Brian Schaefer
The Jerusalem Post (Opinion)
June 16, 2011 - 12:00am

With June comes stifling summer heat and the French. Perhaps even more visible, or audible, is the endless stream of tour buses out of which tumble thousands of young Americans on whirlwind tours of the country.

They’re loud, excited, and wielding cameras like weapons. Ladies and gentlemen, it’s Taglit-Birthright season in Israel.

I am not a Birthright alumnus, but some of my best friends are. I was ineligible because I had participated in an organized youth tour in high school, in the summer of 1999. After two weeks in Israel on that B’nai B’rith program, I came away with a sunburn and an ear piercing, but having never heard of the Green Line, even though I’m sure I crossed it a few times while zigzagging through the country.

In 10 jam-packed days, the participants of Birthright and similar programs will scale Masada, bake in the mud of the Dead Sea, stuff prayers into the cracks of the Kotel and party ’til curfew at the Tel Aviv Port. They will leave Israel without seeing a single African refugee or Thai foreign worker, and most will still not know the difference between east and west Jerusalem. For most Israelis, American engagement with Israel, like the stereotypes of America itself, is shallow, superficial and rushed.

Yet while Birthright may scream the loudest, there are also programs for young American Jews that quietly explore Israel with curiosity and intention, that scratch through the layers of complexity with care and look at Israeli society through a magnifying glass, rather than rose-colored Ray-Bans.

CONSIDER A different scene: 10 Americans, all of us in our 20s, winding through the hills of the Golan, teaching each other about the 1967 annexation of the region and debating whether or not we personally would give it back in exchange for peace. Soon we reach the Druse village of Majdal Shams, where we continue the conversation at the home of a local family, overlooking the Syrian border.

This excursion was one of the learning seminars of the Dorot Fellowship in Israel, a 10-month program for a small cohort of passionate and curious American Jews, post-college and under 30, of which I count myself a lucky member. For 20 years, Dorot has proposed a vastly different way of looking at Israel – one that doesn’t shy away from the controversies that the rest of the world is talking about, but instead faces them head-on and forces its participants to grapple with Israel’s many contradictions.

The Dorot Fellowship is funded by a private family foundation based in Providence, Rhode Island, that is unaffiliated with any government program or Jewish denomination. Though the foundation supports other projects with clear political aims, this fellowship is adamantly apolitical.

How? Because we, the fellows, are responsible for our own learning, and we hold each other accountable for presenting a broad range of ideologies, perspectives and histories. The goal: to hear as many voices as possible and make up our own minds.

Over the course of the year, we have addressed the Israeli political and legal systems with members of Knesset, explored the local culture with museum directors, analyzed the politics of kashrut with rabbis, debated IDF policy with soldiers, and put a spotlight on refugees, foreign workers, haredim and the Beduin, among others.

In the process, we have learned to listen carefully, pry more deeply, and disagree respectfully.

Dorot is a highly competitive fellowship that pays us to live here for nearly a year.

Birthright is a free 10-day educational vacation.

The capabilities and intentions of each are clearly incomparable. But it is important for Israelis to know that beyond the waves of rambunctious teenagers, there are small, dedicated groups like Dorot that take Israel seriously enough to look past the stories and myths of our American upbringing with the belief that we have a responsibility to know Israel as it is today and to consider how we see ourselves a part of it.

The 10 of us come from a wide range of political views and religious practices (and are chosen for the fellowship because of this). Some fellows spend their time wrestling with Talmud; others haunt checkpoints or volunteer at refugee health clinics. I work at the Suzanne Dellal Center in Tel Aviv, exploring dance in Israel as a tool of cultural diplomacy. Some of us see the lack of pluralistic Judaism as the largest obstacle to Israeli stability; others think the occupation is its gravest threat. The point is not to reach solutions or find closure. When our fellowship ends in a few weeks, many of us will leave more confused and conflicted than when we arrived. To see Israel as it is can be disillusioning. The struggle is to keep looking.

WHICH IS exactly what Birthright seems to be afraid of. Programs such as this, rather than widening the eyes of their participants, put on blinders and send them back home knowing Israel through Goldstar and humous. The Israel that students see on Birthright is still the Israel of the past – but with much better shopping. They are carefully, and unfortunately, kept out of the Israel of today.

Several alumni of Birthright with whom I have spoken note that sometimes politics do sneak into the trip in small ways, but this depends entirely on knowledgeable individual staff members and inquisitive participants who know what questions to ask. Organizationally Birthright does not create a framework for how to delve into the sticky issues. Why not encourage students to follow Israeli media in the months leading up to the trip to gain a grasp of the topics that the country is currently discussing? Why not provide a reading list post-adventure so that students can then arm themselves with a variety of perspectives and opinions of contemporary history in order to speak intelligently about Israel back home? Many will argue that the focus of Birthright is Jewish identity – not Israeli politics – and that given the sheer volume of participants, any attempt at introducing even slightly controversial topics might offend, confuse or scare away potential Israel-lovers. Birthright supporters claim that the primary goal is to initiate an easyto- swallow connection to Israel so that participants will return on their own to learn more. Indeed, statistics of those who do in fact return suggest that Birthright is incredibly successful in its goal.

Yet what benefits Israel most is not hordes of Americans buying Coca-Cola Tshirts in Hebrew script, but those who can look with insight and compassion at the many complexities here. The launch of Birthright NEXT is a promising step toward continuing the conversation, but the program can do more to provide its alumni with resources and information to be able to talk about the country in articulate and nuanced ways, allowing them to respond to the organized and institutional criticism of Israel sweeping through American college campuses.

Birthright and Dorot are completely different ways of engaging with Israel, but they are not mutually exclusive. The main difference between the two programs is not their duration; rather it is how they conceive of and treat their participants: as consumers and cheerleaders, or as stakeholders and advocates. Birthright and other youth programs can create a bridge from one to the other if they commit to planting those seeds now.


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