When Alex Gold ’10 traveled to Israel this winter break, he never expected to feel any connection with an unknown country halfway across the world.
“The trip made me feel connected to the history of Judaism in a way I never had before,” Gold said. “Almost as soon as I landed, I felt a very real and very powerful connection to the land of Israel, Eretz Yisrael. That feeling continued through the trip as I got to know the others in my group. [It] was totally unexpected, and quite wonderful.”
For a group of about 40 Wesleyan students, this life-changing opportunity was given to them for free through the efforts of Taglit-Birthright Israel. Birthright provides the gift of first-time trips to Israel for Jewish young adults ages 18 to 26, also offering college-specific trips such as this one.
According to the program website, Birthright was founded as an effort to unite world Jewry, lessen the increasing division between Israel and other Jewish communities around the world, and to give participants a greater sense of personal Jewish identity.
Birthright’s ten-day trip is paid for by private philanthropists through the Birthright Israel Foundation, by the government of Israel and by Jewish communities.
“I mean, free airfare, hotel accommodations, transportation, and two meals a day is a great deal—I would never have been able to afford such a trip otherwise,” said participant Franni Paley ’10. “I can see people feeling that they’re being bribed by such an offer, but I personally did not feel like I was selling my soul for a free vacation.”
To date, over 147,000 Jewish young adults have gone on the trip. Although the Wesleyan Jewish Community organizes its own trip to Israel each January through Birthright, the University has no role in funding the trip; the only reason Wesleyan, like Cornell University and Brandeis University, sends a University-specific Birthright group is due to the high number of students going every year.
For Sarah Gignoux-Wolfsohn ’10, the Wesleyan-specific trip offered certain advantages.
“The more interesting trip was the one that Wesleyan sponsored,” said Gignoux-Wolfsohn. “Knowing the University and its students, our guide tailored the trip to include discussions of current events, and he made the point to show us all perspectives of Israel and its history.”
Although the trip is intended to educate participants about Israel’s history, some insist that the program may have a pro-Israel agenda.
“There is definitely an aspect of the trip that promotes Israel’s Zionist views,” Gignoux-Wolfsohn said. “There was a Mega Event where the 4,000 plus students on Birthright sat in an auditorium…they had fireworks, singing, drumming…it was one extravagant show. Then Israel’s Minister of Interior took the stage and told us all to move there.”
According to Gignoux-Wolfsohn, this type of Zionist propaganda continued throughout the trip.
“In another instance, we went to Independence Hall in Tel-Aviv, and the speaker told us about how they ’cleaned up Israel’…referring to the Arabs living there…and remarked that the country is ’great now,’” she said. “But the propaganda is something to be expected.”
Paley complained that the program’s name in and of itself is somewhat troublesome.
“I have political issues with Birthright, not the least of which being its name,” Paley said. “I think assuming that all Jews are given a right by birth to go to Israel is problematic, and phrasing it as such is a direct slap in the face to the Palestinian ’right of return.’”
Regardless of the agenda that it may promote, students recognize the invaluable experience the trip provides. Upon arriving back in the U.S. most students noted that they felt better connected to their Jewish heritage, and had also gained a greater understanding of its meaning.
“I found so much to respect in all the Israelis I met, and more importantly, real common ground between us,” Gold said. “With every piece of history that we learned, I, for one, became more convinced about both the necessity of the existence of the State of Israel, and also of the need for real, serious, and heartfelt efforts towards a lasting peace for all the people there, even if it will mean some difficult compromises.”