Religion & Beliefs

Birthright Revisited: “Real” And “True” Culture

In the last post, I hinted towards some of the more questionable aspects of the birthright experience. Here I would like to focus on this idea of birthright as experiencing the “real” or “true” culture of Israel. Read More

By / November 3, 2011
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In the last post, I hinted towards some of the more questionable aspects of the birthright experience. Here I would like to focus on this idea of birthright as experiencing the “real” or “true” culture of Israel. By now we treat the inherent subjectivity of every experience as a truism, but it helps to flesh out how the program itself guides the thoughts, feelings, and emotions of the participants towards its goals.

Birthright’s first, basic, and most important tool is simple fatigue. From the outside, the schedule of birthright doesn’t necessarily impress us with a frenetic pace, but put together jet -lag, nerves, late bedtime and early wake up, hikes, hours on a bus, oily food, foreign ideas, people, and places, mix in moving from hotel to hostel to hotel, emotionally electric experiences ranging from faux-falling in love to the weight of the holocaust, plus the alcohol, of course, and you create a cocktail that will knock out the strongest of people. (I always found this nomadic aspect of the trip ironic. We attend a trip called Birthright only to feel a constant sense of displacement.)

The fatigue causes the different components of the trip to bleed together into one big stain. Or worse, the adventurous aspect overwhelms the participants to the extent that the educational content, regardless of its bent, can only receive a tepid reception from a bunch of reasonably tired Americans, who just want to eat the same piece of schnitzel with rice, again, and then get shitfaced with friends. Consequently, either we lose the educational aspect, or the educational aspect moves into the minds of the participants with little critical thought. However, this sapping of energy accomplishes positive goals as well. Feeling tired after a long day not only engenders a sense of accomplishment, but it also creates an in group feeling, heightens emotions, lowers inhibitions, which makes it easier to connect to everyone on the trip.

Let’s make an obvious point: Often, what you don’t show someone serves as much as propaganda as what you choose to show. Thinking that the birthright experience actually captures the feel of Israel is akin to thinking that Disneyworld represents America. Instead, birthright offers a highlight reel, an anesthetized, simplistic version of Israel.

Here’s what we do see and experience. We see beaches with names like Durex beach, full of attractive young people playing that stupid paddle ball game, wearing speedos or bikinis, with whom we eye flirt. We see sunsets, artist markets, possibly drugged out, or acid addled Cabbalists. We see Israelis, from afar. We see emotionally evocative holy places, and pictures, ceaseless pictures of the holocaust. We hear of the Jews courage to die by their own hands rather than give up in Masada. We hear from a right-wing extremist nut who wears a gun like a pair of suspenders, and wears that novelty shirt that screams with pride that amongst all the ancient nations, only the Jews have survived, which cruelly misrepresents history. (Judaism as a religion has survived. Judaism, just like Ancient Rome has fallen. David’s line no longer sits in his palace in Jerusalem, and if we are using longevity of existence as a gauge for anything, then oy vey.)

We celebrate bar mitzvahs amidst the ruins of the Temple. We remain tourists in every imaginable sense of the word. We visit bars prepared for our visit (An endless loop of Lady Gaga interspersed with other popular American songs.) We dance with creepy Israeli guys and get rejected, mostly, by Israeli women. We ogle, a lot. All of us. We stay up late creating memories over pizza. We jump into the ocean in our underwear for some moonlight swimming, the waves higher than our heads, without lifeguards. We walk around drunk at 3:30 at night searching the streets of Tel Aviv for an open restaurant that better have a great milkshake. We sleep, eventually, huddled up together in a bedouin tent, after a delicious dinner, a campfire, more flirtation, some cuddling, some coupling, and of course, a lot of drinking. We hike short hikes then the men take off their shirts to display their power. We play ad-hoc baseball. We throw rocks at the sunset. We drink sweet bedouin tea together and laugh at or with the poor bedouin tour guide who must put his culture on display to people who clearly do not care. We feel infinite.

Here’s what we don’t see. We don’t see Arabs, or we barely do. We see them in the hotels, sometimes, but most participants wouldn’t notice them or care. We see their towns from a far, but we shy away from them because they look monotonous, deprived. We obviously don’t hear from an Arab Israeli, or any Palestinian, nor can any participant go to Palestinian territories for safety reasons. (This strikes me as a weak excuse because if they really cared, they could have these adult participants sign waivers.)  We don’t see the victims of attacks, on either side, the ones with limbs missing, or faces burned. We don’t see the frustration of the current generation with the army, with the lack of jobs, with a lack of a voice, a general frustration that creates a situation that according to one of the Israeli guards on the trip, “we feel more calm when we know of an imminent threat, and feel less calm in the ambiguity of silence…I can barely imagine what it feels like to live a life where you can make choices for yourself.” (She was actually that eloquent.) We don’t hear about the soldiers, who like Israeli author Etgar Keret’s friend, committed suicide in the army. We don’t see the animosity that so much of the younger generation bears towards their parents ideological Zionist Dreams. We don’t see the apathy. We don’t see the other side of the wall. The terrifying checkpoints that let us glide through, but probably, it’s safe to say, don’t treat everyone that way.

We interact with Israeli’s that the program chooses. The Israeli soldiers, make no mistake about it, will gladly explain their ulterior motives as a desire for a vacation and to sleep with pretty Americans, besides the stated purpose of representing their country and army. The army and birthright, obviously so, but this still should raise questions, chooses Israeli soldiers who either hold admirable positions in the army, or do not veer from the path/party line. The soldiers who go on birthright get chosen for their pride in their job, their country, and their army, or their willingness to play that part.

Also, they always happen to turn out attractive. Shocking. The thought of an 18 year old fighting for something that they can barely choose to believe in, disturbed me, and perhaps a few other participants, but most of the people fall in love with the soldiers, in a manner incommensurate to the time spent together. After just five days, not counting the first in which the soldiers fumble through introductions, some of the participants think they’ve found love incarnate in this foreign soldier. The soldiers lend our American lives value, while us Americans provide these Israelis both a taste of freedom and more importantly, admiration and validation. Through this symbiotic connection, birthright creates a bond that though tenuous, elicits impossible reactions: beautiful, teary eyed, repeated good byes, hugs, kisses, more hugs, even more hugs, waves goodbye from the bus, more crying, and then constant Facebook messaging. Birthright, brilliantly, puts an attractive, emotionally connected face to the culture and army of Israel. No longer can any of the participants think in the abstract about Israeli society. From now on, we will all think of Tamir, or Agnayu or Maya etc.

That we see the culture they want us to see is understandable. If I received guests in my house and then proceeded to give them the royal tour I would not show them the unfinished or messy rooms. But this infantilizes the participants. It creates an Israel in their minds that bears little resemblance to Israel. The worst part is that we pull off this magic trick without telling them. So much of the rhetoric on the trip presupposes we treat the participants as adults, but this experience undermines our words. Respecting adulthood in others entails respecting their ability to think, critically, to make decisions based on exploring the range of opinions.

Which all leads to a less obvious point: This trip, though touted and repeatedly referred to as a gift, is more similar to a gift from your in-laws that implicitly creates a contract of sorts where you now must visit them, listen to their rules, and opinions. On a basic, non-controversial level let’s refer to this as an investment by Jewish Federations, two super rich Jews, and recently the Israeli government. Each invests to gain something, whether Jewish continuity or fiscal and political support of Israel, or perhaps to inculcate a certain vision of Israel. The governments involvement doesn’t change the nature of the trip, it just highlights the true nature of the trip as teleological, or simply, as a purposeful investment.

Birthright advertises as a trip without an agenda, but even with generosity, their program seriously limits the range of reactions to the trip. There is a reason that most trips sounds the same, but differ just in volume of excitement. Of course, exceptions exist, but like many exceptions they point to the rule. However, despite the not-so-hidden agenda, I understand the tension in creating the right kind of balance on this trip. As much as the participants are adults, and they are full-fledged adults, they are children, babies almost, when it comes to Jewish religion, culture, and Israel. How do you create a trip that both represents Israel in all its complexity, while respecting both the maturity and lack of education of the participants? I hope to speak about this, and the politics of the trip in the next post.