“If they find out about going to Palestine I’ll get booted off”
That was the germane part of the email sent by one prospective Taglit-birthright israel participant to her worried mother. Sierra was letting her mom in on her planned itinerary and intention to participate in a program called Birthright Unplugged which involved touring in the West Bank in order to get a Palestinian perspective. But the understandably worried mother was not having any of it. She promptly informed Israel Outdoors, Sierra’s trip provider who in consultation with Taglit-birthright israel, dropped the 26-year-old Sierra like a hot potato. Thus began the shit storm. So to speak.
Birthright Unplugged took the offensive and released a mass email and press release on June 1st urging people to tell Taglit-birthright israel what they think of their “attempt to stop people from learning firsthand about the situation in Israel/Palestine.” Other detractors were quick to follow, calling Taglit-birthright israel “propagandists” intent on creating “young Jewish automatons programmed by their Taglit tour leaders to turn them into adamantly pro-Israel supporters of a peculiar Israel-can-do-no-wrong Zionism.” Salon magazine wrote an article titled Come See Palestine that touched on the controversy. In every instance heated debate ensued with some taking umbrage at Taglit-birthright israel’s preceived heavy handedness and others offended at the notion of people using Jewish community funds in order to consort with enemies.
The thing is that ordinarily Taglit-birthright israel allows participants to extend their tickets by up to three months without any questions. Extending one’s ticket is a matter dealt with between EL AL and the participant. One’s birthright israel application process does not involve questions about what the applicant’s post birthright israel plans are. Not only that but Taglit-birthright israel’s agenda is a very broad one, according to Gidi Mark, Taglit-birthright israel’s director of marketing, it’s “to allow Jewish young adults to get closer to their roots.” This broad non-political agenda is witnessed by the involvement of diverse groups as birthright israel trip sponsors, for instance both AIPAC and the Progressive Zionist Caucus run trips; with the same provider no less.
Having led 4 trips as a madrich, I can only reiterate that I was never given any “talking points” in relation to anything, let alone the Palestinian conflict. I have however met many Taglit-birthright israel staffers and they espoused opinions that covered the entire ideological spectrum, with a pronounced leaning to the left.
So what’s the deal then? Why is Taglit-birthright israel so adamantly opposed to Birthright Unplugged’s mission to expand young Jew’s understanding of the Israel/Palestine conflict? Might it have something to do with Birthright Unplugged’s decidedly anti-Israel ideological bias? Might it be that Birthright Unplugged’s program relies heavily on the free ticket to Israel provided to participants by Taglit-birthright israel and paid for by parties who do not agree with Birthright Unplugged’s mission? Might it have something to do with Birthright Unplugged’s confusing, dishonest and possibly illegal nomenclature meant to riff off of the success of birthright israel?
Or might it have something to do with safety issues and the continued viability of Taglit-birthright israel’s program? Sierra’s mother was concerned about her daughter’s safety and that’s what motivated her to reveal her itinerary. Taglit-birthright israel is similarly concerned about the safety of their participants. In the 6 years that the program has been in existence, not one participant has been hurt by any kind of political or terror-related violence. Trip providers are instructed to take strict measures to keep trip participants as safe and secure as possible. Trip participants are not allowed to wander away from the group and every single group is tracked via GPS as they follow pre-approved itineraries.
When Taglit-birthright israel claims that participant safety is their top priority, parents and participants can rely on both concrete measures and a stellar safety record for peace of mind. Absent this, registration would be lower than what it currently is and the entire program’s viability would be in question.
What ought Taglit-birthright israel do when it is informed by a prospective participant’s mother that her daughter’s immediate post-birthright israel plans include participation in a deceptively named program run under potentially dangerous circumstances? You do the mother a favor and drop the daughter. You protect the ongoing viability of your program and do what you can to prevent headlines like “Birthright Participant Kidnapped by Palestinian Gunmen.”
Yesterday, some dumb Jewish/American kid went to Nablus by himself. He was kidnapped by Palestinian gunmen who then made him shoot a video whereby he stated that his captors intended kill him if Israel did not free Palestinian prisoners. Luckily he was quickly released unharmed, but imagine the fallout if he had been even remotely involved with birthright, Taglit, unplugged or otherwise? When the Israeli government strongly advises Jews against travel to the West Bank and Gaza, when even Rachel Corrie’s parents aren’t safe from the threat of kidnap and bodily harm, how irresponsible would it be to passively acquiesce to dangerous plans when informed of them ahead of time. Remember, this has nothing to do with any ideological orientation on the part of Taglit-birthright israel. No one from Taglit would have stopped Sierra from going on a trip that was more attuned to her stated goal of learning “about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict… from different perspectives.”
As Gidi Mark stated:
This organization [Birthright Unplugged] takes advantage of a very successful brand name. It goes around campuses and tells people to take advantage of a gift that’s given by the Jewish people to Jewish young adults interested in getting closer to their Jewish roots and the State of Israel. Birthright Unplugged, has as its agenda nothing to do with getting young Jews in touch with their roots and as such we cannot allow the exploitation of our goodwill. We have a waiting list of tens of thousands of Jewish young adults who would like to enjoy this gift to the Jewish people and these are our target audience – not people who would like to take advantage of our trips in order to meet with people who have totally different agenda.
None of this has anything to do with censoring legitimate study. None of this has anything to do with indoctrination. It has everything to do with safety, maintaining the continued viability of an important program and not rewarding an entity for its dishonest recruitment tactics.