So Near, So Far
Wed, 05/12/2010
Special To The Jewish Week
Building diaspora identities? A recent Birthright trip.
Building diaspora identities? A recent Birthright trip.

 A traveler’s quiz: When American Jewish tourists arrive at Israel’s Ben-Gurion Airport, which two words are they more likely to be greeted with?

A) “Welcome home!” 

B) “Passport, please.”

Resist the temptation to choose “A.” Although many American Jewish travelers consider an Israel trip to be a homecoming, they are not allowed through border control until they prove that they are outsiders, documented citizens of another country. They may think of themselves as Jews, but Israel receives them as Americans. The standard B-2 visa grants them a three-month stay. No work allowed. By law, they are foreign nationals, not Israeli citizens coming home.

From the first “Israel experience” programs of the 1950s to today’s half-billion-dollar Taglit-Birthright Israel initiative (which gives American Jews ages 18 to 26 free 10-day trips to Israel), American Jews have long looked to tourism to build attachments to Israel. But as the dilemmas of passport control suggest, these tours that bind diaspora youth to the Jewish state are not simply a matter of “Insert Jews in Israel. Shake vigorously.” Birthright-style efforts are constantly challenged by tourism’s built-in contradictions, including the fact that Israel trips remind American Jews of just how American and not-Israeli they are.

Faced with such challenges, Israel experience planners are constantly inventing strategies to rein in tourism’s undpredictable side. But tourism is hard to tame. As a result, the trips shape American Jewish identities in complex and interesting ways. Israel experience programs do not build Israeli identities. Nor do they build Israel-centered identities. Rather, they build what can only be called diaspora identities: at home and not at home in both Israel and the United States.

‘The Hebrew is so frustrating!’

As a way of connecting people to a foreign country, tourism’s advantages are clear: From airlines to attractions, the industry offers everything that Israel experience planners need to bring American Jews to Israel, put them up, and fill their time during their stay. 

By serving as a bridge, tourism lets American Jews connect with a country they do not know first-hand. Guides, concierges and bus drivers help them overcome language barriers, cultural incompetence and unfamiliarity with the local scene. This forges connections to Israel, but it also fosters disconnection. Dependence on the tourist infrastructure constantly reminds American Jews that they are strangers in a strange land.

In one Birthright Israel discussion circle that I observed during my research, a woman lamented that Hebrew school had not given her the skills to navigate an Israeli street on her own. She was dependent on the tour guide. “The Hebrew is so frustrating!” she exclaimed. “We can’t understand anything!”

Some travelers worry that the tourism industry substitutes a staged show for an encounter with real Israeli life. “Have we seen mostly touristy stuff or mostly everyday Israeli kinda stuff?” one Birthrighter in another discussion circle anxiously asked his guide. Although a popular slogan proclaims, “Israel is real,” this lack of trust in the reality of an Israeli tourist experience is a major barrier to connecting with the country.

One of the more successful strategies for dealing with tourism’s distancing effects is to have American and Israeli Jews tour together. On typical international tours, foreigners sit inside a bus and look through the window pane at the locals outside. But when Israelis join Americans inside the bus, the line dividing tourists from locals is blurred. The bus ceases to be an American bubble. The window ceases to be a barrier. As they befriend Israelis, Americans gain local connections and become less dependent on tour guides.

Yet tourism’s contradictions are hard to fully overcome. Even though the cross-cultural encounters mostly break down barriers, they can also build them back up. American and Israeli traveling companions still see each other not simply as individuals but also as symbols of Israeliness or Americanness.

Consider the “hook-up” scene: Young and single, many American and Israeli tourists hope for a romantic liaison with someone from the other country. Who it is, specifically, is less important. It is the category—“an Israeli,” “an American”—that matters. As one female tourist recounted, “There was talk . . . starting at the airport, like, ‘Oh, are you going to hook up with an Israeli soldier? . . . It was a huge deal. People were, like, making pacts about it. . . . ‘Okay, we’re going to kiss Israeli soldiers. . . . I think, the soldiers, come in with a mentality like, ‘Oh, American girls! Let’s hook up with them.’ So they are very flirtatious also. It’s not, like, one-sided.”

‘What’s the catch?’

Another complication at the heart of Israel experience efforts is that participants know that the tours deliberately try to shape how they identify as Jews. Many hope the trips will make an impact, and come primed to help the tours succeed. I have read bus journals in which, by day two of the trip, people claim that the tour has changed their lives, just as their friends told them it would.

Still, many others enter with their guard raised, wary of being manipulated. Suspicion is so prevalent that Birthright Israel’s website even addresses it in one of its FAQs: “Q. This gift sounds too good to be true, what’s the catch?”

The challenge is compounded by competing visions for the Israel experience field itself. Some place diaspora Jewry rather than Israel at the center, seeing the trips as a strategy to combat assimilation. When Birthright Israel was launched in 1999, its North American chairperson, Marlene Post, described it in a Jerusalem Report article as “an outreach to young people who have not been drawn into existing Jewish frameworks and may therefore soon be lost to the Jewish people.” Hillel’s Birthright staff manual has spoken of creating a Jewish educational experience in which “Israel is the means, not the end.”

Since the outbreak of the second intifada in September 2000, another line of thinking has also emerged. Concerned more with Israel’s challenges in the international arena than with American Jewry’s dilemmas of assimilation, this view sees tourism as a way of building political support for Israel. Several years ago, for instance, the website for a Birthright trip run by Stand With Us, an Israel-advocacy group, promised, “When it’s over, you will be an ambassador for Israel, able to make her case and promote peace for Israel and her neighbors.”

Identity-building to combat assimilation and advocacy-training to combat anti-Zionism are different goals that lead Israel experience trips down different paths. Still, they both face the dilemma of winning over tourists who are aware that the programs are trying to shape how they think and feel. Surveys of Birthright Israel alumni show how carefully such trips must tread to do this successfully.

Revisiting data gathered by Brandeis University’s Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies during the second intifada, I found that guides who took a heavy-handed approach to Israel education, “preaching” proper attitudes, succeeded mainly in convincing those who were already convinced. People who entered the trips less connected to Israel—the target of Birthright’s outreach—were less likely to develop emotional ties to the country if they felt their guide was preaching at them.

As for the controversies of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, voicing multiple perspectives does not appear to undermine tourists’ identification with Israel. There is not a simple answer why. Part of it has to do with the fact that the emotional connection to Israel depends less on the guides’ words than on the tourists’ experience of having a great time there. With the emotional connection securely grounded in an experience of fun and friends, guides have leeway to talk politics in shades of gray and thereby earn the credibility that comes from not being seen as preachy.

New Directions

Birthright Israel is the largest homeland tourism initiative in the world, but it is not alone. The main finding of research on Chinese-American tours of China, African-American tours of Ghana, and other homeland tours is that the visits do not simply make people feel at home. Instead, they prompt an encounter with the existential condition of diaspora. By virtue of the tours, the hyphenated Americans feel simultaneously at home and foreign both in the U.S. and in their ethnic homelands. 

In the years since Birthright Israel was established, new Israel experience programs have taken this finding to heart. Programs like Kivunim–New Directions and Young Judaea’s Year Course Olami are pushing the envelope by taking diaspora more seriously than ever before. With Medinat Yisrael, the State of Israel, as their home base, diaspora Jewish tourists jet to the four corners of the earth to explore the rich diversity of Am Yisrael, the People of Israel. In Morocco, Spain, Hungary, India, Israel and other centers of historical and contemporary Jewish experience, they gain new perspectives on what it means to be Jews in today’s increasingly interconnected world.

Perhaps they, too, will soon travel with Israelis at their side. 

Shaul Kelner is the author of “Tours That Bind: Diaspora, Pilgrimage and Israeli Birthright Tourism” (NYU Press, 2010). He teaches sociology and Jewish studies at Vanderbilt University.

 

 

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