This article was reported in partnership with The Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute.
The seekers are young, just beginning to face the disappointments of adulthood. Their journey is often marked by tears. They may weep while praying at the Western Wall, their heads pressed against the weathered stone, or at the Holocaust Museum, as they pass the piles of shoes of the dead. Others tear up in Jerusalem’s Mount Herzl military cemetery, while embracing a handsome IDF soldier in the late afternoon light. But at some point during their all-expenses-paid ten-day trip to a land where, as they are constantly reminded, every mountain and valley is inscribed with 5,000 years of their people’s history, the moment almost always comes.
When Julie Feldman (no relation), then 26 and a Reform Jew from New York City, arrived at Ben Gurion Airport in December 2008, she called herself “a blank slate.” She returned as the attack on Gaza was under way, armed with a new “pro-Israel” outlook. “Israel really changed me,” she said. “I truly felt when I came back that I was a different person.”
It was mission accomplished for Birthright Israel, the American Zionist organization that has, since its founding in 1999, spent almost $600 million to send more than 260,000 young diaspora Jews on free vacations to the Holy Land.
Birthright co-founder Charles Bronfman claims he just provides free airfare and lodging. “Then,” he says, “Israel does its magic.” Indeed, in 2009 Brandeis University researchers found that almost three-quarters of alumni describe their Birthright experience as “life changing.” “If you come here, and you connect to the origins of the Jewish people, the country that forged our existence, our faith, our values,” then–Likud Party leader Benjamin Netanyahu promised in a 2008 Birthright video, “it’ll change your life forever.”
Bronfman’s partner in founding Birthright, Michael Steinhardt, professes faith in Israel as “a substitute for theology.” Steinhardt understands that for a generation weaned on irony, Birthright could offer an opportunity for deep, wholehearted conviction. “My liberal arts education taught me that any distinct concept or ideal will crumble under the scrutiny of too many questions,” laments a recent college grad writing on her Birthright experience, which taught her “it was okay and even honorable to believe in the state of Israel, to adopt, so to speak, the settlers’ original dream.” Her Jewcy.com essay is hardly unique: Birthright has generated reams of effusive essays and blog posts over the years.
Barry Chazan, a Hebrew University professor emeritus and the architect of Birthright’s curriculum, explains in a celebratory 2008 book, Ten Days of Birthright Israel, that the trip is designed so travelers “are bombarded with information.” The goal is to produce “an emotionally overwhelming experience” that “helps participants open themselves to learning.” On my own Birthright trip last year, I experienced the Chazan Effect. Chronically underslept, hurled through a mind-numbing itinerary, I experienced, despite my best efforts to maintain a reportorial stance, a return to the intensity of feeling of childhood.