Dear OU board and OU Israel Free Spirit commission member,
As I’m sure many of you have read by now, this past week featured two articles about Birthright, one published in The New York Times and another in “The Forward”.
Here are links to both:
The background to these articles surrounds a group of young Jewish activists who came together under the name “If Not Now” to advocate for ending the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories. They chose to attack Birthright as a method to effect Jewish American public opinion.
Their tactic last summer (the one described in the articles) was to have their activists join Birthright trips and eventually, after a series of provocations well planned in advance, leave the trip in the middle while taking live videos of their dramatic exits and circulating the documentation widely on social media. You can watch these videos still circulating on social media.
This was disruptive and very challenging for the groups it happened on, but there was much more noise than actual incidents. In a summer of over 30,000 participants, there were less than a handful of such incidents.
No OU Israel Free Spirit groups were affected by this campaign.
No participants walked out of any of our trips and while we certainly deal with young individuals with very liberal perspectives, we’ve had only respectful conversations so far.
Politics and the conflict are not the core of what we are about and it’s not the core of what Birthright is about. This explains the poor level of support these activists received across the board.
We have never shied away from raising the topic of the conflict and we have had professional speakers on all of our groups years before Birthright made it mandatory, while keeping in perspective the main focus of our trip is our participants’ ongoing connection to Judaism and Israel. We are blessed with wonderful staff, coordinators and educational management that keeps us on track and balanced along with having been blessed and lucky about having open minded, appreciative participants.
In the winter, Birthright changed tactics and took the initiative to remove a few participants who were disrupting a trip.
There was grumbling in the media about “Birthright not allowing participants to ask tough questions” but between Birthright’s firm reaction and the “walk offs” becoming old and uninteresting news, “If Not Now” lost steam and instead, in preparation for this summer, called on young Jews to “divorce Birthright”. They encouraged people not to sign up at all for the program. Some groups were harassed at the airport in New York and encouraged to tear up their tickets.
As you can read in the article in the Forward, that campaign never picked up and now, “If Not Now” are pausing their activities completely and regrouping to reconsider.
“If Not Now” is not about Birthright , they were using Birthright as a platform, and recently, a non-Birthright related incident caused dissent among their supporters and seems to be part of the background for the timing of their current statement.
I’d like to tell you there was no impact felt on registration for our trips.
The reality is that it’s hard to know.
Birthright registration this summer was more challenging than in previous years and fewer people registered than expected, but it’s quite difficult to attribute that directly to “If Not Now” efforts.
Having said that, the article published in the NY Times briefly raises a very important point that is deeper and wider than a specific group of activists. It brings the statistics that we all feel, and which have been confirmed in studies. They describe the disparity between the new generation of young Jews in America and the previous couple of generations with regards to their attitudes re Israel.
Israel was always perceived as a way to connect Jews to their identity. In light of the political views of many young Jews, some forums are questioning whether Israel is a stumbling block instead of a conduit, alienating liberal Jews who could possibly be more readily drawn to their identity if it wasn’t contingent on them supporting Israel and Israel’s actions.
We, in the OU, are in an incredible position to contribute our unwavering perspective to this conversation, as we join hands with Birthright and all our partners in the conviction that Israel is not a methodology, it is an integral part of who we are as a people.
We can and should take pride in our years of experience sharing the beauty of Torah and the beauty of Israel. We should continue encouraging our participants to take pride in their tremendous heritage while giving them an assuring hand, helping them find their place in the Jewish community and live meaningful active and rich Jewish lives.
We should be very careful to remain somewhat unsatisfied as well; to be extremely wary about false complacency, to remain updated and part of the evolving conversation. We have much work to do and it’s our job to reach out to as many young Jews as we can, have them take part in at least one of our many enterprises built especially for them. The Mishna quotes” לא עליך המלאכה לגמור, ולא אתה בן חורין להבטל ממנה”.
We are not alone in our mission. The Times article, perhaps unwittingly, summarizes with the quoted alumni on both sides of the political argument stating their appreciation and devotion to developing their Jewish practices thanks to Birthright.
Within the educational management of Birthright, Israel Free Spirit educators are heralded as the most balanced educators, accepting our participants and being inclusive of all, while simultaneously receiving the highest scores from the participants themselves regarding all areas of acquiring knowledge and strengthening their Jewish Identity in all aspects.
It is your support that allows us to continue in this path, and b”h we hope with much hard work to continue to merit to touch as many of our brothers and sisters’ hearts and ensuring they remain a part of our extended Jewish family.
Director, OU Israel Free Spirit
Rabbi Dave Felsenthal
OU Chief Innovation Officer
Chairperson, OU Israel Free Spirit
OU Executive Vice President
PS. For those who want a more detailed look at our educational approach to this issue, I’ve included an outline below.
OU Israel Free Spirit address the conflict and offers a window to geopolitical education in several ways:
1. Orientation upon landing in Israel. In addition to general discipline rules, orientation is built to frame the trip, the goals and objectives and the expected conduct necessary to achieve those. Within the orientation we stress our expectations re mannerism of communication and respect to group, program, content and staff. We specifically and purposely raise the conflict as an example of a topic that might interest them to learn more about (along with other examples, also mindfully chosen such as exploring Jewish sources). We encourage participants to challenge us with as many questions as they can while simultaneously promising them we won’t necessarily have answers to all their questions. We mention the limitations of being able to go in depth into every single topic we come across, and state in advance that we will encourage them to continue exploring areas of interest after the trip is over and that we would help provide them with resources and directions.
2. Each trip is led by an Israeli tour educator who is required to deliver a mandatory session titled: “Israeli Palestinian conflict 101”. The purpose of this session is to raise awareness to the topic, present our participants with basic information and respond to initial questions. Every session must include the use of maps, a timeline of main events and the introduction of relevant terminology as used by different narratives within the conflict (I.E. Judea and Samaria, Occupied territories, disputed territories, Palestine). The timing of this session is generally within the first third of the trip.
3. Every group meets a professional geopolitical speaker trained by birthright to meet relevant standards. These speakers are Jewish, the conversation is not titled “hasbara”, it is titled “Geopolitics”, and the speakers’ job is to present a well-rounded view while also explaining to the group the limitations of presenting a narrative by someone who isn’t part of it.
4. Some of our groups meet with Israeli Arabs. The most common program we use is a meet up with Bedouin Women in their town who have an in-depth discussion with our participants about their lives and challenges. It is not a political program re content in the classic form and doesn’t address the topic of living in Israel as a Non Jewish minority, but it is an inspiring and meaningful experience that definitely allows our participants to feel and understand that they’ve met a very authentic voice.
5. Staff are trained to identify the difference between “provocations” and genuine and legitimate “tough questions”. Groups that have the right staff or the “right” Israeli participants hold discussion panels in which all contemporary Israel questions are encouraged and staff and Israelis attempt to answer.
We can’t, unfortunately, fully address the need to meet Palestinians, although Birthright is re introducing some relevant programming as the Times article correctly describes.
We used to ensure every Israel Free Spirit group has an encounter of some form with a non-Jewish group of people who live in Israel. These included a Druze experience, a Bedouin experience (not the touristy “Bedouin” camping night, but a discussion with Bedouin women as described above), or a Palestinian representative they would meet in Gush Etzion (alongside a Jewish settler) and sometimes elsewhere.
Birthright eventually decided to add geopolitical encounters as a formal element in all trips, making a similar type of standard, but a few incidents ended up creating unintended havoc and they had to pause the whole project. (Nothing to do with Israel Free Spirit and no negative incidents took place on our trips). They are now slowly reviving it and we now received permission to again meet with Palestinians in the Gush, we hope to re institute this by the winter and also to develop more options.