by Steven Macawili
This May, I went on a free trip to Israel through Boston University’s Hillel. The experiences I had on the trip itself, which at times left me in anger, shock, and amazement will be a story for other articles. But here, I wanted to ask the question, why was I there? Who felt it necessary to spend an undoubtedly large sum of money to send 16 American non-Jews on a “geopolitical tour” around Israel and Palestine? In this article, I want to explore Israel’s and its supporters’ long-term investment in global (and specifically American) allies through independent research and observations I have made through my experiences there.
Before being recruited for this trip, I was already familiar with the incredibly popular Birthright or Taglit (Hebrew for discovery) program, where Jewish young adults from around the world are given the opportunity to go on a free, educational adventure through Israel. Birthright, while becoming increasingly controversial among the younger generation of Jews, maintains high degrees of support and attendance. And why would it not?
Birthright attendees can expect nights in luxurious hotels, jeep-tours of the Golan heights, a trip to the Dead-Sea resorts, the chance to explore amazing cities like Jerusalem, Nazareth, and Tel-Aviv, connect with important religious sites, and to eat admittedly stellar food all for the low-low price of completely free. For those who care little about geopolitics, Birthright is an enchanting vacation to the holy land. For those on the fence about the Israeli narrative, a Birthright trip is a very convincing argument. For those already in the Israeli camp, Birthright can make one fall in love with the country.
Birthright, started in 1999 by Jewish philanthropists Charles Bronfman and Michael Steinhardt, “seeks to ensure the future of the Jewish people by strengthening Jewish identity, Jewish communities, and connection with Israel via a trip to Israel for the majority of Jewish young adults from around the world.” And at that it is wonderfully successful. While there has been an increase in Birthright attendees publicly walking off the trip in solidarity with Palestinians, the program remains a great success. According to Brandeis University, Birthright attendees are much more likely to marry a Jewish spouse (55% versus 39%) than non-attendees–an important figure for combatting assimilation. In addition, Birthright attendees are “more likely than similar nonparticipants to raise their oldest child Jewish, to have brit milah for their oldest son, to be connected to Israel, to be synagogue members, to volunteer for Jewish or Israeli causes, to participate in events sponsored by Jewish organizations, to have Jewish friends, to celebrate Shabbat, to attend Jewish religious services, and to celebrate Jewish holidays.” In other words, Birthright has enjoyed breathtaking success.
Undoubtedly, the strengthening of the Jewish religion and culture worldwide is a wonderful and important thing. For my part, I could not help but love the parts of the trip dedicated to learning about the rich history and traditions in that region, whether it was visiting the Temple Mount and Al-Aqsa or dipping my feet in the Jordan River. The problem lies in the political consequences, namely the systematic bolstering of support for the Israeli government and the subsequent erasure of the Palestinian narrative as they suffer under the thumb of Israeli military occupation.
The trip I went on, unaffiliated with Birthright directly but funded by the Jewish Federation of Boston and the Maccabee Task Force (a Sheldon Adelson backed organization aimed at targeting the BDS movement), was somewhat different in purpose and nature than Birthright. The trip was called “Israel Uncovered,” which our tour guide repeatedly called a “geopolitical tour” of Israel and Palestine. And to be fair, that is what it was. Each day, there were several speakers with varied perspectives including IDF soldiers, a member of the Knesset, a family of West-Bank settlers, multiple Israeli journalists, the runner-up in the 2006 Palestinian Presidential elections, and the Mayor-elect of Bethlehem. Evidently, there was some attempt to bring Palestinian voices into the programming, but for every Palestinian speaker there were many more speakers from a staunchly pro-Israeli perspective.
I intend to dive deeper into my many observations and often strong feelings from meeting all these people in future writings, but here I would like to talk about the impact the trip had on my peers to gain a better sense of the general effect such trips have on its attendees.
There were 20 Boston University students on the trip, 4 Jewish and 16 non-Jewish. There were a small number of people on the trip who were sympathetic to the Palestinian cause beforehand, and a decent number sympathetic to the Israeli narrative. However, the plurality were generally apolitical and there in large part to travel and have fun. Of this group, the response to the trip was undeniably positive. By the end, many were proudly waving and posing for photos with Israeli flags, and most boasted about how incredible the trip was (how could they not when we could legally drink every night, go to clubs in Tel-Aviv, and be pampered everywhere we went?).
To date, Birthright has flown in 800,000 Jews from around the world to Israel. The Maccabee Task Force has sent over 4,000 campus leaders on “10-day fact finding missions.” For Israel’s political backers, the expense of funding these trips is enormous. But perhaps the price of not funding them would be higher. A sentiment expressed by a number of our speakers was gratitude–gratitude towards us Americans for our country’s indispensable role in “maintaining Israeli peace and security.” In other words, without the unconditional military support approved by each generation of American decision-makers, which my generation will soon become, the occupation could not exist in the form it does today. Therefore, it is crucial that Israel invites young, Jewish and non-Jewish Americans on these luxurious tours to strategically build grassroots support among its most important ally.
My fellow peers and “campus leaders” will return home and back to BU this fall with glowing stories from their once-in-a-lifetime trip to Israel. They will spread the word about how much fun they had in that beautiful, first world country. When asked about the conflict they will likely respond with the frequent cop-out answer: “it’s complicated.” Maybe one or two of them will be in a position to influence policy in their career. Either way, the investment by Israel and its supporters in allies is paying untold dividends.
— Steven Macawili is a student at Boston University and an intern at MAPA.