Birthright Israel
June 26, 2008 3:10 PM   Subscribe

Birthright Israel, funded by the Israeli government and Jewish philanthropists, provides free all-inclusive 10-day trips to Israel for Jewish young adults. The program's goal is to promote Israel along with general Jewish unity and engagement. The blog Jewlicious has a category about these trips. (Scroll down past many promotional entries for the interesting stuff.) Some question its efficacy and results, while some Jews subvert the program. The trips end with a "Mega Rally" featuring entertainment, giant inflatable Stars of David, and speeches by dignitaries including PM Ehud Olmert. Here is video coverage (FLV) of the most recent rally. There is also a satirical Something Awful report.
posted by TheOnlyCoolTim (43 comments total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Oops, I meant ...a "Mega Event," a rally featuring... just to be correct about what it's called.

Also, the official site promises fuller video coverage of the various Mega Events but I either got 404s or Hebrew error messages.
posted by TheOnlyCoolTim at 3:13 PM on June 26, 2008


That said, as a Jew, I think this is one of the worst periods in history to be luring in potential citizens and supporters via religious nationalism, national religion or any other creepy and dangerous methods.
posted by Cat Pie Hurts at 3:21 PM on June 26, 2008

I have a friend / law-school classmate who is going this summer. The free trip is tempting, but I hate being propagandized.
posted by grobstein at 3:36 PM on June 26, 2008

The crowd at the Latrun tank museum (the site of a major battle in the 1948 War of Independence) was pumped from the outset with uptempo Israeli music blaring, to get them in a celebratory mood...

The dramatic highlight: after a short film clip about a young Israeli soldier, Assaf Hershkowitz, from a canine unit who had to leave the Canadian group he was touring return to his unit the day before, a helicopter appeared in the night sky. It circled over the crowd, then appeared to land just behind the stage, and Assaf soon trotted onstage with his dog at his side as the crowd roared its approval.

Asked by HarPaz if the dog, Vosko, did any tricks, Assaf answered, "well, he can find bombs."

And this is designed to get people to move *to* Israel?
posted by stinkycheese at 3:42 PM on June 26, 2008

it's a good investment, you fly in a lot of kids and even if very few of them, if any, will make aliyah anytime soon, a majority of them will support Israel more, even financially (the irony that the majority of American Jews, ie Reform Jews, are actually considered Goyim by the immensely powerful Israeli Rabbinate -- or, for that matter, by the Israeli President, among many others -- is a different matter, obviously). it's like the GI bill, only much cheaper and creating much more revenue.
posted by matteo at 3:46 PM on June 26, 2008 [1 favorite]

Looks fun, but probably not worth converting over.
posted by Slap Factory at 3:52 PM on June 26, 2008

As a way lapsed Jewish atheist, I never cease to be embarrassed by this kind of nonsense.

As an American, I really want to know when and how Israel became the 51st state.
posted by fourcheesemac at 3:54 PM on June 26, 2008 [2 favorites]

Went. Hated it. The only thing worse than being propagandized is being propagandized while a hoard of whining, self-righteous, snobby JAPs (male and female) eats it up all around you.

Every time I hear someone talk about how much their Birthright trip instilled a "love" or "connection" with Israel, I want to smack them in the face. It teaches you nothing about Israel or Israelis or what life in Israel (or the wider Middle East) is like. During the two weeks I was in Israel with Birthright I had the opportunity to meaningfully interact with about four Israelis (and they were Israeli soldiers, who toured the country with our group). The entire time you are surrounded by other American Birthright participants. It's as though they transport Long Island/New Jersey/Philadelphia into Israel for a week and a half.

Oddly enough, being surrounded by several hundred Long Island Jews at the Western Wall, Yad Vashem or Masada takes something away from the experience.
posted by jckll at 3:55 PM on June 26, 2008 [4 favorites]

This sounds sort of like when you get offered a free weekend break in return for a “short” talk about timeshares…
posted by Artw at 4:05 PM on June 26, 2008 [4 favorites]

We have tanks!
posted by Avenger at 4:12 PM on June 26, 2008

The Merkava IS kind of awesome.
posted by Artw at 4:21 PM on June 26, 2008

The Merkava IS kind of awesome.
posted by Artw at 7:21 PM on June 26 [+] [!]

Ok..I'll give you that. In the late 80's, I went to this high school in Israel program, and we got to crawl all over one. As much as I'm a pacifist and in strong disagreement with the practices of the Israeli govt., that thing is all kinds of badass.
posted by Cat Pie Hurts at 4:40 PM on June 26, 2008

So this trip, they could maybe accept not so young people?
posted by hojoki at 4:52 PM on June 26, 2008

I'm a Jew who's lived in Israel and this would be my personal hell. In fact, the girl who ran these things offered me a spot and there was just NO FUCKIN' WAY.
posted by gman at 5:09 PM on June 26, 2008

I did the Catholic birthright tour a couple years ago, but there is only so much you can do for ten days in Vatican City.
posted by Falconetti at 5:28 PM on June 26, 2008 [2 favorites]

I've been on one of these. Granted, I went with graduate students who were maybe a little less insane than the typical triptakers would be, but I found it to at least be fun: you go for hikes in the wilderness, eat falafel, and get to see lots and lots of countryside from your bus, all for free. As a cigarette aficionado, I enjoyed the chance to try Israeli brands (they're fucking awful). We also got to visit museums and various historic sites like Masada and the Crusader Castle in Acre, and to buy some kitschy Israeli merchandise like Na-Nachman stickers and some nicer religious paraphrenalia. I can't complain about the experience from this perspective.

All in all you are indeed basically floating on an American/Canadian raft around Israel. The language barrier is a serious concern; my attempts to strike up conversations with people fell flat on their faces when my subjects recognized my poor Hebrew and flat accent as being American and they immediately switched to a bizarre, unnatural style in an attempt to get me away from them. The only thing I learned for certain is that Israeli drivers hate the fucking tour busses.

As a member of the vast Zionist conspiracy, I can't say that I was "indoctrinated" per se, but I can imagine people with a bit more left-leaning of an approach to things would be annoyed by the speakers they had us listen to.

Certainly it tries to be more than it is: it is essentially a guided tour package that claims to give you an understanding of the Middle East, but really a college course might be more useful for that. Nevertheless, if you don't go into it expecting a life-changing experience or even to really see Israel qua Israel, you might be able to enjoy yourself if you like being a tourist.

(apologies for any spelling mistakes, my computer is currently set to German mode)
posted by Electrius at 6:13 PM on June 26, 2008 [2 favorites]

Yeah, I don't really understand the hate here. It's a PR effort, sure, but what's wrong with that? As another lapsed Jewish atheist, it's a free trip. I haven't gone yet, but my brother did, and his experience was pretty much like Electrius'.
posted by Sangermaine at 6:19 PM on June 26, 2008

My cousin was one of those volunteering with the international Solidarity Movement and subverting the program. He blogs about his experience here.
(Which is not to say that I agree with his politics completely, but I am impressed by his convictions.)
posted by Jeanne at 7:05 PM on June 26, 2008 [1 favorite]

If I may Jeanne, your second link didn't work for me. I was intrigued though, and managed to find the blog entry here. Thanks for that, it was interesting.
posted by stinkycheese at 7:20 PM on June 26, 2008

I'm trying to wrap my head around how, exactly, this is the action of a democratic nation.
posted by brain cloud at 7:21 PM on June 26, 2008

I'm trying to wrap my head around how, exactly, this is the action of a democratic nation.

I honestly don't understand where the conflict is, could you explain? If Poland encouraged the children of its foreign workers in Western Europe to visit their homeland and tried to sell them on returning or appreciating Polish heritage would Poland no longer be democratic in your eyes? Maybe you mean something other than "democractic."
posted by Falconetti at 8:36 PM on June 26, 2008

I'm trying to wrap my head around how, exactly, this is the action of a democratic nation.

Surely this is totally legitimate. I strongly object to many Israeli actions but this isn't one of them at all. Why is it undemocratic?

And they get to see Merkavas. If the Catholics had tanks half as cool as that they'd get more people on their tours. The Varangian Guard is cool and all, but a Merkava, that's an impressive bit of kit.
posted by sien at 9:02 PM on June 26, 2008 [1 favorite]

Those nasty "Zionists"... forcing you to go on their eeeeevil brainwashing trip. Oh wait.

Yeah, hang on, let me get my tiny, tiny violin.
posted by Krrrlson at 9:09 PM on June 26, 2008

Just for some perspective, I understand that almost all of the funding for Birthright comes from private Jewish foundations and so on, not the government.
posted by Marquis at 9:21 PM on June 26, 2008

According to Wikipedia, there's also Birthright Armenia, Palestine and Ireland.
posted by nir at 9:35 PM on June 26, 2008 [1 favorite]

Jeez I wish that my ancestors had been fucked over enough so that I would qualify for a Birthright tour. Unfortunately being half English and half Spanish just means that I'm swarthy without recourse. At least I speak nicely.
posted by ob at 9:51 PM on June 26, 2008

Seriously though, I do remember hanging around with a group of friends who were arguing about who was Jewish enough to qualify for this. They all seemed to think that it was a chance to go over and bang Israeli chicks. I'll disillusion them.
posted by ob at 9:55 PM on June 26, 2008

ob - like so?
posted by Artw at 10:07 PM on June 26, 2008 [1 favorite]

half English and half Spanish

Well, you'd certainly have the makings for a good "places we've fucked over" tour.

ME too, FWIW, and I'm just rocking the English part.
posted by Artw at 10:09 PM on June 26, 2008

ob - like so?

Yeah. I actually knew a woman who had been an Israeli sniper. I liked her but I found myself drawn to agreeing with everything she said.
posted by ob at 10:36 PM on June 26, 2008

Well, you'd certainly have the makings for a good "places we've fucked over" tour.

Yeah I know. My ancestry is basically a fascist's wet dream.
posted by ob at 10:44 PM on June 26, 2008

who was Jewish enough to qualify for this.

All my friends in college tried to get me to go with, and I'm only the biggest shiksa you ever saw. I didn't, which is probably a good thing, because I'm that kind of shiksa, with the shimmies and the shondas, iykwim.
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 10:57 PM on June 26, 2008 [1 favorite]

You know, you might be tempted to keep the family tradition going by marrying someone, I don't know, German or Russian or Japanese, maybe French, but I think you should give serious consideration to a Belgian. They're only small but the whole Congo thing is an example of a country punching above it's weight in terms of oppresion. Also: Good Eurostar access, beer, Waffles.
posted by Artw at 11:27 PM on June 26, 2008 [3 favorites]

I went on this trip about a year and a half ago. I had a fairly lovely time, but I had no pretenses going in that they weren't going to try and indoctrinate the whole lot of us. And I'd be lying if I said it didn't almost work.

I was lucky. I had two friends to come with me. I'm regularly pretty outgoing but I feel like I would've been lost without them, and I think it was a pretty mutual feeling. The two girls that came with me, I met through overlapping circles of queer/art/bike/punk kids, and we were kind of coming from a weird place within those communities. Our friends were these radicals who thought that Israel was completely evil, and cruel to the innocent Palestinians at every step of the game, whereas most of our families were Zionists who never faltered in their support, and considered all Palestinians to be cruel terrorists, that at all times were attempting to wreak havoc on Israel. we were stuck somewhere in between.

For the most part we were a lot less conservative, both socially and politically than the rest of our group.There were a couple weirdos on the trip with us, but for the most part our trip mates were North Shore kids (the Chicago equivalent of Long Island Jews) - moneyed, secular, and oddly casually racist against Arabs. Not to say that they were all like that, but they all had elements of the stereotype in them. If I didn't have my friends with me, I think i would have been the oddball, the complainer, the one dissenting voice, but with three people picking and choosing their battles, it wasn't obnloxious. None of us seemed contrary, and we had each other to confide in,to roll our eyes at or be sarcastic, or whine to until we got to know the rest of our group. I think that if I was the gay one, instead of it being two girls, it would have been weird, but it wasn't.

The propaganda was more subtle than I'd expected. Instead of it being anti-Palestinian or pro-settlement or pro-war or pro-wall, it was just pro Israel. They would give us a little history lesson on the bus, and then guide us through a waterfall or a canyon or up a mountain, and we'd all sit down, tired, sweaty, watching the sun set and they'd reiterate how beautiful a country it was. Maybe they'd mention something about irrigation, how beautiful a country we'd made it. Maybe they'd mention the wars that brought the Jews to this place, or this place to the Jews, how hard we'd fought/been fought for this beautiful country, and there really wasn't any argument to be had.

There was also no time to really process information. Every day it was the same routine: pack up all of our shit, a couple hikes, a museum or a group game (summercamp type of shit), get to the new hotel/kibbutz/camp site, unpack our shit, some speeches/discussion/prayer and then they'd let us go, winkingly encouraging us to get drunk and fuck each other (the goal of the trip isn't just to make more Zionists, but to make more Jews).

Parts of the trip impressed me. even though I hate most of the actions of the Israeli military, I like the way it's set up. I'm sure I can be proven wrong, but mandatory service seems to help break down class barriers among Israelis. The soldiers I spoked to all seemed to believe that Israel and Palestine would be two countries living side by side in the near future, and that this would be right and necessary (whether or not they actually believed it would be successful), and it gave me a lot of hope.

The part that surprised me about myself, was how much I enjoyed being around other young Jews. I've always been a spiritual person but never very religious. I would go into a synagogue and see a bunch of people who dressed well and knew what they were doing, they would turn their prayerbooks to the right page, and know when to sit or stand. They were Jews, and thus I... wasn't really. Here, I was praying with the same people I was getting shitfaced with the night before. Some knew what they were doing and some didn't. They were certainly Jews, and they weren't any better than me. This part had a profound impact on my two friends, who have both taken to going to alternative shuls, hosting seders and Friday night dinners. They are more complete people now that they have figured out what to do with this reigion they've been saddled with and it's beautiful to see, even if they were too hung over to go to the beach at sunrise on shevuot.
posted by elr at 12:35 AM on June 27, 2008 [1 favorite]

I spent a year in Jerusalem, which is overrun with the same variety of naive, ethnocentric, and utterly self-righteous gang of privileged Jews from the United States who had never thought to consider the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from an alternate point of view or question the cliches and cant that they were being fed. Most of them were on programs that, like Birthright, were designed to further entrench their existing assumptions, prevent marriage to a non-Jewish spouse, and create a new generation of lifelong AIPAC donors.
posted by foxy_hedgehog at 1:33 AM on June 27, 2008

winkingly encouraging us to get drunk and fuck each other

See, I was looking for something about this facet for the post but all I found was a bunch of wink wink nudge nudge references.
posted by TheOnlyCoolTim at 3:03 AM on June 27, 2008 [1 favorite]

You know, you might be tempted to keep the family tradition going by marrying someone, I don't know, German or Russian or Japanese, maybe French, but I think you should give serious consideration to a Belgian. They're only small but the whole Congo thing is an example of a country punching above it's weight in terms of oppresion. Also: Good Eurostar access, beer, Waffles.

Ha! Two things:

1) Belgium is one of my favorite countries (despite the appalling colonial record that you mention although as we've discussed, I'm in no position to point the finger) the food is great, the beer is divine (I can take or leave the waffles)

2) I married an American...

In short, I find your arguments intriguing and would like to subscribe to your newsletter.
posted by ob at 6:35 AM on June 27, 2008

If the Catholics had tanks half as cool as that they'd get more people on their tours. The Varangian Guard is cool and all, but a Merkava, that's an impressive bit of kit.

Um...the Varangians guarded in the Byzantine Empire, which certainly wasn't Catholic. They were Vikings, more or less.

Did you mean the Swiss Guard?
posted by QIbHom at 7:06 AM on June 27, 2008

2) I married an American...

Oh me too. TBH that should do wonders for the tour, and get in some places with really nice food, but we need to wait a little while for the proper post-colonial vibe and it'll need lots and lots of footnotes.
posted by Artw at 8:44 AM on June 27, 2008 [1 favorite]

Wish I had known about this when I was younger! I'm neutral on the whole Israel thing but I'd go in with an open mind, and probably leave with one too. It sounds like the trip could be a real drag, but I would have probably found a way to make it fun...
posted by illuminatus at 8:54 AM on June 27, 2008

It's really not that bad. Or at least it wasn't for me. Like Electrius, I went with a grad-student age group. They were explicitly open to anyone who identifies as Jewish, regardless of religious beliefs, and once I got there, I didn't feel the need to hide the fact that I do not subscribe to Jewish religious beliefs (I was actually worried about this a lot before I went). They were extremely up-front about the fact that they hope some of us will want to move to Israel or at least give support at some point in the future. Having said that up front, they didn't actually do a whole lot of proselytizing. They seemed to be depending on the experience itself to do most of the talking, knowing and accepting the fact that some of us were never going to be all that charmed and even a large majority of those who were enchanted would never do anything about it. Perhaps some of the other trips came across more obnoxiously. For me, it was essentially just a 10-day guided tour of Israel. The Mega Event is not always part of the trip (it wasn't when I went). Yes, you can probably have a better time if you don't go on a guided tour like this, but even a backpacker staying at hostels and flying standby is going to pay a helluva lot more than I did.
posted by ErWenn at 9:05 AM on June 27, 2008

winkingly encouraging us to get drunk and fuck each other

Yeah, I went on one of the first trips, 8 yrs ago I believe, before they split it up into choose-your-own adventure style journeys.
I liked the free trip to Israel and a lot of what we did (apart from the daily talk-about-jewish-stuff circle).
When I was there, I noticed a lot of hooking up and drinking, but it wasn't til I got home and filled out a really long survey that I realized that was kind of the point of the trip. Moreso than forming a zionist american youth group, they wanted us to have jewish babies.
Every 4th question on the survey was something like "Did you hook up with anyone on the trip?" "Do you want to raise your children Jewish?" "Do you think you'll keep in touch with any of the members of the opposite sex from your trip?"

Who knows, by now they might have made it more subtle.
posted by rmless at 9:16 AM on June 27, 2008 [1 favorite]

Er… those other birthright organizations, aren’t they kind of different in that they’re for people whose immediate ancestors come from those countries?
posted by Artw at 9:30 AM on June 27, 2008

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