JERUSALEM — It was the first trip to Israel for Marc Blumstein, 20, who grew up in Boca Raton, and he was brimming with Jewish pride.
"Just to come here and really see the things you've studied and learned. It brings a whole new meaning to your life. It's a powerful place," Blumstein said Wednesday at the Beit Yeduda Hostel in Jerusalem.
He was in the midst of a 10-day tour sponsored by Birthright Israel, which takes its name from the Zionist notion that all Jews, no matter their nationality, have the right to call Israel home.
The program, which is offered free to Jews between the ages of 18 and 26 who have never visited Israel in an organized group, is becoming a rite of passage for young American Jews.
Didi Remez July 5, 2010
The “Hebron” account at WeJew.com (a kind of Jewish YouTube wannabe) has just (July 5 2010) uploaded a video purportedly documenting a visit this month of an Australian Birthright group to the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron. This site is the stated raison d’être of the extremist Jewish Settlement in the the West Bank city and its cultural center.
At 01:46, “Daniel”, the apparent trip leader, is interviewed. He seems to know exactly what he’s doing.
What’s the problem?
Well, for starters, in its Safety and Security rules, Birthright makes an explicit commitment to participants, parents and, presumably, insurers:
Our tours do not travel to or through areas of the West Bank, Gaza or East Jerusalem, other than the Jewish Quarter of the Old City.
In addition, Birthright has been repeatedly criticized for providing young Jewish-Americans a skewed perception of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Some of the most scathing criticism has come from within the Jewish-American community. For example, here is a remarkable piece of soul-searching from a Hillel campus organizer:
So what am I doing behind this Birthright table, trying to rally Jews and only Jews to go to Israel with a program whose agenda is to make them rabid, unquestioning supporters of its actions? What am I supposed to say to my students who identity more with Palestinian solidarity than with a Jewish state? What would I do if I was confronted by an activist who challenged me on the seemingly “racist” nature of Birthright? Would I smile and offer them chocolate and hope they go away? Would I engage them? Would I acknowledge their confusion and indignation? Would I haul out the classic Israel advocacy tractates that I have (knowingly and not) absorbed from years of working for Hillel?
Birthright has a response to this kind of criticism, which is particularly interesting in the context of the Hebron visit video:
“The conflict bubbles up,” said Barry Chazan, a professor emeritus of education at Hebrew University and education director for Birthright Israel.
“But it’s not a seminar in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. … The fact that they don’t meet the head of the Palestinian Authority doesn’t mean they’re not experiencing issues of the conflict.”