The Well-Financed War on Birthright Israel
These events follow weeks of threats from IfNotNow, which is bankrolled by the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, and dozens of news articles from activists and activist-journalists over the past few months detailing IfNotNow participants who were removed from their Birthright trips for “coordinated plans to ruin the experience for others in order to promote a specific agenda.” All of these actions come after a series of well-publicized stunts (or “walk offs”) attacking Birthright and claiming that the organization had failed to focus on the Palestinian narrative of the occupation.
For the uninitiated, Birthright Israel offers free 10-day trips to the Jewish state for young Jewish adults, dedicated to enabling them to explore their Jewish identity and build a connection to Israel.
Why are these groups going after Birthright? What’s wrong with educating young Jews about their heritage and homeland?
Birthright Israel is a remarkable program; as a participant and staff member of four trips, I should know. The program has managed to engage a wide spectrum of Jewish youth — attracting everyone from the secular and unaffiliated to religious, from straight to LGBTQ, from elite athletes to those with physical handicaps. Birthright has engaged more than 650,000 young Jewish adults from 67 countries, including places like Poland and Uganda.
Yet some groups are threatened by its success — and not because they run competing programs. Rather, a positive connection to Judaism and the Jewish state imperils their narrow-minded politics. They therefore seek to hijack Birthright in order to advance their own agendas — namely, to exploit Diaspora Jewry to fight Israeli policy in the West Bank.
There are various other groups behind the current “anti-Birthright” campaign, including the Israeli group Breaking the Silence, which enjoys the largess of a variety of European governments; and the New Israel Fund, which both supports organizations involved in the campaign and whose official published an opinion piece targeting Birthright.
And while anti-Birthright activists might claim to be part of a grassroots effort, the hundreds of thousands of dollars in taxpayers’ funds say otherwise. For instance, late last year, the Jerusalem-based research institute NGO Monitor (of which I am the managing editor) revealed that in 2018, the Dutch government provided $218,000 to Breaking the Silence, including for its efforts “to encourage diaspora Jewish communities to voice their opposition to the occupation.” During the grant period, the group was a key partner in the war on Birthright — taking those participants who had “walked off” on politically one-sided tours of the West Bank.
It is deeply problematic that groups like Breaking the Silence and IfNotNow are trying to make Birthright about politics, something it is not. Even though the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is by definition not the focus of the trip, it not only undoubtedly comes up in a busload of 40 Americans (or Canadians, Europeans, etc.) combined with eight Israeli soldiers. It is also part of the educational curriculum — something that critics simply decide to leave out of their anti-Israel rhetoric.
But that is apparently not enough for those who are against the positivity that permeates the trip. Participants are encouraged to learn about the issues firsthand for themselves; Birthright emphasizes that the conflict is complex; and at the end of the day, the trip merely serves as a basic introduction to inspire a deeper experience of Judaism and Israel.
Anti-Birthright activists are interested in trashing the program’s content. They fundamentally want to alter the core of Birthright as an apolitical program, bringing it into the realm of the conflict and making sure it echoes their preferred political positions.
In the meantime, Birthright should not bow down to the pressure. It is Birthright’s prerogative to determine its own educational curriculum — one that has a proven history of success. The fact that a handful of participants are walking off or disrupting trips — with the help of funds from RBF, NIF, and European governments — is miniscule in comparison.
IfNotNow and the others might not like Birthright’s agenda, so a logical solution would be for activists to put their money where their mouths are and develop their own alternative trips to Israel. However, the intensity of the attacks against Birthright suggests that these groups actually lack a market for their politically charged campaign. Without the ability to generate grassroots support of their own, they appear to be threatened by Birthright’s progress and seek to destroy it.
For those considering going on a Birthright Israel trip, the challenge at hand is to go with the understanding of what it is — a free 10-day trip funded by generous philanthropists, the Israeli government and the Jewish Agency.
No one is trying to hide anything except those deceiving you with well-funded divisive political campaigns cloaked in “progressive” language.
Becca Wertman is managing editor and Canada Liaison at NGO Monitor, a Jerusalem-based research institute.