Thursday, August 9, 2012 | return to: views, opinions


Young American Jews need an informed introduction to Israel

by rachel cohen

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After being privileged last year to go on a Taglit-Birthright trip with 40 students from Johns Hopkins University, last month I traveled with 12 other student leaders to Israel and the West Bank with J Street U. Since then I’ve been reflecting a great deal on these two very different experiences.

Birthright helped to provide a stronger connection to my Jewish identity. After the trip, I began to take more Jewish studies courses and engage more with the campus Hillel. I took an internship with Hillel’s Peer Network Engagement Internship program and started organizing my own events.

Vcohen_with_letterzI realize, though, that the Birth-right model is not designed to instill a strong sense of responsibility in diaspora Jews toward Israel. After all, it’s easy not to feel responsible for issues that no one asks you to think about. Rather, the program focuses more on fostering a general sense of connection. This often leaves students unable or uninterested in being the “ambassadors” that Birthright so often asks us to be back home.

Birthright prides itself on being apolitical, and indeed on the trip I learned little of substance about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I have heard arguments for why Birthright does not venture into exploring the conflict, and to an extent I understand why. The trip targets a broad group of Jewish young people and there’s only so much that can be accomplished in 10 days.

But reflecting further, I can’t help but find it unsettling that Birthright takes tens of thousands of young, uninformed Jews to Israel without providing any real briefing or debriefing on pressing Israeli societal issues, all the while telling us to go home and “tell the truth about Israel” and “love Israel and be a proud Jew.”

We do fall in love with the land, with the Mediterranean Sea, the food and the Israelis we meet. We have energizing hikes and a lot of fun. Yet Birthright does not prepare us to engage with legitimate and difficult questions back at our college campuses and in our communities.

A few weeks after returning home from Birthright, I was talking about my exciting trip. A peer asked my opinion on the fact that any Jewish person like myself from anywhere in the world can travel throughout Israel with ease, but there are Palestinians who have lived on the land for generations who face burdensome restrictions of movement.

I had no idea what to say. I didn’t even know what checkpoints were.

“It’s the Jewish homeland?” I replied meekly, frustrated with my own ignorance. Not only was I unable to defend Israel to people who challenged it, but I felt embarrassed and confused.

Several weeks later I was asked how I could defend a state that expanded settlements in the occupied West Bank. I had no idea what people were talking about regarding “international law” and “illegal outposts.” Again I scratched my head and realized I knew so little of “the truth” that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had asked me and thousands of other participants at Birthright’s Mega Event to relay back on campus.

In contrast, while at times on the J Street U trip I felt uncomfortable with the Israel I saw, I left feeling deeply committed to its future. I saw Israel not simply as a place to which I wanted to return, but as a story of which I wanted to be a part.

On the J Street U trip, we met with Israelis from Sderot and Netiv HaAsara who regularly face the threat of rockets from Gaza, with Holocaust historians from Yad Vashem, an Israeli scholar specializing in deligitimization, leaders of the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah, Israeli university students, Jewish settlers in Gush Etzion, human rights activists and Palestinian citizens of Israel.

We met with two-staters, one-staters and those who advocate a constitutionally enforced binational state. We met with Palestinians and Jews living in the segregated city of Hebron. We wrestled with the role of diaspora Jews. At the end of it all, we emerged exhausted, intellectually humbled and more motivated to work to help Israel.

J Street U refused to present Israel as what Ir-Amim founder Danny Seidemann called a “Jewish Disneyland.” And I’m grateful for that. I still love Israel, but confronting the challenging parts of the country compelled me to have a much deeper sense of responsibility.

If those same students from last year ask me questions now about Palestinian freedom of movement or settlement expansion, I’m not sure I would have good answers. But I am positioned to be ready to seriously engage and grapple with the ideas, concerns, questions and consequences of the conflict. I am working to create a situation in which Palestinians, Israelis and I can all move more freely in peace and security, with self-determination for both peoples.

I am not suggesting that Birthright start distributing talking points on the conflict during their trips. But I am recommending that Birthright provide far greater opportunities for participants to struggle and engage with Israel’s real issues. Do not underestimate us. Then maybe we all can come home better equipped to be responsible ambassadors.

Rachel Cohen is a rising junior at Johns Hopkins University.


Posted by Dan Spitzer
08/09/2012  at  02:21 PM
Ms. Cohen Op-Ed is Nothing But Anti-Israel Propaganda

With Israel constantly in the new, Rachel Cohen would have us believe that she knew nothing about any of the controversies she complains she didn’t learn about when she visited the Jewish State as part of her Birthright Trip. If that’s the case, she would make for a definitive reflection of either will full ignorance or downright stupidity (and it is clear that though a poser, Ms. Cohen is anything but stupid).

Of course an anti-Israeli propagandist would extol all the “Israel is a villain” messages she would garner on a J Street trip because that organization, funded to a significant extent by the anti-Zionist George Soros, has proven in the course of its existence to be significantly more critical of Israel than it is of the Palestinians (or for that matter, the Iranian theocracy).

So don’t be deceived, this is no well-meaning college gal who was mislead by Birthright and set straight by J Street. Ms. Cohen is an anti-Israeli propagandist short and simple…

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Posted by Sam Liron
08/10/2012  at  09:08 PM
Dan spitzer- Agreed

Dan, I cannot agree with you more! Unfortunately J=Street and its progressive preachers are playing on these naïve kids “moral sensitivity” of we’re ‘all one people’ and our scriptures are construed as love thy neighbor and being human rights advocate above all, even if it is to the detriment of your community and your brethren country.  These bleeding heart spoiled kids of affluent reformed/secular Jewish parents in the USA, as well as those of secular leftists in Israel;  see themselves first as citizens of the World rather as loyal citizens of the Jewish nation. They live in mirage and refuse to accept the reality that Israel is still at WAR with its mortal enemies, who are bent on annihilating it as a Jewish State.
Sorry Ms. Cohen you are a naïve utopian kid who has NO idea of the dangers Israel is facing: Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas and the PA cannot wait to throw the Jews to the sea and take over all of ISRAEL; converting it to an Islamic theocracy like the model they admire in Iran and Saudi Arabia…. Unfortunately, J-Street stoke up those lame progressive wishful ‘co-existence views’, while hiding the fact that they are funded by Israel enemies: Soros, Saudi and European Union. 
I can only pray for the safety and security of our brethren in Israel and hope that those naïve lost Jewish kids and their false leaders at J-street will see the light soon, before it is too late to save Israel.

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Posted by Frank
08/11/2012  at  10:09 PM
I agree with Mr. Spitzer. Shame on JWeekly!

I am pleased to be able to fully agree with Mr. Spitzer.  J Street is the American faux- “Jewish” “progressive” arch-enemy of Israel.  It is also allied with, legitimated and supported by Obama (who has also tried to marginalize the Zionist Organization of America - ZOA), and it is dedicated to destroying American congressional support for Israel.

Isn’t it shameful that JWeekly was willing to print this “progressive” anti-Israel propaganda!

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