Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The goals of Birthright Israel

Post at Tablet on Birthright Israel, by Adam Kirsch, reviewing Shaul Kelner's book, Tours That Bind: Diaspora, Pilgrimage, and Israeli Birthright Tourism.

An older post from Phoebe Maltz also discusses Birthright.

Both suggest, Phoebe in her particular experience, and Kirsch in reviewing an academic work on the tours, that Birthright Israel is not about indoctrinating kids into Zionism. Kirsch:
It is that the whole premise of Birthright is opposed to the classical Zionist idea that Jews, to flourish as Jews, must settle in the Jewish State. Birthright trips are round-trip, not one-way; as Kelner provocatively puts it, “since the program’s inception, it has funded the departures of almost 200,000 Jews from the Jewish state.” Really, the tours are not Zionist enterprises but “diaspora-building” ones, meant to increase Jewish consciousness among American Jews once they return to America.
And every time Birthright comes up, someone, soon enough, will refer to "Zionist brainwashing." This could be the case on some trips, but the one I went on was far more devoted to convincing wary American Jewish guys to embrace (literally, figuratively) American Jewish girls - and, in the person of IDF soldiers, to convince American Jewish girls of the potential of Jewish masculinity - than it was about anything to do with our surroundings.
I'm sure some Birthright tours are Zionist brainwashing, but probably those would be the ones where the kids (well, young adults, and perhaps the parents as well) were looking for that particular experience. Which means it's not exactly brainwashing, then.

To reduce Birthright tours to Zionist brainwashing is to be unable to relate to Jews except as "Zionists." It stems primarily from the idea that Jewish narratives of the conflict are artificial and fake. That they must be propped up by powerful (and cynical) interests.

Like most teenagers, too, Birthright tourists are also clearly more interested in sex and drinking than in politics and religion. Kelner notes that the programs are practically designed to encourage hooking up, among the participants and between Americans and Israelis—especially American women and male Israeli soldiers, during the “cross-cultural peer-to-peer encounters known in Hebrew as mifgashim.” (Female soldiers, Kelner observes, are not nearly as interested in the male tourists.) No wonder it has earned the nickname “Birthrate Israel”—which is, come to think of it, not a bad description of the program’s ultimate goal.
If my group took anything away from the trip relating to Israel in particular, it was probably that the country's drinking age is under 21. The whole thing might as well have taken place in Montreal. Israel was at best a picturesque environment, one from which we had to be shielded by a security guard and rules preventing us from wandering off on our own for ten minutes because OMG terrorism. What I'd like to see isn't indoctrination, just more discussion of Israeli history, contemporary life in Israel, and so forth, including but not limited to the conflict, and less pleading instruction on how to be a Jew in America.
In desiring more focus on Israel, including discussion of the conflict, Phoebe is being so very Zionist. I am, too, but I don't really have a problem with such tours if people like them. Then again, I never went on one.

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