Birthright Israel is learning how awkward those teenage years can be.
Eighteen years after its founding, the free, 10-day trip for Jews ages 18 to 26 has long been the popular kid in school. Simple math shows that it is approaching $2 billion spent on the $3,000 trips for more than 600,000 young adults since its founding. This year alone, about 48,000 people will go on Birthright, requiring annual fundraising of nearly $150 million.
Jewish Atlanta did its part to support and celebrate the program with the annual Atlanta event for the Birthright Israel Foundation on Monday night, Nov. 6. Doug Ross, who heads the Atlanta Birthright council and serves on the foundation’s national board, was deservedly honored at a St. Regis gala that featured a speech by Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, Danny Danon.
But like any popular teen, Birthright is subject to nasty rumors spread by those who want to seek it knocked down a peg or two. As with real teenagers, such lashon hara (evil talk) can do real harm.
In September, we criticized the wrongheaded Return the Birthright campaign launched by the virulently anti-Israel group Jewish Voice for Peace. JVP aims to use young American Jews’ unhappiness with the plight of the Palestinians to undermine a program that takes no political position on the outcome of the conflict — other than the firm belief (opposed by JVP) that there must be an Israel, regardless of whether it has a Palestinian state as its neighbor.
The problem with the JVP call to boycott Birthright isn’t the threat to Israel, which isn’t the primary beneficiary of the program, but to American Jewry. Above all, Birthright is about strengthening Jewish identity and thus ensuring continuity in the Diaspora.
Birthright isn’t perfect, of course, but it does work. To its credit, the program’s leadership continues to tweak and adjust to improve the experience in Israel and the communal connections back in the United States.
One such effort, launched two years ago, is a geopolitics educational track meant to provide more intentional interactions with Israeli Arabs. This pilot program didn’t mark the first or only opportunities for Birthrighters to meet and learn about Arabs, who make up more than a fifth of Israel’s population. They would be hard to avoid, and Diaspora Jews would reject Birthright if it tried to keep them away from Arabs and the realities of Israel as well as its ideals.
But the participants gave mixed feedback on the new program, so Birthright suspended it for re-evaluation and improvement. The head of Birthright’s education committee, Gil Troy, wrote in Haaretz: “We’re perfectionists in Birthright. We reevaluate any program that gets mediocre feedback.”
Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the head of the Union for Reform Judaism, embarrassed himself and Birthright with an ill-informed statement Nov. 1 in which he misrepresented Birthright as an out-of-touch organization trying to sell a Disneyfied version of Israel. Fortunately, faced with explanations from Birthright leaders, he backed off the criticism two days later and pledged to work with Birthright and its “extraordinary experience.”
It’s a good outcome: As American Jews, we need the in crowd to be as big as possible, with everyone playing nicely together.