An Open Letter to Rabbi Rick Jacobs – Celebrating Birthright

Read on Haaretz: https://www.haaretz.com/opinion/1.820871


 

Dear Rabbi Jacobs,

Although we only met briefly once, I have long followed your career and admired you. At a time when too many Progressives – and too many of your own Rabbinic colleagues in the URJ – simply bash Israel, you have demonstrated the kind of thoughtful patriotism we need in Israel – and the United States. In the spirit of the Biblical prophets and the modern Zionist movement, you demonstrate a deep, passionate, spiritual, infectious love of Israel and the Jewish people. At the same time, you are not afraid to criticize fairly, thoughtfully, constructively when necessary. Alas, I wish you had demonstrated those same skills on November 1 when you blindly, needlessly, and destructively bashed Birthright.

You issued a press release with the misleading — yet attention-grabbing – headline: “URJ’s Rabbi Rick Jacobs on Birthright Israel Halting Outreach to Arab Citizens of Israel.” First of all, Birthright Israel wasn’t doing “outreach to Arab Citizens” – Birthright is a Jewish identity-building program that encourages young Jewish adults to launch their own Jewish journey. So it’s more of an “inreach” than “outreach” program.

Ha’aretz reported the issue slightly more accurately, although still misleadingly. It reported: “Two years ago, Birthright launched a new program aimed at fostering connections with Israeli Arabs.” In fact, two years ago, Birthright, as part of its ongoing attempt to improve the educational experience of all of its participants, launched a new “geopolitics” track which included many new and some updated opportunities for participants to learn about and with Israeli Arabs through encounters and site visits. Birthright participants have been meeting Israeli Arabs in educational encounters since the program began. Anyone who would try to bring young Jewish adults to Israel and ignore the realities of Israeli-Arabs – or the existence of Palestinians – wouldn’t find many people signing up again. This attempt to reconceive and yes increase site visits to Israeli Arab villages and coexistence centers was part of a broader overhaul of the “Geopolitical track” to teach about Arabs and Israelis more effectively – and reflects the constant upgrading and improving built into Birthright’s DNA.

Somehow, I didn’t see a press release you issued at the time thanking Birthright for tackling this sensitive issue bravely, creatively – please send it to me if I missed it. The current controversy centers around a recent decision to reassess these new programs, because the feedback has been mixed – and we are committed to getting it right. Nearly fifteen years ago, we did a similar overhaul with our Holocaust education. That started a tradition – which the professional staff of Birthright manages every day, of checking and re-checking different aspects of the program.
Let me be clear. We are perfectionists in Birthright. Any part of the program that gets mediocre let alone negative feedback, gets extra scrutiny – but when we do it with the Israeli Arab educational piece, we get attacked by you and Ha’aretz. I’m confused. When we tried a Beit Midrash and it tanked, did that mean we oppose Jewish learning? When we piloted an entrepreneur track and it didn’t fly, did that mean that we aren’t proud of Israel as “start up nation?” Birthright is the great educational success story it is because it is not afraid to try and fail – and it never stops trying to improve. It also, unlike any university or synagogue I know, has invested tremendous amount of money and time in all kinds of feedback mechanisms and – note – takes them seriously.

I am curious, do you think you gave us the courtesy you would want us to give you before attacking some URJ decision? Did you speak to the Chair of the Taglit Birthright-Israel Education Committee? I know you didn’t because that’s me. So, I am curious why you felt it necessary to rush ahead to condemn us (having forgotten to praise us) – and why you then had to go even further. On what basis do you claim that this decision – which you misreported – “shows just how out of touch Birthright is becoming.” Have you looked at the surveys and trip assessments that show the high marks participants give precisely on the issues of candor and credibility? Or are you simply mimicking the lies of Birthright’s detractors, who love to caricature the program in all kinds of ways. Regardless, the League of Birthright and Israel Bashers thanks you for providing Ha’aretz with the kind of pull quote and headline it sought.

I, for one, and my colleagues who work far harder than I do, absolutely agree with your next statement. In fact, when we launched the Geopolitics track, we could have said, what you did, that “Arabs make up 21% of the Israeli population” and that there has been tremendous progress in “integrating Arab citizens of Israel into education, the workforce, and Israeli civil society.” You choose to credit “philanthropy” for the progress – I’d also point to a maturation in Israeli democracy and an evolution with the Israeli-Arab community itself.

Moreover, I also completely agree with your other statement — it nicely defines the Birthright educational philosophy: “We believe that young people can fall in love with the real Israel that has so many inspiring aspects while also seeing up close the struggles for religious pluralism and for better ways for Jewish and the Arab citizens of Israel to live together. Young Jews, in particular, bring their Jewish values with them wherever they go, including on Birthright trips to Israel.” I would add a whole bunch of other “struggles” that Israel faces which Birthright addresses – beyond what seems to be your (rather narrow) organizational agenda.

The six hundred thousand young Jews who have been on this program are not suckers. The program would not be the success it is if it was the simplistic, propagandistic program you claim it to be, with, how did you put it, “a narrow political agenda that is out of step with today’s young Jews and most of their parents.” Ouch. For years now, I have been telling critics right and left that Birthright is Israel 101 – that means that we don’t go partisan. But in a modern world, when we are teaching about a complex country, that doesn’t mean we can avoid politics – we just try to do it in as balanced and effective a way as possible.

Rabbi Jacobs, I wish you gave us the benefit of the doubt that I would give you before bashing some decision you made – and perpetuating the harshest, laziest stereotypes of a program critics would be most likely to swallow.

I also wish you imagined, just for a minute, the challenge every Birthright tour educator faces every minute of this important, often-life-changing, ten-day trip. Let’s say it’s July. Consider the distractions of sun, sand, and yes, sex. Consider the range of participants, starting with Israeli soldiers on the mifgash encounter program who have to put their politics on hold to serve their country – and may have had traumatic experiences defending their country. But most of all, consider what you contend with so eloquently: many young, thoughtful American Jewish students steeped in postmodern hostility toward nationalism, primed to doubt Zionism – and religion, and pummeled at the university or on social media if they don’t bash Israel themselves. And you, the tour guide, have an hour and a half during this packed day to introduce them to the complexities of Israeli-Arab identity and life in Israel’s growing democracy in 2017.

Given all that, I am tremendously proud that in our internal studies both our American and Israeli participants reported that they were exposed “to a reality of coexistence and cooperation between Jews and Arabs in Israel,” and enjoyed learning about “social responsibility and engagement, activism, a desire for change, tolerance and respect for the other, cooperation between the sectors and aspirations to live side by side, alongside complexities and challenges in Jewish-Arab relations in Israel.” And given all that, I am not surprised that we also received some criticism, which is why this re-evaluation is in order.

You know this isn’t easy. The Birthright miracle is that we make it look easy. And that is why you owe each and every one of the educators and administrators in the Birthright family a personal apology for trashing their work so glibly. We in the university know all about “virtue-signalling” – condemning an easy target to puff yourself up. I have long applauded you for avoiding such cheap theatrics. Today, I am dismayed that you took the low road to burnish your credentials with those who won’t really respect you and your holy work anyway.
Nevertheless, as a mark of my respect for you, I invite you to join us this Wednesday November 8 in New York, when the Birthright Education Committee meets and debates this and other important, complex issues. I would be thrilled to work with you – and learn from you – about this pressing educational challenge, which no Israel program can afford to dodge.

In friendship,
Gil Troy

(I am the voluntary chair of the Birthright Israel Education Committee — this is an unauthorized and completely personal statement).