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Birthright Tells Only Half The Story
Mon, 05/13/2013 - 20:00
Special To The Jewish Week
Steven Povich and Axel Hufford
Steven Povich and Axel Hufford

As summer break approaches for American college students, thousands of our Jewish peers across the country will embark on their first visits to Israel through Taglit-Birthright. This program, which has brought almost 300,000 Jewish young adults to Israel over the past 13 years, free of charge, hopes to leave participants with a lasting love for Israel and a stronger connection to Judaism.

This past December, as we participated in Birthright through Dartmouth College Hillel, Israel, in our minds, shifted from being merely an abstract conception to something that felt tangibly, overwhelmingly real. Never before had we felt such a strong connection to our people’s homeland.

Despite our strong Jewish upbringings, including K-12 attendance at Jewish schools, we had never before felt a real passion for the Jewish homeland. Yet, when we walked around the shuk in Jerusalem and bonded with the Israeli soldiers who accompanied us, we started to feel a strong connection to the State of Israel. Experiencing Israel’s many natural and historic wonders, from the Dead Sea to Safed, deepened our desire to learn more about the country.

And yet, while we enjoyed our falafel and posed for pictures on Masada, part of our Israel education was missing. Although our tour guide did not fail to teach many fun facts, she skimmed over some of the important ones. When we were driving towards Jerusalem and could visibly see the refugee camps and settlements in the West Bank, our tour guide remained silent. In some cases, she actually pointed in the opposite direction to show us the landscape or certain buildings, barely touching on the more contentious topic of the Israeli occupation. When we tried to ask, our questions were deflected. Indeed, we were curious about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict but left the country feeling intellectually unfulfilled in that regard.

As Jewish college students who want to explore the challenges that Israel faces in a realistic and honest way, we found ourselves frustrated by the one-sided education and utter lack of critical discussion regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Put simply, we returned from Israel feeling incapable of being pro-Israel advocates on campus; with such a small piece of the story, how could we talk to our peers about the complexities, nuances, and narratives that form the fabric of one of the world’s most intractable conflicts?

Upon returning to campus, we felt the need to delve deeper into some of the issues that our trip had ignored, primarily Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territory and its quest for peace with the Palestinians. That void was filled by J Street U, a pro-Israel, pro-peace group that works to open up the discussion on Israel in the American Jewish community; the student arm of J Street, the organization pushes for American diplomatic leadership to achieve a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which threatens Israel’s Jewish and democratic character and Israel’s security. As active members, we have been able to learn and discuss the hard facts of Israel’s politics and history in an open and nuanced fashion. During weekly lunch discussions on important topics — like Obama’s trip to Israel and the Oslo Accords — we are becoming more knowledgeable about Israel and, consequently, are becoming better Israel advocates each and every day. Understanding what Israel truly needs to flourish and survive, we know what to advocate for — a two-state solution, a vibrant democracy, internationally recognized borders, and a lasting peace.

As American Jewish college students, we’ve been taught to think critically about all other issues, neglecting to apply that same critical lens to the immense challenges that Israel faces. We refuse to ignore them any longer.

After an unforgettable 10-day trip to a country that we can now feel connected to, we are grateful for the opportunity Birthright presented us with. But if Birthright wants young American Jews to create lasting connections to Israel, and to be well-informed advocates for Israel back on college campuses, it has the responsibility to allow its curious and thoughtful attendees to learn about and wrestle with the difficult questions that we have been wrestling with at our campus chapter of J Street U.

Israel is much more than just a tourist destination. Ignoring its hard truths and problems does it no favors. To be a real advocate for Israel, to be the most pro-Israel that we can be, our community must celebrate Israel’s achievements while dealing with its many challenges.

Axel Hufford and Steven Povich are freshmen at Dartmouth College serving on the board of J Street U at Dartmouth. Hufford, who grew up in Rye, N.Y., and attended Community Synagogue of Rye, serves on the board of Dartmouth College Hillel and is pursuing a major in government. Povich, from Wellesley, Mass., is majoring in economics.

Taglit Birthright Israel

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There is so much in the article that reveals how little the authors understand Israel, and the Taglit-Birthright program. "Taglit" means discovery in Hebrew, and that is the program's primary purpose: to create an opportunity for participants to discover their Jewishness.

I am fascinated how the authors can condemn an entire program based on their very limited experience with Taglit-Birthright. They were on one bus among hundreds, with one tour guide. My wife is a tour guide who has led a number of Taglit tours, and each experience is different, depending on the tourists.

The one common denominator with all the Taglit-Birthright groups is the unbelievable low level of Jewish knowledge and education among the participants. The tragedy of American Jewry is that, with few exceptions, most US Jews are very low Jewish literacy. It is fair to say that most American Jews don't know the difference between an alef and a tav. Most of what they know about their own culture, history, religion and heritage is filtered through the dominant non-Jewish culture. I liken this to African-Americans learning about their history and culture through the dominant white culture, which is at best indifferent to African-American needs and interests, and at worst, hostile.

My wife gets questions such as "What is the difference between 'Hasidics' and 'Ashkenazics'?" Or "Is the Book of Exodus in the New or Old Testaments?" Or, "What is Shabbat?" Or, "Is Hebrew a Greek dialect?" Or, "What is Yiddish?"

The Taglit-Birthright program is an almost last ditch attempt to connect these many scores of thousands of Jewish youth to their own culture, religion, history and people. So many of them received little to no Jewish education, and many are children of a mixed-marriage, which is to say a marriage that in most instances, Jewish commitment and identity are played down if not altogether smothered.

Taglit-Birthright is of necessity "a mile wide and an inch deep" and meant to give but a small taste in a very short time of what it means to be Jewish, and of the 3,000 year historic and religious connection of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel. It is not designed to be a primer on the Israeli-Palestinian dispute (nor should it be).

The fact that many Taglit-Birthright participants upon returning home do delve more deeply into Judaism, do become more attached to their Jewish communities, and many do return to Israel on longer programs, including some joining the IDF and making aliyah, is a testament to Taglit-Birthright's visionary program.

There is plenty of time after a Birthright trip to learn more about the conflict between Israel, the Palestinians and the Arab states. But, first know thine own true self.

If these boys were truly on an intellectual quest, I would expect them to be more vigorous in their search for information and not just except one side of the story - J Street's. They lost me when he said (after being in Israel for only 10 days), "Understanding what Israel truly needs. . ." The arrogance of that statement is astounding! Perhaps they should try living there for a year, and then maybe, just mabye, they can begin to see the true nuances and complecations of the situation.

I strongly support the motivation of these students to delve more deeply into understanding the political situation in Israel. My sense is that the birthright trip motivated them to look deeper, which is commendable. I would suggest if you (or any other students) are interested in returning to Israel to learn about the political situation on a deeper level, apply for the Hasbara Fellowships program ( There are still spots on the program leaving June 16th!

I can only share my own birthright story. And our experience was completely the opposite. Our tour guide is an officer in the military. He took the time to extensively explain the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the Israeli-Arab conflict. He was in the middle of a conversation as we started driving past the west bank when he stopped his conversation and got on the microphone and started talking about "the wall." He started explaining when and why it was built. He also discussed where it was actually a wall and where it was a fence. He talked about how Gaza does not want the West Bank. And throughout the trip, he made very sure to explain the history of all the wars, all the negotiations, the times we gave land back and then were attacked, and the reason we annexed the Golan heights. I mean absolutely everything. I wish I had written it down. Now I will unfortunately have to research based on snippets that I remember and write down the history so I have it. We also had someone come in from the government explain the current political and security affairs of Israel in regards to its neighbors.

Our tour guide also studied history and anthropology among other things so he was very knowledgable about the history in the textbooks vs the history in the bible. He was just fantastic, I can not say enough about our guide.

I am very sorry your trip was not what you were hoping and that you did not get the full picture. I would have been disappointed as well.

It completely depends on the trip provider which controls over 60% of the actual trip, unless your tour guide was just great despite the provider. You got lucky, quite honestly; can I ask which trip provider you had? Hillel International was not good at all, in my opinion; it resembled very much what the authors described.

I find it amazing that in a ten day visit and after some indoctrination by J Street, these two "[u]nderstand[] what Israel truly needs to flourish and survive, we know what to advocate for — a two-state solution, a vibrant democracy, internationally recognized borders, and a lasting peace."

Perhaps if they spent a little more time "thinking critically" as they have supposedly been taught, they might see the source of the intractable conflict. They might want to ask if the Islamic world really wants to make peace after six hundred years of war-mongering (with estimates of as many as 270 million people killed, including more than 20,000 jihadi attacks since 9/11/2001. See They might want to investigate what happens to the money the West gave and gives to the Arabs who call themselves Palestinians, and why Suha Arafat lives like a queen in France and Saeb Erekat lives in a palace.

They might want to go visit refugee camps in Jordan or Syria or Lebanon and ask why these advocates for the Palestinians deny them basic rights, or why the specially created UNRWA has yet to resettle even one refugee while UNHCR (the UN organization tasked with taking care of the rest of the world's refugees) has "f[ou]nd durable solutions for tens of millions of refugees . . . ."

So lets go through you opinion thoughtfully.
You claim to have a strong Jewish background - but your biographical proves otherwise - you have a weak Jewish education but you are educated in new age moral equivalent theology that has substituted Judaism in your circles.
Birthright is not there to provide political points as per peace process they are intended to give Jews with a loose connection to Israel a short visit to provide a stronger initial feeling towards Israel and historic connections.
You both came on the trip with your moral equivalence questions - they didn't simply pop up when you saw Arab towns - and you expected to engage the tour guide in your preconceived conclusions - something outside the scope of the tour.
The proof is simple - you didn't sign up for lectures (before or after) or tours with ZOA or the David Project or RZA or other groups that would give a historic and/or religious orientated tour - you joined J Street - and you never say once that you asked them any questions about the peace process or Israel vs Arabs.

Did you simply take everything JStreet U says at face value or as college students truly evaluate it?
Answer - obviously you swallowed hook, line and sinker the moral equivalent false narrative of J Street! Because it matched you preconceived substituted theology.

Simply - if you had a strong Jewish background and historic knowledge you wouldn't have had your questions and would never connect to J Street because they are pro Palestinian and not pro Israel.

Birthright: everyone has a different exerience. When my daughter participated about 4 years ago, she was very newly BT (baalat teshuva). Due to timing demands, she did not sign up for one of the religious groups. Hearsay. Many of the American girls are there to er uh enjoy the nights with the Israeli soldiers, that is their prerogative. But, they were all in one huge tent, co-ed, and on both sides of her, there was sexual activity. She happened to know that there was one more tent, all set up, but not in use, and requested to be able to sleep there, as not to hear the goings on in the two beds, on both sides of her. Her request to move to the large empty tent was refused. Would she have been in danger if she had slept alone in that other large tent, with cots already set up? None of the authorities took her seriously. She would give birthright a zero. Now, if she had been a normal hormonal female from the States, she would have had the time of her life.
And, as i wrote, unfortunately , she did not register for one of the religious trips, she really was only BT for a few months at the time. BUT no young person should have to sleep in a cot in a large co-ed tent, and hear sexual activity going on on both sides of them. Disgraceful, But I guess the American girls got their money's worth, and the Israeli soldiers, well, what a blessing. This is a true story. If i remembered which group she had joined, i would perhaps, reveal it. but I don't, and perhaps that is prudent.