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Birthright israel: as political as chopped liver
Published on The Jewish Week
Home > Birthright Israel: As Political As Chopped Liver
Birthright Israel: As Political As Chopped Liver
Leonard Saxe And JeffreySolomonTuesday, July 19, 2011Leonard Saxe And Jeffrey SolomonSpecial To The Jewish Week
Does Taglit-Birthright Israel have a political agenda?
Questions about Taglit tripʼs content have come to the fore, perhaps a natural consequence of it becoming a rite ofpassage for diaspora young adults, magnified by the intensity of current debate about Israel. The questions are not new,and from the time the first planeload of participants landed in Israel, observers have been looking for the politicalagenda. But political agendas are more in the mind of the observers than the program.
Although for some, one cannot talk about Israel without being political, to regard Taglit trips as “political” is tomisunderstand its goals and how it educates. Taglit is unabashed in its focus on promoting Jewish identity, Peoplehoodand love of Israel. By regulation, and voluminous guidelines, its educators are required to offer apolitical “balancedmessages.” To identify with and love Israel does not mean support of a specific political position about Israel.
The Hebrew name of Birthright Israel, Taglit, literally means “discovery.” What participants discover is not a politicalposition on settlements or international negotiations; rather, they discover their personal relationship to the Jewishpeople and, in a process of forming their Jewish identity, connect to their heritage. It is, perhaps, political in that it has aparticularistic focus to connect Jews with Judaism, and with other Jews, but this is no more subversive than an effort todeepen family relationships. It helps a generation of young Jews develop a self-confident connection to the Jewishpeople and to Israel.
The content of Taglit programs is fixed in terms of core themes, but the specifics of what is taught vary. Although thissuggests that the door is open to politicization, in fact, it gives participants more influence in what and how they learn. Ineducational philosophy terms, Birthright Israel is John Dewey-inspired experiential education. The program teaches byallowing participants to experience Israel and to get to know the country and their heritage through interaction withothers. It engages participantsʼ “heart, mind and body” and the teachers are peers, as well as formal educators.
Operationally, Taglit-Birthright Israel works through trip organizers who develop specific curricula. Taglit sets standards,selects and certifies tour operators (TOs) and evaluates the process and outcome of the trips. Individual TOs handle thelogistics and the details of educational programming. The TOs represent a diverse group of public and privateeducational organizations. Although the organizations differ in philosophy, by accepting Birthright Israel support, theyaccept the pluralistic educational goals of the program.
The Birthright Israel journey lasts for 10 days, enough time to stimulate participantsʼ connection with other Jews and toget a sense of Israel. The trip is about engaging with other Jews in the context of Israel, not about teaching specificcontent. From a social psychological perspective, the trip serves as a cultural island that allows participants to unfreezeand reform their attitudes about being Jewish.
Although most trips are designed for everyone, regardless of background and interests, some trips have a focus. Thus,group itineraries might be tailored to individuals from a particular campus or community, to those who are athletic andinterested in hiking or biking, or to those studying law or medicine. Political ideology is not a factor and, young adultJews are eligible based on age, lack of prior educational experiences in Israel, and acceptance of program rules.
The formal educators who serve as trip leaders are central to Birthright Israelʼs success. The experienced guide knowswhen to talk and when to walk, when to let group dynamics evolve and when to intervene, and when to lecture and whento discuss. Wonderful guides live their love of Jews, Judaism and Israel and, in many cases, participants never discerntheir trip leaderʼs political orientation.
At the core of every Birthright Israel journey is a mifgash (encounter) with Israeli peers. Mifgashim take place over five to10 days of the trip and engage as co-participants up to eight young Israelis, most of whom are still doing their armyservice. The peer-to-peer learning made possible by engaging young Israelis is, perhaps, Birthright Israelʼs most potenteducational tool. By creating personal connections, participants gain insight into the Israeli polity. The trip allowsdiaspora Jews to understand that there is a diversity of views among Israelis and, to the extent that the focus ofdiscussion is political, it leads them to understand that the situation is far more complicated than they thought.
Of course, every guide and educator has a set of personal views, left, center and right, and some express them in spiteof the regulations. These views are more than mitigated by the mifgash experience. Show us any group of young Israelisand weʼll show you the spectrum of Israeli views. The late night conversations among these peers sort out manycontemporary issues including those that are “political.”
The claim that Taglit is hasbara (propaganda) and not chinooch (education) is at variance with how the program isorganized and with what we have seen with thousands of participants. No doubt, each participant — and each observer— views Taglit through his or her own lens. Some of these lenses are political, but the program is about Jewish identity,not the political discourse of how to resolve conflicting Israeli and Palestinian claims. The three key elements of identity— knowledge, emotion and behavior — are all substantially impacted by the experience.
Taglit-Birthright Israel is counter-cultural. It is particularistic in a universalistic world and its programming tackles issuesof identity and group commitment that many contemporary young adults seek to avoid. The program has created a newparadigm — a new way for diaspora Jews to relate to Israel — that emphasizes the connections among people, notmythology or ideology. In an era where political diversions are ever sharper and destructive, it is a breath of fresh air andsign of hope for the future.
Leonard Saxe is director of the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University. Jeffrey Solomon ispresident of the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies.
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