Birthright Israel

The impact the organization has had on Israeli tourism and Jews in the diaspora.

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Controversies

Not surprisingly, Birthright Israel’s high profile, high cost, and high political stakes have made it a lightning rod for controversy. Some debates were resolved early on; others are ongoing.

Among those asked to fund the programs, controversies erupted over the ethics, effectiveness, and opportunity costs associated with such a large investment in the trips. Israeli legislators debated whether tax revenues spent on affluent non-citizens should instead be spent serving Israel’s poor.

Diaspora philanthropists and federation leaders debated whether offering the trips as a free gift would lead college students to treat the program as a free party rather than as an educational experience. Questioning the educational value of tourism (a stigmatized leisure activity), they debated whether money would be better invested in other forms of Jewish education such as day schools and camps.

Proponents of the investment in Birthright argued that there was no guarantee that funds would be forthcoming for these alternatives, and pointed to the research documenting the educational successes of earlier Israel experience programs.

Within broader Jewish circles, debates have also centered on the type of Jewish identity that Birthright Israel is imagined to promote. Some critics have contended that the trips promote a vicarious Jewish identity centered on Israel, rather than on Jewish life in the tourists’ own countries. Others have argued that the trips reinforce a classical Zionist core-periphery model that implicitly devalues Jewish life in diaspora. In my research into Birthright, I found that although the trips encouraged feelings of connection to Israel, they also made the visitors aware of just how “not Israeli” they were. This feeling of not being at home in Israel shapes a relationship to the country that is more complicated than the critiques suggest.

Other Jewish communal debates center on whether the trips do and should frame interfaith marriage as a social problem.

The only debate that has spilled beyond the Jewish community and into broader public discourse has centered, predictably, on the trips’ representations of Middle East politics and especially of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Here, three questions dominate: How should the trips represent the conflict? How, in practice, are they actually representing it? What goals should this introduction to Middle East geo-politics serve?

Impact

The creation of Birthright Israel marked a watershed in Jewish philanthropy, when the agenda-setting power long wielded by communally-governed institutions passed visibly into the hands of private foundations.

In launching Birthright, CRB and JLN placed the federations and communal agencies (and the Israeli government) in the position of responding to foundation priorities. Birthright also repositioned the denominational and Zionist youth movements--formerly the main purveyors of Israel experience programs--as small players in a field being reoriented to serve young adults rather than high school students.

Although systemic impacts such as these have been profound, they have not garnered much attention in the conversations about Birthright’s outcomes. Rather, most of the interest concerns effects on the Jewish identities and behaviors of the individuals who visit Israel on the trips.

An ongoing evaluation commissioned by Birthright Israel and conducted by researchers at Brandeis University has found that the program, on average, has strong effects on feelings of attachment to Israel and belonging to the Jewish people, and minor effects on religious practice and Jewish communal involvement. The Brandeis team’s ten year follow-up reported that Birthright alumni were more likely than comparable non-participants to marry other Jews.

Analysis of average effects does not reveal what happens at the extremes. A minority of participants appears to become deeply engaged in Jewish life following the trip. The exact proportion has not yet been documented, but even if the percentage is relatively small, the absolute numbers can be substantial. With more than 250,000 program alumni, even if only two people per bus of 40 become intensely involved in Jewish life upon return, this 5% still translates to over 12,000 young adults bringing their Jewish passions to Hillels, synagogues, service programs, seminaries, and other communal institutions.

Although intensely engaged alumni are an unrepresentative minority, they are, by virtue of their activism, especially visible to those involved in Jewish communal life. Moreover, they almost certainly number in the thousands, and possibly in the tens of thousands. For these reasons, most communal leaders will likely know--or know of--someone who has been profoundly influenced by the trip.

On one hand, this can result in communal leaders using their anecdotal impressions to over-estimate average trip effects. On the other hand, it suggests that Birthright Israel’s most consequential individual-level impacts may not be its across-the-board effects on the average participant, but rather its concentrated impact on that minority of thousands of young Jews who emerge from the trips inspired to take up leadership roles building Jewish life in the communities where they live.

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Shaul Kelner

Shaul Kelner is assistant professor of sociology and Jewish studies at Vanderbilt University. He is the author of Tours That Bind: Diaspora, Pilgrimage and Israeli Birthright Tourism (NYU Press, 2010).