re: Joshua Goldman’s guest column in the DP, “My ‘Birthwrong’ experience”

The venerable Ernest T. Owens opined yesterday against The Daily Pennsylvanian’s practice of publishing “a string of guest columns and letters to the editor” – so I can think of no better occasion to dredge up an article probably best left buried in the paper’s archives.

There is obviously no shortage of columns that match this description, so I’ll cut the suspense: as you may have gathered from the subject line, Joshua Goldman published a guest column Monday, “My ‘Birthwrong’ Experience”, that I thought made a few valid points – all of them beside the point. In deference to Ernest’s request, I’ve opted to respond to them in a forum outside the confines (and let’s be honest – space limits) of the paper.

I’m not uniquely qualified to write about Birthright. In fact, I might not be qualified to write about it at all: I never experienced Birthright as a participant – by the time I was old enough, I was otherwise ineligible for the free trip. My familiarity with the program is based instead on twice staffing on behalf of Israel Outdoors, a provider different from the one that Goldman accompanied to Israel.

That said, not being qualified never stopped me from writing before – so let’s get started.

Goldman opens by writing that he “was compelled to write this as a result of Glenn Shrum’s mischaracterization of Taglit-Birthright in his article on the free trip to Israel offered to Jewish youth (“Taglit-Birthright Israel gaining popularity” 02/23/2012).” Like the subjects of Shrum’s article, Goldman visited Israel through Chabad, and lays out his issues with the experience in the following excerpt:

What I believe now — especially upon reflection of my experience — is that the trip is inherently political, very ideological and often manipulates impressionable young minds searching for a religious identity. It churns out — in machine-like fashion — hordes of Zionists without them even realizing it. My biggest concern about all of this, as someone who strongly values difference of opinion and balance of information, is that many participants return from the trip believing that they now fully understand the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. If anything, I came back confused.

I hope to address Goldman’s larger point in short order, but in the meantime, please join me in a brief thought experiment: which do you think more likely – One: Birthright brainwashes ‘hordes of Zionists’ convinced they ‘fully understand the Israeli-Palestinian conflict’ – Goldman alone recognizes the complexity – yet somehow he alone ‘came back confused’ while everyone else succumbed to zombie-like mind control? – Or two: complex information is presented to participants – most of whom are able to think critically, for themselves – and many of whom return home with something to think about?

Personally, I find Goldman’s conclusion patronizing. But regardless of which you choose, I’ll play along and assume he is correct. How does Birthright achieve this stupefying feat? Goldman argues that the organization systematically suppresses discussion about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in all its complexity:

The program oversimplifies a complex and sensitive issue that requires various perspectives and in-depth thought… [We were not] invited to voice our own (potentially dissident) perspectives.

Interestingly, Goldman ignores Shrum’s quote of a Birthright alumna who specifically mentioned that her trip included discussion about ‘everything’.

Furthermore, Goldman’s claim doesn’t match my personal experience. My first tour guide spent hours discussing the conflict. Yes, he mostly represented Israeli viewpoints, but he also encouraged participants to contribute viewpoints of their own – even when they explicitly and repeatedly countered his. The very first day of my second trip – before we visited Tel Aviv, Masada, the Dead Sea, the Western Wall – was spent in the Golan Heights, where the tour guide – unprompted by participant inquisitiveness – focused primarily on the land’s former Syrian ownership.

Speaking of landmarks like the Western Wall, Goldman takes particular issue with the Birthright itinerary. Let’s begin with his more general criticism:

The article makes the assertion that the trip is apolitical and that it avoids certain areas in the country — the allegedly dangerous ones that make neurotic Jewish mothers queasy — for mere practical reasons. As a former participant of the trip and someone who was raised Jewish in a decidedly pro-Israel household, I do not believe this is true.

It’s interesting that Goldman repeats Shrum’s assertion that Birthright does not enter the West Bank, a statement attributed to Rabbi Levi Haskelevich (“Haskelevich … added that the tour groups never travel to more unstable areas in the country such as West Bank or Gaza, and that participants are strictly prohibited from traveling outside the group”).

I knew for a fact that both trips I staffed drove through the West Bank (and I’m not even counting the Old City) so I asked Rabbi Levi about it the night Shrum’s article was published. Though it doesn’t add anything to this post, I thought his response worth repeating:

In my 11 years at Penn. I don’t recall ever being quoted accurately by the DP.

He pointed me toward this website, which he had passed on to Shrum. The site indeed states ‘Taglit-Birthright Israel: MAYANOT tours do not travel to or through certain unsafe areas such as the West Bank or Gaza’ – but it’s important to note that the website speaks only for MAYANOT, just one Birthright trip provider among MANY.

In any event, let’s move on to Goldman’s more specific criticism of the Birthright itinerary – even were he to learn that Birthright indeed enters the West Bank, he would argue that the important features are not part of the tour:

My birthright trip schedule, like that of all others I presume, was jam-packed with visits to the country’s “most important sites.” As someone who loves to travel, taking in such sights was truly incredible. Thousands of years of world history were sitting in front of me to soak in.

[…]

I would argue that one of the most important sites to view in Israel today — for Jews and non-Jews alike — is the giant metal barrier separating the Israeli territories from Palestinian settlements. Perhaps the curriculum could include what it really looks like to go through one of these military “checkpoints.” It should definitely introduce us to Palestinians, Arabs and other religious and ethnic minorities — in a positive light.

Let’s take these one at a time:

While Birthright participants admittedly do not typically experience checkpoints (quotation marks?), participants are certainly able to do so on their own time. On one of my trips, the tour guide was more than happy to help a group of students interested in visiting the West Bank plan their visit.

Furthermore, Goldman singles out the ‘giant metal barrier’ as ‘one of the most important sites to view in Israel today’. It would seem Birthright agrees – on both of my trips, we visited the Haas Promenade overlooking the city of Jerusalem, where we talked about the clearly-visible separation barrier.

As for introducing participants to ‘religious and ethnic minorities – in a positive light’, seemingly every Birthright trip takes a ride on the Bedouin camels, many stay overnight in the ‘Bedouin tents’, and some visit a Druze village in the Golan. Regardless of the authenticity of any of these experiences – more accurately, lack thereof – it is difficult to complain that religious and ethnic minorities are portrayed in less than a positive light.

But Goldman goes one step further:

More troubling is the potential demonization of Palestinians, an undercurrent throughout my experience as well.

This claim rings particularly hollow to my ears: Palestinians – at least on my trips – were certainly treated with nothing approaching ‘demonization’, and on one, rarely mentioned altogether.

Aha! – cries the critic– proof that Birthright skews toward the Israeli experience.

And to those critics: of course. In fact, Goldman nails it:

One would only need to look at the trip’s goal, which in the words of its own founders (one of whom is Wharton alumnus and Penn Hillel benefactor Michael Steinhardt), is to present Israel in the best way possible, saturate participants with information (a carefully selected curriculum, in fact) and create an emotional experience that transcends the physicality of it.

Goldman is correct in asserting that Birthright is an unabashedly pro-Israel experience. But where he goes wrong is in assuming that this means it is therefore anti-Palestinian – and I think a lot of his confusion can be boiled down to what he wrote next [the bold is my own]:

The situation in Israel is much more complex than what one takes away from a 10-day experience, but the trip is designed to make everything seem cut and dry.

Birthright is a free trip to Israel – not a free trip to Israel-Palestine. While the conflict is an unavoidable aspect of any serious visit, and is certainly given a fair share of attention, ‘the situation in Israel’ – the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, המצב  – is not the reason for, or focus of, Birthright.

That is what College sophomore Ryan Daniels meant when Shrum quoted him saying, “your perception can get skewed, but Israel is not at all what you see in the news.” Here, the conflict is the news. The news is the conflict.

But Israel is so much more than that.

Goldman’s mistake is to define Israel solely in a political context, as one half of an ‘Israeli-Palestinian’ dichotomy. Israel is a vibrant, independent country – regardless of what’s happening on the other side of the wall. And it’s possible to appreciate that country, its people, its culture, and its right to exist – in short, the values Birthright hopes to celebrate – without negating the rights of those who live on the other side of the wall.

I think the key to Goldman’s misunderstanding is his conflation of – in consecutive sentences – ‘the Zionist perspective’ and ‘right-wing Zionist’ points of view [again, the bold is my own]:

However, the sites themselves, and the way they are presented, all slanted toward the Zionist perspective that Birthright holds dear. But one need not be a right-wing Zionist to support Israel and want to work toward a peaceful future. Unfortunately, Birthright’s efforts subvert this diversity of opinion.

Zionism is not a political position, Zionism is not a religious position, and to be Zionist is not to be right-wing. Zionism is the belief that Jews have the right to a homeland – like any other nation – and that said nation is in the historic land of Israel – where it is today. Contrary to Goldman’s apparent belief, it is quite possible to be a left-wing, secular Zionist.

And I think, at its core, introducing this concept to American Jews – while strengthening their Jewish identities (religious or cultural – or both! – or neither!), with other Jews, in the Jewish homeland – is Birthright’s ultimate goal.

At issue is not American Jews’ support for Israeli policy, or their subscription to a particular political point of view – it’s of their engagement with the issue at all. As Peter Beinart relates in his controversial piece in The New York Review of Books, The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment:

In 2003, several prominent Jewish philanthropists hired Republican pollster Frank Luntz to explain why American Jewish college students were not more vigorously rebutting campus criticism of Israel. In response, he unwittingly produced the most damning indictment of the organized American Jewish community that I have ever seen.

The philanthropists wanted to know what Jewish students thought about Israel. Luntz found that they mostly didn’t. “Six times we have brought Jewish youth together as a group to talk about their Jewishness and connection to Israel,” he reported. “Six times the topic of Israel did not come up until it was prompted. Six times these Jewish youth used the word ‘they‘ rather than ‘us‘ to describe the situation.”

This is what I believe Birthright aims to address, and is the reason I believe the trip would be worthwhile were there no Israeli-Palestinian conflict, were Israel not occupying the West Bank, were Israel to make peace with all its neighbors, were Iran to lay down its nuclear arms – hell, were there no Palestinians to speak of.

It’s true, as Goldman concludes, that “Israel is not at all what you see on Birthright” – but what you see on Birthright is a whole lot better than what you would see otherwise: the news.

In other words, nothing.

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Some opportunities for further reading:

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5 thoughts on “re: Joshua Goldman’s guest column in the DP, “My ‘Birthwrong’ experience””

  1. i didn’t see the article as published, but on my Birthright trip (early 2006, right after Sharon’s stroke), we went to a checkpoint/point on the barrier and had someone talking to us about why Israel was building it. Not just looking at it, but actually right up near it.

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