Making a Homeland, Constructing a Diaspora: The Case of Taglit-Birthright Israel

May. 06, 2017

Source: Political Geography Volume 58, Pages 14–23


The study of diaspora policies in political science, international relations, and political geography has moved away from conceiving diasporas as bounded entities to conceptualizing diasporas as a process to be made. One body of literature maps different strategies employed to bond diasporas to their country of origin, while another body of literature pays specific attention to diasporic identities and the ways such identities are reproduced and constructed abroad. This article seeks to bring these two literature together by focusing on homeland tourism as a diasporization strategy, i.e. the construction, reproduction, and transmission of diasporic identity. Through the case of Taglit-Birthright – a free educational trip to Israel offered to young Jewish adults – the article identifies the specific mechanisms and micro-practices used in order to transform Israeli territory into a Jewish homeland, reproduce the narrative of dispersion, and demarcate group boundaries.

Incorporating insights from theories of territorialization and based on the program's educational platform and existing ethnographies of Taglit-Birthright, this article unpacks the notion of the homeland and demonstrates how the homeland itself – as an embodied, affective, and symbolic site – is strategically used in order to cultivate diasporic attachments.

This article has explored the mechanisms of diasporization - the construction of diasporic identity - in the context of homeland tourism. Focusing on Taglit-Birthright as a case study, the article has examined the strategic attempt to make a homeland and produce a diaspora, identifying the micro-practices involved in this process. First and foremost, the program seeks to create a meaningful emotional experience that will “last a life time”. Second, through stories and physical engagement, the program tries to make a foreign land familiar to the participants. Instead of only hearing about Israel from parents, teachers, or the news, the participants experience Israel firsthand, albeit mediated and filtered to a certain degree by the trip organizers and the tour guides. The bounded and tangible character of the territory concretizes the stories told during the tour and catalyzes the communal experience. Third, performing Jewish rituals aims to anchor the participants in the past and provide them with Jewish skills and knowledge to be used in future Jewish interactions. Fourth, the participants in the various Taglit-Birthright tours experience more or less similar itineraries. Thus, they share similar cultural references with other Jewish non-Israelis who participated in previous tours and with Jewish Israelis who share similar knowledge from the Israeli education system. The importance of the encounter with Israeli tour guides, students, and soldiers who accompany the tour is emphasized by the educational platform of the program as a way to develop friendships and foster discussions about identity. Thus, in addition to individual memories, emotions, and connections to the land and the people, the program seeks to create a sense of collective memory and crystallize group boundaries. Homeland tourism provides a useful analytical point for a conversation between the literature on diaspora engagement and the literature on diasporic identities. On the one hand, the article shows the conscious choices made by Israeli and North American elites in the attempt to produce a homogenized diasporic identity surrounding the notion of Israel as a Jewish homeland. On the other hand, rather than assuming a diasporic identity to be “targeted,” this study unpacks the discourses, embodied practices, and affective tools involved in the process of making a diaspora. Thus, the article contributes to international relations scholars as well as scholars of political geography.

Updated: Jan. 17, 2017