Birthright Israel’s funding shortfall provides an opportunity to renew the discussion of the organization’s goals, accomplishments and future.
Among the causes of the shortfall is the fact that the Adelson family, which donated hundreds of millions of dollars to the program over the years, has started pulling out its money for reasons that are not yet known (Judy Maltz, Haaretz, November 22). At the same time, the expenses involved in running the program have skyrocketed, mainly because of the higher costs of airline flights. As a result of this shortfall, Birthright directors announced that they will have no choice but to cut back on the number of participants in the coming year.
In announcing the cuts, the organization’s CEO Gidi Mark stated: “There has never been a more critical need for Birthright Israel than now.” Really?
Since its establishment in 1999, Taglit has brought an estimated 800,000 young Jewish adults from around the world on free trips to Israel. In terms of sheer numbers, no other Jewish world project has come even close, but the numbers alone don’t necessarily indicate success. If the central objective is to strengthen the ties of Jewish youngsters in the Diaspora to Israel, then Birthright appears to be a failure. The overwhelming majority of young Jews in the greatest Diaspora in the world, the United States, hold opinions that are critical of Israel and feel alienated and distant from the Jewish state, mainly due to the occupation and the religious right’s growing power in the country.
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The desperate request for money made this week by Birthright directors could persuade certain donors to contribute to the NGO’s budget, and perhaps even influence the Adelson family to change direction. But this cannot hide the organization’s difficulty in the fight for public opinion among young Jews. Most young Jews define themselves as liberal and progressive, and their approach to Israel is characterized more by shame than pride. According to surveys in the United States in recent years, a growing percentage of young Jews feel solidarity with the Palestinian side of the conflict rather than with the Israeli side.
Long before the current crisis, Birthright had been struggling to fill the spots in its program, and was forced to adjust the admission criteria for participants. The lack of interest in taking part in this program is expected to increase with the swearing in of Israel’s new government – which will be the most right-wing and religious government in the country’s history. In fact, many of the program’s participants would not even be seen as Jewish by the leaders of the incoming Knesset parties.
The way to persuade young Jews in the Diaspora to support Israel and to consider settling in the country isn’t to offer them free trips, but to turn Israel into a state they’d be proud to identify with and want to live in. The chance of that happening in Israel’s current situation appears more distant than ever.
The above article is Haaretz’s lead editorial, as published in the Hebrew and English newspapers in Israel.