A group of Jewish activists stage a protest outside the program's 18th anniversary gala in New York City on April 15, 2018. Photo: Atilgan Ozdil / Anadolu

The Birthright program has been a major success since its founding in 1994. The not-for-profit initiative has sent some half a million Jews between the ages of 18-32, mostly from North America, on free trips to Israel in order to bolster their connection to the Jewish state. 

However, this year there has been a sharp drop in participation. The trips are organized by separate providers. After confirming the numbers with five out of 11 independent providers, the liberal Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz reported that registration is down anywhere from 20-50% depending on the specific trip.

Downturns have occurred before, but this is the first time numbers have been down so drastically at a time of relative quiet in Israel and a lack of significant security concerns.

Downturns have occurred before, but this is the first time numbers have been down so drastically at a time of relative quiet in Israel and a lack of significant security concerns.

The organizers of the central organization of Birthright have denied that registration is down to that extent. They claim there is a 7-10% downturn. The largest provider, The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life (Hillel), agreed, stating that “our Birthright Israel recruitment remains steady since last winter, with nearly the same number of participants and buses as a year ago.” Organizers note, however, that winter trips always attract fewer participants. It is in the summer that numbers are high and those figures will not be available until March.

Generation Z

Assuming the downward trend in participation is real, it could have significant implications for the long-term ties between the American Jewish community and Israel.

Birthright trips were first organized by the Israeli government and private Jewish donors from around the world in response to a sense that younger Jews are less committed to Israel than their older relatives. The program has had notable success in fostering warmer feelings toward the country amongst participants. The historically high rates of registration have been noted as a counter-argument to the conventional wisdom that young Jews were uninterested in Israel.

The new and dramatic numbers may show, however, that Jewish members of Generation Z, now entering college, are showing significantly greater distance toward Israel than the millennial generation.

Jews in America are overwhelmingly liberal. Seventy percent vote Democrat, and young Jews are even more liberal. Young students are often highly focused on social justice issues and they often note that Israeli treatment of the Palestinians and migrants from sub-Saharan African countries is objectionable to them.

Walking out

Last year, a group of participants walked out of the trip, claiming that it did not expose them to non-Jewish perspectives. In particular, dissidents accused the program of whitewashing Israeli policies in the occupied territories and for not including enough meetings with Palestinian citizens of Israel.

One of the participants who walked out was Danielle Raskin. Raskin helped launch a campaign called #NotJustAFreeTrip that argues Birthright “curates an experience that deliberately obscures the occupation and the truth about Israel from view.”

A petition signed by more than 1,500 Jewish students demanding that Birthright includePalestinian speakers in its itinerary was recently delivered to Hillel directors across the United States.

Palestinian teen Ahed Tamimi enters a military courtroom escorted by Israeli Prison Service personnel at Ofer Prison near the West Bank city of Ramallah on December 28, 2017. Photo: Reuters / Ammar Awad
Palestinian teen Ahed Tamimi is seen entering a military courtroom escorted by Israeli personnel at Ofer Prison near the West Bank city of Ramallah on December 28, 2017. Photo: Reuters / Ammar Awad

The petition read: “The exclusion of voices of Palestinians and Palestinian citizens of Israel from Birthright runs counter to our core values…On a trip to Israel, we should experience the country’s history and culture, but we should also learn about the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and hear the voices of Palestinians living under occupation.”

This attitude is influencing perspective participants in the program. Mellissa Meisels, a recently graduated UCLA political science major, told Asia Times that she was going to Israel as part of the Birthright program this summer because she is interested in Israeli politics and culture. She noted the trip was emotionally significant, as her deceased grandfather hoped she would see Israel one day.

However, she considered not going due to concerns over a possible backlash due to her association with politically progressive causes. Meisels said she feared “criticism and shaming from some of the social justice people I’m acquainted with.” She also noted that some liberal friends of hers “faced backlash upon returning from Israel.”

Indeed, young Americans feel increasingly uncomfortable supporting Israel. In recent years, as the Democratic Party and liberal circles have moved to the left and embraced multiculturalism and pluralism, the more rigid nationalistic Israeli version of Judaism has increasingly become an embarrassment. More recently it has moved towards a new version of progressivism rife with identity politics. The new version of liberalism focuses on issues such as intersectional repression and cultural appropriation. In a very simplified form, it tends to emphasize the oppression of people of color by white people and excoriate the dangers of white supremacy.

Since this lens on political reality is now dominant within the Democratic Party, it is now used to analyze Middle Eastern reality through tools more appropriate to the United States. Thus, in the minds of many liberal American Jews, the Palestinians became oppressed people of color under the thumb of the white Israelis.

Israelis and American Jews, which once shared great kinship, occupy increasingly differing worlds and undergo unrelated experiences. In the future, supporters of Birthright will need to take the concerns of their liberal-leaning brethren into consideration if they are to bridge an ever-widening gap between the two communities.

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