An Open Letter to the Jewish People About Birthright-Israel and Israel Education

Jun. 02, 2021

Source: The Jewish Journal


Throughout the social and political conflicts, Birthright-Israel has remained a delightfully counter-cultural and non-partisan organization. We’re in the Jewish identity business, not the business of politics. We’re playing the long game: welcoming everyone into a 3,900-year-old conversation about our people, our faith, our homeland, and ourselves, as well as into a 73-year-old conversation about our Jewish democratic state and our Jewish communities worldwide.

Eighteen months ago, refuting unfair criticism that Birthright was overly-partisan, we commissioned a special survey asking whether participants find that Birthright provides “a supportive environment for the exchange of ideas and opinions.” A stunning 83.1 percent agreed, while 85.8 percent said the trip included “opportunities to express my thoughts and feelings.” Eighty percent confirmed that they had been given “an opportunity to think critically about Israel’s challenges.” Few organizations get such impressive feedback. In fact, even America’s top-tier universities don’t invest what Birthright does in surveying students and responding to their views.

While preparing to visit Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, Masada and the Dead Sea, participants should also come ready to listen and learn, discuss and debate. Despite jumping from place to place, Birthright participants still have an opportunity to absorb, sift, process, and yes, question, challenge, and disagree in thoughtful, respectful and sensitive ways. The intention is not to impose viewpoints but to jumpstart conversations by asking open-ended questions rather than offering closed-minded answers.

The range of different life experiences on each bus guarantees a diversity of viewpoints. The dynamic discussions that follow often launch deep, meaningful and meaning-seeking identity journeys. But this process requires open minds and humble hearts, not marching orders from the trip organizers or the participants.

When I meet participants, I often invite them to ask me the tough questions about Israel, Zionism, Jewish-democratic issues and Palestinians. “If we don’t talk about it here,” I say, “within the family, how will we ever learn?” I encourage them to continue to find what Birthright-Israel’s International Vice President of Education Zohar Raviv calls “Safe and Brave Spaces” to discuss Israel, Zionism, Judaism and every other topic that concerns them.

Simplistic (and sometimes insulting) analogies mislead. For example, comparing America’s racial reckoning or South African apartheid’s race-based bigotry to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict distorts reality and inflames tensions. The complexity of Israeli-Arab and Israeli-Palestinian relationships isn’t connected to skin color: it’s a clash of nationalisms. We in the Israel Education world need a racial de-coupling, to disentangle the story of Israel and its neighbors from the story of America and its races.

Instead of viewing Israel through the perspective of our individual realities, we encourage travelers to see Israel through its own unique lens that helps them understand the complexities that Israelis navigate on a day-to-day basis.

Read more at The Jewish Journal.


Updated: Jul. 15, 2021