The seekers are young, just beginning to face the disappointments of adulthood. Their journey is often marked by tears. They may weep while praying at the Western Wall, their heads pressed against the weathered stone, or at the Holocaust Museum, as they pass the piles of shoes of the dead. Others tear up in Jerusalem’s Mount Herzl military cemetery, while embracing a handsome IDF soldier in the late afternoon light. But at some point during their all-expenses-paid ten-day trip to a land where, as they are constantly reminded, every mountain and valley is inscribed with 5,000 years of their people’s history, the moment almost always comes.This article goes to the very heart of the matter of hasbara - and anti-Israel propaganda.
When Julie Feldman (no relation), then 26 and a Reform Jew from New York City, arrived at Ben Gurion Airport in December 2008, she called herself “a blank slate.” She returned as the attack on Gaza was under way, armed with a new “pro-Israel” outlook. “Israel really changed me,” she said. “I truly felt when I came back that I was a different person.”
It was mission accomplished for Birthright Israel, the American Zionist organization that has, since its founding in 1999, spent almost $600 million to send more than 260,000 young diaspora Jews on free vacations to the Holy Land.
Barry Chazan, a Hebrew University professor emeritus and the architect of Birthright’s curriculum, explains in a celebratory 2008 book, Ten Days of Birthright Israel, that the trip is designed so travelers “are bombarded with information.” The goal is to produce “an emotionally overwhelming experience” that “helps participants open themselves to learning.” On my own Birthright trip last year, I experienced the Chazan Effect. Chronically underslept, hurled through a mind-numbing itinerary, I experienced, despite my best efforts to maintain a reportorial stance, a return to the intensity of feeling of childhood.
“This is not a vacation,” a Birthright employee pronounced the first evening, before shooing us to the hotel bar. “You are embarking on a journey.” Just four nights later, my steel trap of a heart was overcome by emotion upon seeing my new Birthright crush dancing with another girl. I fled to my room and cried.
To apply for a Birthright trip, participants need just one Jewish grandparent—and to pass a screening interview. (Practicing a religion other than Judaism is an automatic disqualifier.) After their ten days on Birthright, participants may postpone their return by up to three months to travel in the region, and it is not unheard of for progressives to “birth left” in the West Bank afterward (as I did)—though Birthright policy is that anyone discovered to have a “hidden agenda” of “exploiting” the free trip “to get access to the territories” to promote “non-Israeli” causes can lose her spot. Birthrighters planning anti-occupation activism with the International Solidarity Movement have been dismissed.
“Welcome home” is a predominant message, a reference to the promise of instant Israeli citizenship for diaspora Jews under the 1950 Law of Return. (About 17,000 Birthright alumni now live in Israel, according to the Jerusalem Post.) It serves as a pointed riposte to the right of return claimed under international law by the 700,000 Palestinians expelled in 1948 upon the creation of the Jewish state, and their descendants.
Birthright’s boosters seem strangely unaware of the tribe’s more visible woes, the forty-four-year illegal occupation of Palestinian lands and the racism and legal discrimination that underpins Israel’s ethnocracy.
Birthright tour providers are allowed to take tourists anywhere between the Dead Sea and the Mediterranean. Mark, the CEO, explained that “as an apolitical organization,” Birthright does not concern itself with the Green Line, the internationally recognized border separating Israel proper from the illegally occupied West Bank. “If security allows it, we allow for our participants to see the beginnings of where the nation started.” Theoretically, a visit to a Palestinian town in the West Bank would be within the boundaries of acceptability—but Chazan said no trip provider has done it. Birthright funders and officials see Palestinians as best avoided, for “security” reasons. On my trip, we were given maps of Israel that referred to the West Bank as “Judea and Samaria”—biblical terminology typically favored by settlers and their sympathizers.
“I trust that they’re doing the right thing,” Jewish Federations president Jerry Silverman told me, when asked about Birthright’s support of settlements. Such was the predominant sentiment of the funders on this matter, and on the overt racism expressed on some trips: Birthright, like Israel itself, can do no wrong.
It’s pleasure as a medium for Jewish nationalism. In Birthright, dissent is for fun-suckers. “Just enjoy the experience,” a tour mate told me when I denounced the remarks of one Birthright employee, Gia Arnstein, who had said, apropos Palestinian suicide bombers, “If I impose a holocaust on them, what can I do?” In American discourse, the logic of Jewish victimhood and Israeli militarism is rarely articulated so clearly.
Logic rarely makes people change their minds about something. It is emotions that win.
This has been a winning strategy for the anti-Israel crowd for decades. The fake "checkpoints' they set up on college campuses, "die-ins," BDS song and dance routines - they are not trying to give reasoned arguments, but to appeal to emotions.
I recently pointed out that there are thousands of people who visit Israel every year who are on tours specifically designed to push an anti-Israel narrative, where they sleep over at Palestinian Arab houses and stay away from all Zionists except for a token "settler" who gets an hour with them after they have already been force fed anti-Israel propaganda for a week.
Are there any exposes in The Nation about these trips? Is anyone infiltrating them to find out what lies are being said and what subconscious or conscious bigotry is propagated there? Are there any teary articles from participants who felt that they were being brainwashed?
Of course not! Emotions are OK when they are done for the right reasons, not when they are done for "Right" reasons. When Jews try to strengthen their connection to their homeland, it must be exposed and ridiculed. When Arabs and anti-Zionists try to create an impression of Arab attachment for Palestine, however, it is fine and dandy - they are just showing their love.
Now, if Birthright trips do push a bigoted or false narrative - it is hard to know how much of this piece to believe - then they should be fixed. There is no reason to lie when showing the Jewish connection to Israel, or even of the historic Arab apathy towards Palestine. But in the end, this is a battle of emotions, of getting to young people before they make up their minds, and the way to get to them is through the heart and then with the truth.
On that same theme, I recently made this poster for an organization that is doing Zionist education for teens:
Teaching Jewish kids Jewish history and Zionist songs should not be considered subversive: it should be normal.
The fact is that it is sad that Birthright is necessary to begin with. It proves that the majority of today's Jewish kids are ignorant about Israel, don't understand the basic issues, and couldn't put together a cohesive pro-Israel argument if they tried. The week-long experience is meant to make up for the terrible ignorance about Israel that they suffered from for their first twenty years. How much will they get out of three hours a week of Hebrew school oriented to teaching them to barely mumble blessings for their Bar and Bat Mitzvahs? How much do their parents know about Israel to begin with?
Birthright is a success because Jewish and Zionist education has been an abject failure. It shows that Jewish kids are hungering for meaning that they are not receiving from home or Hebrew school. It is a wonderful band-aid, but it is still only a band-aid that needs to be reinforced and strengthened (something that Birthright is doing, thankfully.)
Propaganda? Perhaps. But in a world where your television and web browser and mobile phone are filled with advertisements that are meant to change your mindset about various causes and products by playing on your emotions, why is it illegitimate for Zionists to use the same tools? As long as the facts can back it up, then emotions are a legitimate means to get people to the truth.