Fabulous Free, and Fun: Trips to Israel for Jewish Youth

If you’re Jewish and between 18 and 26 years old, Mayanot/birthright israel will fly you to Israel for a 10-day tour, absolutely free. The trip to Israel is a Big Thing for Jewish folks, particularly in the “Jewish Crescent” (what the goyim call the Northeast Corridor) — I remember once when I was on a temp assignment at Hadassah (the Women’s Zionist Organization of America), I was introduced to the organization’s librarian, whose first words to me were “Have you been to Israel yet?” I hadn’t, and still haven’t, for a number of reasons. Jewish identity didn’t come easily to me — I spent my formative years denying it explicitly, mostly out of a pervasive disjoint between myself and religious thinking. It wasn’t until I was in my mid-twenties and began reading the literature of the Holocaust and of the Lower East Side that I began to understand that there was a heritage here separate from the religion itself, a realization that immediately put me in the camp of the “secular” or “cultural Jews”. What’s more, a big part of this took place in opposition to the pro-Israeli, Zionist Judaism that, as a New Yorker at the time, I was surrounded with. My own feelings ran towards the Bundists’: engagement with the problems of the diaspora, not disengagement and escape towards a Promised Land.

So to be honest, I probably wouldn’t have taken them up on this offer even if I was still under 26. Israel has little to do with my understanding of Judaism or of myself as a Jew — and that little is predominantly negative. What’s more, the security requirements of the trip (and do be sure to check out the security precautions) require the tour give a wide berth to hotspots like the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, meaning that an important part of the Israeli experience is ignored. (Bonus link: Have a look at the Onion’s archived front page from November 9, 1948, particularly the headline, “War-Weary Jews Establish Homeland Between Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt”.) To me, the settlements and retributive bombings and bulldozings and checkpoints and so on are of a piece with the Zionist ideology — they wanted to be a nation-state, and nation-states are defined by their use of coercive force against external threats and internally in the construction and regualtion of a “national” identity. To American Jews, remote from the threat of daily violence that shapes Israeli identity, these tours seem (to me, of course) to offer a stunted, attenuated image of the Zionist mission. I won’t go so far as to say the intent is to brainwash impressionable American Jews, but I will say I think the tours offer an unrealistically optimistic idea of what Israel offers to world Jewry.

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