Inculcating a love of Israel in new generations, along with a lifelong willingness to defend it in a world that too often only focuses only on its faults, is always a tightrope act.
For young Jews in particular, highlighting the many accomplishments of the Jewish state and developing personal connections to its people have a powerful impact. That’s a dynamic Birthright Israel has leveraged with great success since its creation in 1999, with more than 600,000 young people from 67 countries among its alumni.
But building bonds strong enough to survive the controversies over Israel’s policies — and sometimes over its very existence — that rage on American college campuses also depends on acknowledging and openly addressing the challenges and the excruciatingly difficult decisions it faces. Seeking to limit the exchange of ideas and presenting an idealized Israel contributes both to the polarization of our community on Israel-related issues and the growing estrangement that populates the nightmares of Jewish leaders here.
Last week’s incident at JFK Airport, when activists from the Israeli anti-occupation group IfNotNow sought to distribute literature, snacks and a critical perspective to a departing contingent of Birthright participants, illustrates that tension, the group’s sixth “Birthright send-off” action since last year.
It is understandable why Birthright officials, who asked the protestors to leave and instructed the young travelers not to speak to them, were uneasy about IfNotNow’s aggressive tactics. Confrontation is, by definition, uncomfortable, especially when the targets are young people embarking on an exciting travel adventure whose emphasis is Jewish identity, not politics.
But it is also understandable why the left-of-center group, which seeks to “end American Jewish support for the occupation,” advocates a more confrontational approach. While most alumni of the free, 10-day Israel tours laud Birthright’s approach to outreach, critics say the trips offer a sanitized, simplistic view of the country. Infiltrating the bubble of the Birthright experience is not easy.
It is laudable to give young Jews on their first trip to Israel a strong dose of the many positives of a flourishing Jewish state. But trying to insulate participants from issues such as the treatment of Palestinians and growth of West Bank settlements — issues that generate vigorous debate among Israel’s citizens — undercuts the important Birthright mission.
In the years to come, Israel’s strongest and most influential defenders will be those able to discuss and debate the complex challenges and agonizing choices it faces even when doing so is uncomfortable. Forging strong emotional bonds to the Jewish state is important, but so is equipping these future leaders with a broad understanding as well as a deep emotional connection to Israel.