforming the Jewish future. The mission of Birthright Israel is to give every Jewish young adult around the world, especially the less connected, the opportunity to visit Israel on an educational trip.
Founded in 1999 by a remarkable group of committed Jewish philanthropists led by Charles Bronfman and Michael Steinhardt, Birthright Israel aims to strengthen Jewish identity, Jewish communities, and the connection with Israel and its people. Birthright Israel seeks to ensure the future of the Jewish people by strengthening Jewish identity, Jewish communities, and the connection with Israel via a trip to Israel for the majority of Jewish young adults from around the world. Their hope is that these trips will motivate young people to continue to explore their Jewish identity and support for Israel and maintain long-lasting connections with the Israelis they meet on their trip. Afterwards they encourage their alumni to take active roles in Jewish organizations and to participate in follow-up activities worldwide.
Since its inception in December 1999, over 600,000 participants have taken part in Birthright Israel. They represent 67 countries, all 50 U.S states and Canadian provinces, and nearly 1,000 North American colleges and universities.
Participants, when they accept this all-expense paid trip to Israel, are made aware of the objective of the program, which is to strengthen Jewish identity and attachment to Israel. By accepting this “gift” participants also, perforce, undertake the obligation to abide by the rules of the program and follow the schedule provided. Nobody is forcing them to sign up, nobody is saying they must go, but by accepting the gift, they have an obligation to follow the group’s rules.
It may well be that the Birthright program does not tell aspects of the Israel story that leftist groups such as If Not Now, Jewish Voices for Peace, Code Pink, and their ilk would like them to tell. However, they do not have to. The people who put up the money for the program, and make it available to those who want to participate have the right to set the agenda just as the potential participants have the right to choose not to enroll. Nevertheless, once they enroll logic would dictate that they are obligated to abide by the rules.
Sadly, the core problem is a generational one. Today’s young people, motivated, intelligent, socially aware and committed to significant personal achievement, have been raised in an environment where the single most important thing is to get their needs met regardless of any social or organizational norms that many of us were brought up to respect. As such, even though the Birthright participants take the gift, agree to abide by the rules, and come to Israel, some feel it is perfectly ok to demonstrate their disappointment in the curriculum by walking out of sections of the program. However, they do not have the right to do so unless they are prepared to suffer the consequences. Birthright in such cases has every right to terminate their participation and send them back to their home countries, perhaps even at their own expense given that they have, in legal terms, broken their contract.
In democratic societies, there are ways of changing the rules. To do so, you get actively involved in an organization, work your way up in the leadership and, through process, change an organization’s direction. The only excuse for protest of the type described here is if people are being discriminated against, put at risk or are being held back from voicing their opinions. But to agree with the terms and conditions of the contract, accept the benefits and then object to the very same conditions once you have received the benefit thinking it is your right to do so is simply, for want of a better term, selfishness bordering on stupidity
Birthright’s success has clearly exceeded the expectations of its founders and has, for most of its participants, raised their level of Jewish identity, increased their commitment to Israel and even, in some cases, resulted in the building of more Jewish families. Young people who want something else out of their Israel experience than what Birthright offers, should choose another vehicle to travel here rather than demonstrate against what has proven to be an amazingly successful experiment in building Jewish identity.