Seeing Israel Transparently and Holistically in Ten Days: It’s Possible. Sort of.

A few weeks ago, Ha’aretz published an article criticizing the scope and educational content of Birthright Israel trips, arguing that participants don’t get to interact with the real Israel, instead seeing a “romanticized” and idealized “Jewtopia” that is carefully constructed by the trip organizers to gloss over the truth of life in Israel.

In the article, author Leah Molayem writes that,

“While Taglit offers an undeniably unique opportunity that encourages Jews who have never been to Israel to learn more about their historical roots, it is important to recognize the one-sided conditions under which participants are introduced to Israel, and ultimately depart with an understanding and appreciation that deviates from reality.”

While I can’t speak for all Birthright organizers – and I was disappointed to read that Molayem had an unengaging experience on her own trip – I was immediately taken aback by her thesis. I’ve been fortunate enough to lead a number of Birthright trips through the Reform movement, and happened to have just returned from leading one the day the article was published. My own first trip to Israel was also with Birthright. Her description is the polar opposite of what I’ve experienced on all trips.

It is true that each trip organizer has its own focus and paradigm, and the Reform movement’s trips by nature are certainly more inclined to cover a wider swath of Israeli society, providing a holistic and mostly transparent view of daily life there. I’ll also grant that a ten-day trip can only cover so much; by nature, Birthright is intended to be an introductory experience.

But do all Taglit trips present a “one-sided” view of Israel where participants “ultimately depart with an understanding and appreciation that deviates from reality”? Let the experiences recorded here testify to the falsehoods of these accusations.

Molayem writes that she “found that the Arab-Israeli conflict, socioeconomic divisions and the ethnic and religious rifts within Israel are carefully avoided in discussions by the trip organizers, who work tirelessly around the clock in an attempt to create that Jewtopia.”

It is unfortunate that Molayem didn’t have the chance to engage with these important issues. A URJ-Kesher Birthright trip engages with each of these issues, and more. Participants visit an Arab-Israeli village for a dialogue at a Mosque and in the home of a villager, tour the separation barrier, volunteer in a poor neighbourhood of Ethiopian immigrants, explore the difficulties of life for the northern Druze population, and interact with members of Israel’s progressive Jewish community, discussing religious pluralism.

I don’t want to turn this post into a brochure for one organization’s trips, but do want to highlight that the very lacunae that Molayem identifies are a central and significant part of the Reform Movement’s pedagogy on its trips. This is important and should not be ignored. There are organizations that provide an enriching, engaging, and holistic view of Israel.

Of course, given the laws of physics, there really is only so much that you can see, do, and talk about in ten days. And of course, a good chunk of time on the trip takes advantage of the fun and entertaining activities Israel offers as a tourist destination. But Molayem is dead wrong in her characterization of Birthright participants as “tourists.” On a URJ-Kesher trip, it’s emphasized that participants are pilgrims, engaging with a land they already have a deep-seeded connection to. The purpose of the trip is to let those seeds begin to grow into a stronger tree. Does that tree fully grow on the trip? Of course not, it’s only ten days! But it certainly pushes up through the ground and begins to flourish.

Molayem – to her credit – concludes the article with a number of suggestions of issues to engage with to improve the Birthright experience: daily life in Jaffa, the Haredi sector, and gender-equality at the Kotel. What she failed to realize is that there are trips that are already doing this, and doing it well!

Don’t want to take my propaganda at face value? I highly suggest reading the eloquent blog posts written by a participant of mine, Angela, summarizing her own experience. You’ll see it’s the antithesis of the trip Molayem describes.

You can read her reviews here and here.

You may also want to read Brandeis University’s research and report on the long-term impact of Birthright.

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9 thoughts on “Seeing Israel Transparently and Holistically in Ten Days: It’s Possible. Sort of.

  1. Having staffed or been a participant with three different providers I can say that the trips are all surprisingly different from each other. Every trip has their strengths and weaknesses, but I think all providers strive to do what she says is missing. That being said, on the most recent trip I staffed, several of my participants complained that they weren’t getting a real view of Israel, but their reasoning was that they weren’t getting to experience what life was like in Israel for people our age. There’s only so much you can do in 10 days, but luckily Taglit offers the opportunity to extend your trip – something I think participants should take advantage of in order to get the most out of the experience.

    • WordPress isn’t letting me respond to your post on the Palestinians, so I’m responding over here…

      No, there’s no Birthright trip that (during the trip) meets with Palestinians. Is your point that there should be? I have a few thoughts on that…

      1. While the trip itself doesn’t meet with Palestinians, it certainly does engage with the “issue” of Israel’s relationship to Palestine and Palestinians. We do a pretty good job of teaching about it, I think, taking people on a tour of the separation barrier and visiting a checkpoint.

      2. To be fair to Birthright, the stated goal of the trip isn’t about engaging with Palestinians, it’s about engaging with Israel. That said, I think showing as much as possible about Israel is important, and the Palestinians are an inextricable part of the story right now.

      3. Even if there was an official mifgash (I don’t know the Arabic word for encounter) with Palestinians, I don’t know if one could find Palestinians that would want to join with a group of North American Jews who were on an all-expenses paid trip to Israel to claim their birthright… Though I don’t want to make any assumptions, it’s my initial guess that it would be hard to find a group.

      What do you propose would happen during such an interaction? What would the goals be, and what do you think would take place?

      I’ve talked about this with people before (one of my participants asked the same question). I don’t know if it’s a good idea or a bad idea yet, but it’s still an idea I think is worth thinking about!

  2. Engaging with Israel without engaging with Palestinians is only engaging with part of Israel.

    Could you find willing Palestinians? There’s an entire organization that arranges for trips for Jewish professionals based on the assumption that you can find such Palestinians. It’s called Encounter (encounterprograms.org).

    I don’t know what would happen or should happen. I don’t think I have the expertise to speak on that.

    • “Engaging with Israel without engaging with Palestinians is only engaging with part of Israel.”

      -Agreed!

      Encounter isn’t Birthright, though, it has an entirely separate mission, which is why it works. The very nature of Birthright’s mission might preclude it from working well.

      • I’m not trying to equate the two programs. I’m trying to say that Birthright is a dangerously imbalanced program in most cases and could do with a little dose of Encounter-style programming.

      • I think Birthright must find itself in a sticky situation. It wants to expose its participants to the “real” Israel, but it also has to create a wide tent for its trip providers to operate within. Add to that political and security considerations, and it’s a messy pot!

        Is Birthright dangerously imbalanced because it doesn’t go to Ramallah? Is it imbalanced because it doesn’t go to Qalqilya? Is it imbalanced because it doesn’t interact with Palestinians?

        Like I said before, I don’t think that these would necessarily be bad things for Birthright trips to consider, but I also don’t know if they fit within Birthright’s stated mission.

        Which isn’t to say that Birthright shouldn’t consider rethinking its mission…

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