Birthright opens minds and softens hearts &mdash even for those who drop out

The shocking news as recently reported in the Israeli press that the Palestinian International Solidarity Movement was using Birthright Israel’s free trips to Israel to import Jewish volunteers was cause for pangs of anguish. But on closer examination, there’s substantial good news in this story.

Birthright Israel (Taglit in Hebrew) offers 10-day, all-expense-paid visits to Jewish college youth. All they have to say is that they’re Jewish and haven’t previously experienced an organized tour to Israel. For some, like our recent Shabbat lunch guests, the idea that the program was indeed a free gift of the Jewish people stirred them to feel more identified even before they took off.

The tour is designed to convey the drama, beauty and passion of Zion. For example, students are sometimes led blindfolded through the Old City until they get close enough for that first magical first view of the Wall.

If students join Birthright despite an unfavorable view of Israel, it would be nice to believe they’d all be turned away, like the heroine of John le Carré’s “Little Drummer Girl,” from their negative views. But every parent and educator knows you don’t get 100 percent from any educational strategy. According to Dafna Berman’s article in Ha’aretz, Birthright Israel admits that there have been as many as six such cases of students who took the free trip and then went off to ISM. An ISM volunteer claims to know “at least 12” such students.

For the sake of easy math, if we say there are around 10 ISM volunteers from Birthright Israel, then — though that’s 10 too many — we’re talking about one student in 7,000: not exactly a scary trend. More than 99 percent do not leave Masada for Jenin. Particularly after everything we’ve heard about losing ground on university campuses around the world, these statistics sound good to me.

Although it’s too early to evaluate the long-term impact of Birthright, according to the results tabulated in a study by the independent Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University, the trips appear to have had a very positive impact on Jewish identity and attitudes toward Israel, Judaism and the Jewish people.

Another Cohen Center study suggests that Birthright Israel may have a more far-reaching effect than first envisioned because it is reshaping North American Jewry as a whole by “enshrining a pilgrimage to Israel as a prevailing rite of Jewish passage.”

The continued popularity of Birthright trips throughout the Palestinian violence has also been encouraging. So who are these young Jews hitching a free ride with Birthright to join an organization that wants to thwart the actions of the Israel Defense Forces? Max, 21, an ISM volunteer interviewed for the story, admits that he didn’t assert his political views on the Birthright trip because he didn’t want to hurt or offend the soldiers that accompanied the tour bus to protect him. He started seeing them as real persons and not the Big Bad Israelis. That doesn’t sound too bad.

Jessica, the other interviewee, was such an extremist that she has worked to get Duke University to divest from any Israel-related company. Yet she became part of the Birthright family and developed a greater sympathy for Jewish nationalism. She might even have volunteered for a Jewish cause after Birthright, but living in a village and demonstrating was more interesting than deskwork. There’s a lesson in that for us to provide more compelling short-term volunteer opportunities.

Even we Zionists can understand how a fringe of well-intentioned Jewish kids get confused and hooked on anti-Jewish causes, given our people’s sympathetic tendencies and the negative portrayal of Israel. These students somehow block out the uncomfortable facts that the Palestinians see Jews everywhere as legitimate targets and these so-called victims have trained terrorists in many countries to destroy the free world.

So let’s say we meet Max and Jessica on their American campuses and engage in a frustrating debate in which they quote misinformation and half-truths and won’t believe, for instance, that Jews and Arabs share hospital waiting rooms, that soldiers are the boy and girl next door, that Palestinian women feel so unthreatened that they use my quiet Jerusalem street on Shabbat to practice driving.

Wouldn’t we recommend that the best antidote would be for them to go to Israel and see for themselves, say on Birthright Israel, with the hope that opening their eyes at the Western Wall would open their hearts to Zionism?

Even the minute fraction of a percent of Birthrighters who were drop-outs had the edge of their hostility toward us dulled by what they experienced in this most creative of outreach programs. It would be unfortunate if Birthright felt pressured into adopting a hard-core ideological line or subjecting candidates to harsh screenings in reaction to the negative publicity.

The hundreds of participants I’ve personally met have been wildly enthusiastic about the programming, which is a combination of education and fun. One of Birthright’s charms is the non-coercive atmosphere that facilitates non-stop conversation about things Jewish on the bus, at the hotel after dinner, at the top of Masada.

Without a little space, it’s hard to fall in love.

Barbara Sofer is a columnist for The Jerusalem Post, where this column previously appeared.