For young adult American Jews, the Birthright program offers an enticing opportunity. It provides expense-paid educational tours of Israel, lasting a week or longer, to explore Jewish history and learn about contemporary issues in the Jewish state.
The organization’s website says Birthright Israel “seeks to ensure the future of the Jewish people by strengthening Jewish identity, Jewish communities, and connection with Israel” in a visit accompanied by guides, “who join the trips as colleagues and friends.”
Increased Criticism of Israel
Some critics, however, are pushing back against what they see as a distorted representation by tour organizers of current issues in Israel, NBC News reports. More and more, young American Jews are criticizing the current Israeli government, particularly its actions toward Palestinians in the occupied West Bank.
“An American anti-occupation group, called IfNotNow, has organized walkouts by a few Birthright participants, hoping the resultant publicity will inspire other young tourists to make the same gesture, and pressure American Jews to reassess their support for Israeli policies,” according to the story.
Concerns Over Hard Line Tactics
While only a handful of walkouts have occurred, the story notes that the protests have been shared widely on social media and “have helped shine a light on the growing disillusionment with Israel that many young American Jews feel.”
Rabbi Sharon Brous of Los Angeles says a generational shift is underway, with younger Jews less willing than their elders to accept the actions of the Israeli government without question.
“In the name of loving Israel, we have created a firewall to protect Israeli politicians and Israeli policies that I believe are ultimately undermining Israel’s Jewish and democratic nature,” she said.
In addition to younger Jews, even prominent mainstream Jewish leaders in the U.S. are starting to publicly criticize Israel’s government.
Skepticism Over Committment to Peace
According to a 2013 Pew survey, only a quarter of American Jews aged 18-29 believed Israel’s government was “making a sincere effort to bring about a peace settlement with the Palestinians.” Brouse believes that sentiment has grown considerably after the election of President Trump, who has lined up squarely behind Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his policies.
Now, criticism of Israel’s recent tactics appears to be expanding. Even prominent mainstream Jewish leaders in the U.S. are starting to publicly criticize Israel’s government, NBC News reports.
Ronald Lauder — president of the World Jewish Congress — wrote an op-ed article in The New York Times in August questioning Israeli policies, including the controversial nation-state law which many believe demotes non-Jewish minorities to second-class citizens.
“These events are creating the impression that the democratic and egalitarian dimensions of the Jewish democratic state are being tested,” he wrote.
You can read the full article, As Israel Moves Right, Young American Jews Target Birthright Tours in Protest, at NBC News.
In 2016, Israeli writer and Haaretz editor Gideon Levy spoke at a conference presented by American Educational Trust in Washington, D.C. The topic of the conference was: Israel’s Influence: Good or Bad for America?