Forward Thinking

My Advice for Birthright? More Palestinians

By Michael Kaplan

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Taglit-Birthright Israel

Birthright’s worried. Registrations are dwindling and young Jews are growing disinterested in the free 10-day trip to Israel.

Over a period of three years, applications have dropped more than 17%. To compensate for the downturn, the group has started to ease its “Jewish” definition and dig into its years-old wait lists. It’s also hired a marketing firm to help with outreach.

As one of those former Jewish day school students who opted against taking the trip, I can probably help Birthright save a lot of money by offering a little friendly advice — no marketing firm needed.

Let’s start with the fact that a survey of 800 “low affiliated” eligible-aged Jews found that more than half were wary of enrolling for the free trip because they feared that it would be too religious or that there would be too much pro-Israel propaganda.

For years, the organization, which tries to foster a love for Israel among Jews, has transported young adults in buses, accompanied by armed soldiers, through one of the most contested pieces of land on Earth.

At the same time, treated like elementary school-aged children, participants aged 18 to 26 are shielded from the harsh consequences of the country’s controversial political policies, like its occupation. “Big concrete wall to the left? Look to your right — a beautiful, 300-year-old tree.”

Each tour operator is required to offer three hours of content a day on a range of topics, like technology and business, arts and culture, or government and politics. Guides might provide necessary and basic information on the “Palestinian side,” but participants don’t even speak with Palestinians or see the West Bank. And no, an exotic camel ride and an overnight stay with a Bedouin — the kind who supports the Prawer Plan to displace his people, and therefore represents a conveniently pro-Israel minority — don’t compensate.

Birthright CEO Gidi Marks thinks the solution to the enrollment crisis is more focus on modern Israel. “My goal is to triple or quadruple the amount of time on modern Israel,” he said.

That’s probably a better idea than another hour-long memorial over the grave of a notable Israeli figure whom most had never heard of, but it really all depends on what sort of content Marks plans to encourage. And I have a feeling we probably differ on what constitutes the right approach.

If you want my advice: more Palestinians, more checkpoints, just more reality. College students are learning about it in classes, seeing it on TV, and hearing about it on campuses. Why not let them see it and understand the complexity of it all while they’re there?

Understanding the complexity and nuances of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is not going to turn each young participant into a Norman Finkelstein. Quite the opposite, they will be better equipped to maturely discuss knotty issues on campuses and hopefully work towards true peace and reconciliation in the future.

By shielding participants from the hardships faced by Palestinians, Birthright is breeding a generation of young Jews unprepared to understand the harsh and complex consequences of Israeli policies. When they inevitably do learn about the reality of the conflict, that’s what’s going to drive them away.

Birthright’s real strength has always been in the experience of visiting the land itself, not the actual content of the trip. But offer more critical information, less “stand with us” propaganda, and I think you’ll find Jews, skeptical of the pro-Israel bent, flocking to see what this place is all about.

And in the end, they’ll go home not only with a greater, more mature understanding of the conflict, but also a greater appreciation for the land and its struggles.

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