Birthright Is Co-Opting Our Future

04.23.13 9:30 PM ET

“It’s complicated.” That was what my Birthright tour guide said when I asked him if Hebron was actually in the State of Israel. It was what he said when someone asked a question about the shabbiness of Bedouin villages in the Negev. It was what he said when we were gazing out over the Old City and East and West Jerusalem from the Haas Promenade. Whenever questions of conflict or civil rights were raised in group discussions on my Birthright trip, he was ready with this all-purpose answer.

Birthright proudly proclaims that it is not a political organization, and that it does not have political goals or programming. Program officials, including CEO Gidi Mark, insist that it is therefore inappropriate to suggest or expect that Birthright trips delve into the political tensions—both internal and external—that Israel experiences.

Avoiding politics, dismissing politics, being “apolitical”—these are political decisions. Birthright does have a political agenda, young American Jews do have political significance, and though the issues really are complicated, the way they were discussed on my Birthright trip was consistently one-sided and simplistic. The particular political lessons Birthright wanted me to take away from the experience were obvious. From the moment our plane landed and we were given a map without the Green Line or any acknowledgment of a border between Israel proper and the occupied territories, to the moment we stood at the edge of the Negev seeing Palestinian towns in the distance and were told to appreciate the beauty of the Judean Hills, it was impossible not to come away with the message that Eretz Israel, the Greater Land of Israel, rightfully belongs only and exclusively to Jews.

This message was not delivered with much subtlety. The one opportunity we had to hear about the conflict or the occupation was a short seminar with Neil Lazarus, who speaks to many Birthright groups. Lazarus presented himself as an impartial figure, with a concern for Israel and Jews. He is nonpartisan only in the most elementary sense—he does not explicitly advocate for one of Israel’s 34 political parties. 

His politics, however, were most evident in his discussion of past negotiations.  Despite long-standing majorities rejecting subsidies to settlements, despite broad support for a two-state solution including settlement evacuation, and despite Abbas’s intimations that he is willing to give up a right of return (his biggest bargaining chip), Lazarus said that the refugee issue was the primary obstacle to peace. He then went on to strongly imply that the “right of return” was part of a nefarious Palestinian plot to take over all of Israel with more Arabs than Jews and make Israel another Islamic theocracy in the Middle East. One could argue this was simply one perspective offered on the trip. Yet Birthright’s political project is clearly on display at the “Mega Event,” a big get-together of all the trips in the country at a given time. At the mega-event I attended, we were addressed by Miriam Adelson, wife of the key Birthright funder and Bibi Netanyahu and Mitt Romney mega-donor Sheldon Adelson. She told us that when Israel is “threatened,” she wants us to call the White House and call our Members of Congress. Considering the Adelsons’ far-right politics (at a Mega Event last year, Adelson declared to the crowd that “the Palestinians are an invented people”) it was clear what she meant. She meant that we should be paving the way for military action against Iran. She meant that we should be ensuring that there is no daylight between the U.S. and Israel—even when Israel proposes building settlements in E-1 that many argue would spell the end of the two-state solution.

The consequences of Adelson’s constituency building are real. In Congress, where approximately three billion dollars of aid to Israel is appropriated every year, there is little knowledge of the debates that play out within Israel. On Capitol Hill there is the same surface-level engagement we experienced on the trip. “It’s complicated” is bipartisan code for a refusal to ask difficult questions—I’ve heard a United States Senator say he was confused by criticism of the settlement project in the West Bank because he had been to a settlement and it was “just neighborhoods where people raise their families,” unaware that they are a primary obstacle to a two-state solution. Birthright is attempting to create a generation of people who will echo these points to their representatives, ready to tell their legislators they feel protective of Israel, but who have only a tourist’s scant understanding and experience of the country. 

When Gidi Mark compares Birthright trip participants to a weapons system, calling us “insurance” purchased by the government of Israel for the State’s future, he tacitly admits the political agenda he then denies. But the sad reality is that without being honest—without exposing us to the diversity of political thought and personal experience here—Birthright undermines its central goal. If the organization truly cares to build lasting ties between Israel and the Diaspora community, Birthright must invite young American Jews to engage with Israel’s full political reality, rather than avoiding it or—as the case is currently—masking a far-right political agenda as not political at all. If the essence of Zionism is to that the Jewish people should have a place where they can shape their own future, removing or simplifying the politics of Israel during Birthright is tantamount to basic educational negligence. Only when Birthright embraces Israeli politics in all its complexity and divisiveness will they be serving the essence of the Zionist dream.