Should Israel Birthright Include Implication For Occupied Territories?

There was a massive celebration this week for the 10-year anniversary of Birthright Israel. The nonprofit program, which pays for young Jews to come to Israel to connect with their Jewish roots, is a runaway success. But not everyone thinks that's a good thing. Birthright Unplugged is a program that takes Jewish-American university students to the occupied territories to show them what they say is the reality Birthright Israel ignores in its quest to bring Jews from around the world to Israel. NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro reports.

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In Israel this past week, the non-profit program Birthright Israel marked its 10th anniversary. The program pays for young Jews to go to Israel to explore their roots. More than 250,000 Jews from all over the world have been on Birthright tours. A new study shows that alumni of the program are much more likely to feel a continuing connection to the Jewish state. But the program has its critics.

NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro reports.

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO: The auditorium is packed with young men and women chanting - Israel, Israel, in front of a massive stage. The MC leaps around exhorting the crowd to cheer louder.

(Soundbite of cheering)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The participants are from countries that span the globe: Brazil, Russia and the United Kingdom. But by far, the largest group are the Americans where 75 percent of young Jews outside of Israel live.

(Soundbite of cheering and music)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the USA" blasts out over the speakers, thousands of young people leap to their feet.

The past 10 years, Birthright has offered free 10-day trips here for Jews between the ages of 18 and 26. The goal is to have them reconnect with their Jewish identity, and a new study from Brandeis University shows that it has the desired effect. Participants are 57 percent more likely to marry a Jew and 23 percent more likely to feel a strong connection to Israel.

Speaking at the celebration, Israel's president Shimon Peres lauded the program.

President SHIMON PERES (Israel): All of you are participating in one of the most brilliant (unintelligible) and the most successful experience in the history of the Jewish people.

(Soundbite of cheering)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Gidi Mark is the CEO of Birthright Israel, called Taglit in Hebrew.

Mr. GIDI MARK (CEO, Birthright Israel): It all started by out of the concern that more and more young Jews decided to marry non-Jews. And, as you know, unfortunately we are as many as the Chinese. We want to keep our family strong and thats what we are doing.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: As they tour sites like Masada, the Holocaust Memorial - Yad Vashem, the Western Wall and the Golan Heights, participants are accompanied by young Israeli soldiers.

Unidentified Man: It's like normal to go to the army and they have friends in the army. And they have friends in Gaza Strip that may get killed every day. And they have friends that died in bus bombs and...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: At the end of the trip, the soldiers and the visitors say good-bye with testimonials from each side.

Nineteen-year-old Ellen Faulchy(ph) is from Northern Virginia.

Ms. ELLEN FAULCHY: Any time I watch the news now it's not going to be just another four people killed in a suicide attack. Like, you guys are here. Like you're doing the unbelievable to protect all of us. And I think I can say for all of us, thank you so much.

(Soundbite of applause)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The Israeli who led the tour, Ronan Malek(ph), ends the session with this message to the group.

Mr. RONAN MALEK (Tour Guide, Birthright Israel): Who are the soldiers of Israel? These are the soldiers. You think that those soldiers can kill somebody innocent?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Birthright Israel says it is a non-political organization, but critics say it espouses a particular point of view. To give the Palestinian side of the Mideast narrative, one group has started an alternative tour. It's called Birthright Unplugged.

Ms. DUNYA ALWAN (Director, Birthright Unplugged): Today is a really good day to see how settlements are functioning.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Dunya Alwan is an American of Jewish and Iraqi heritage. Today, she's shepherding a group of students from Boston College to the City of Hebron and elsewhere in the occupied West Bank.

Ms. ALWAN: The idea is to give them a breath of understanding of Palestinian voices through all of that travel. We speak with people from all sectors: government, social, social service. they have family home stays in a Palestinian refugee camp. Thats what theyve done last night.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Nicole Fisher(ph) is a Jewish student who decided to come on this tour rather than the one offered by Birthright Israel.

Ms. NICOLE FISHER (Boston College): Being able to see what goes on in these camps and being able to talk to people firsthand, you learn so much more. You know whats going on, as opposed to just seeing the Israeli side of it. It's good. It's good balance.

(Soundbite of traffic)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: In Hebron, the group walks through the center of the Old City. Twenty-two-year-old Maram Shuster(ph) is an Israeli who studies in the U.S. and is an alumni of Birthright Unplugged. She says Birthright Israel does more harm than good.

Ms. MARAM : These people made the trip all the way here. They're not being informed with any kind of truth, any kind of criticism about this country. And they're going to go back and be ambassadors and fall in love with a land that they know what about? They no nothing. So, for me, I have no other word than propaganda.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Birthright Unplugged is tiny in comparison to its rival organization. Only hundreds of young people have participated in this program, compared to the tens of thousands who go on Birthright Israel trips every year.

Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News, Jerusalem.

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