Birthright works like this: there are forty young people per group between the ages of twenty-two and twenty-six. There are also groups of the same size for people between the ages of eighteen and twenty-two. All are recipients of “The Gift.” This is the term used by Taglit, the global organization overseeing Birthright operations, to refer to the free trips to Israel offered to young, self-proclaimed Jewish people all throughout the world.
From my experience, the application process basically worked on the honor system. I told them I was Jewish, they sent me to Israel. Since 1999, Taglit has sent over 400,000 teenagers and twenty-somethings to Israel for ten day excursions traversing the whole of the country at around $3,000 a head. A substantial portion of the bill is footed in part by the Israeli government, as Birthright presents an amazing opportunity for the country to do some first-hand public-relations work with coddled young people—not to mention that Birthright has generated over $800 million in tourism revenue for the country. The rest of the funding for Taglit comes from a variety of rich organizations and individuals primarily based in the States: Jewish groups, private donors, and publicly recognized lords of avarice—most notably the casino-mogul Sheldon Adelson, who’s donated $180 million to date. While the rationale for financially backing Taglit is undoubtedly as varied as its sources—a reported 60,000 individual donors—the main objective is to send as many kids to Israel as money can buy, the stated goal per year being 51,000.
Taking part in a Taglit-Birthright trip gives new meaning to the notion of being a member of the “chosen people.” It’s enacting a will that’s all morally distorted and bloated with cash, traveling through the paved-over parts of a presumed “Promised Land” in a repurposed tour bus catering specifically to a very particular sect of privileged people.
Taking the trip without paying for the ride.
Before leaving, one question I kept asking myself was how bad could it be? It was ten days. Most everything was paid for. I didn’t have to plan anything. And besides, when it was all said and done, I would be free to do whatever I wanted. I would have what was left of an allotted three month period to go wherever. That was the idea from the beginning—to get myself through the trials of this weird ten day trip for the purpose of traveling more extensively on my own afterwards. There wasn’t any obligation to stay in Israel. So long as I made it back to Tel Aviv in time to catch my flight out, I was set. The only expense I had to cover for airfare was the relatively small fee required for changing my departure date.
Keep in mind that all of this would be null-and-void if I left the Birthright tour early. Opting-out of Birthright upon entering Israel meant forfeiting a $250 deposit and losing a ride home. That $250 deposit is submitted with all Birthright applications, refunded after either rejection of said application or completion of the trip. After Birthright accepts a participant and receives confirmation from them, there is a very small window where one can back out and still receive this deposit back. It’s a way for the trip organizers to ensure that people don’t sign up to take a free trip 5,000 miles across the world and then flake out at the last minute or go on the lam upon arrival and not actually do the Birthright thing.
There’s a lot of money being spent to make this all happen. True, they have an unsophisticated application process with few safeguards against fraud. That comes with the territory of offering free exotic trips to anyone claiming Jewish descent. A surreal social experiment, Birthright appears in large part as a menagerie of horny American Jews—as well as Jews from the other sixty-four countries in which Taglit operates—thousands of miles away from home getting drunk, rubbing up on each other, and having the best time ever. Nevertheless, you have to consider that what looks like a shitshow may actually be a series of orchestrated events; what may feel spontaneous to some may be utterly predictable to others. There are people in charge of Birthright. In other words, it’s a calculated operation, intended to produce certain results.
Sure, it’s not precise. It’s not an exact science. I’m not saying that Birthright brainwashes people or that anyone is necessarily forced or coerced into anything so wicked and evil. But if you think Birthright exists solely to send people to Israel just because they’re Jewish, you’re out of your mind.
Taglit is a very strange operation. It’s large and it’s serious. I can’t really think of anything comparable. If I had to categorize the overall intentions behind it, I would define them as being overtly political. The purpose of Taglit providing “The Gift” has much less to do with providing young Jews living outside of Israel with the opportunity to “return home” than it does with a concentrated effort to create awareness of and support for an unpopular country that’s been criticized throughout the world for its actions. This support and awareness is effectively created by means of an astute yet one-sided presentation of a country that’s foreign to most of its audience.
Religion plays a minor role in the affair. If a secular Jew turns into a religious Jew as a result of a Birthright trip, that’s great for Taglit, although in actuality not the point. Plenty of the participants in Taglit trips are already religious. Just the same, plenty of them aren’t and never will be. Religious conversion or endorsement is unimportant in relation to the greater goal of creating a vehicle for young Jewish people to feel connected to their heritage, to gain a sense of cultural identity that is, by default, directly linked with present-day Israel and all the political ramifications that association entails. This fostering of Jewish identity and community is paramount to the success of all Birthright trips, which could accurately be construed as elaborate ad-campaigns for Israeli nationalism.
A girl I spoke with at dinner on the first night said, “This is exactly like camp, just in Israel.”
I’d never gone to camp as a kid. This idea of fraternizing with total strangers, of making fast friends on minimal commonalities, was foreign to me. I felt out of place, not because I was in a different country but because I was surrounded by so many people from my own. The question I couldn’t help but keep asking myself was what the hell am I doing here?