Bullish on Birthright

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Two years ago, Birthright Israel, the hugely successful free program that has brought half a million young people to the Jewish state for a 10-day tour, began a pilot project in which, as part of the experience, participants met with Israeli Arabs. Last week, Haaretz reported that Birthright Israel ordered its trip providers to end the meetups. In a statement to Haaretz, the organization explained that the “results of the initial evaluation have shown that there is a need for further analysis of this module in the context of the educational trip as a whole.”

That was the extent — and level of transparency — of the explanation. Reactions to the announcement were mixed, with many clearly focused on an agenda other than that of the Birthright Israel program. For example, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union of Reform Judaism, criticized the decision, stating that “cutting out the meetings will communicate loudly and clearly that these are trips with a narrow political agenda that is out of step with today’s young Jews and most of their parents as well.” Jacobs went on to accuse Birthright Israel of writing off 21 percent of Israelis who are also Arabs and introducing to participants a “too-narrow slice of contemporary Israel.”

Gil Troy, a professor of history at McGill University in Montreal and chair of the Birthright Education Committee, which made the decision to cancel the meetings, issued a sharp response to Jacobs. Troy noted that feedback regarding the Arab meetings has been “mixed,” and that the program was deemed to be “mediocre.” He went on to say that “we reevaluate any program that gets mediocre feedback — but when we do it with the Israeli Arab educational piece, you attack us.”

Others reacted with sarcasm, complaining that there was no way Birthright Israel would be able to protect its participants from some exposure to Israeli Arabs — even if that would now be limited to service personnel or Bedouins.

We can speculate on the reasons behind the decision to cut the Israeli Arab meetings — it could be anything from pressure from funders of the program to an organization simply trying to get the biggest bang for its proverbial buck. But in the end, the decision is one that Birthright Israel is entirely entitled to make, and is a non-issue. The raison d’etre of Birthright Israel is to strengthen young American Jews’ connections with the Jewish state. The program’s education committee seems to have concluded that whatever the virtues of the 2-year-old pilot were, it wasn’t producing the results Birthright Israel was seeking. Organizations are supposed to make those kinds of judgments regarding their programs and activities.

As with many things, the politics here is a sideshow. Despite those few times that Birthright Israel has gotten caught up in politics — as it did last week — the program works, and it works quite well. We have no problem with that.