Taglit-Birthright Israel: Tourism as a Tool for Building Identity

Published: 2019/12/05 Number of words: 3310

Ben Narynski recently flew home to a place he’d never been. “It’s like a hometown to me,” the Fullerton resident said of the country he traversed by bus with 39 other young adults and a medic carrying a gun. Visible from the vehicle’s windows were the olive orchards and fig trees of Israel, a land he grew up hearing about but had never before seen. (Los Angeles Times, 12 July 2008, quoted by Taglit-Birthright Israel, 2008a)

In December of 1999, a new programme opened, offering young Jewish adults a free trip to Israel. The name of the programme is ‘Taglit-Birthright Israel’, and in the almost nine years since it started, over 160,000 individuals, primarily from the United States and Canada, have participated in the programme, with ever-expanding numbers making the trip each year. Founded and designed by two wealthy Jewish philanthropists, and now further financed by the Israeli government and many American Jewish federations in the United States, this programme provides all services for free from start to finish, including airfare, all scheduled attractions, travel and meals.

Taglit-Birthright Israel differs from other tours because it is overtly geared towards identity development in its participants. The programme is Zionist in its philosophy and clear in its intentions. The Taglit-Birthright Israel website explains:

Taglit-Birthright Israel’s founders created this program to send thousands of young Jewish adults from all over the world to Israel as a gift in order to diminish the growing division between Israel and Jewish communities around the world; to strengthen the sense of solidarity among world Jewry; and to strengthen participants’ personal Jewish identity and connection to the Jewish people. (2008b)

The programme promotes a Jewish identity synchronically with a Zionist one; from its perspective, if your Jewish background is important to you, then you should also support the State of Israel. Among older and more orthodox Jewish populations throughout the world, a fear exists that younger Jewish generations will feel no connection with the land of Israel, and that Judaism as they know it and define it may disintegrate as time advances. Multiple studies focusing on American Jewish populations have been conducted to determine whether this growing division between Diaspora Jewish populations and Israel really exists, only to produce mixed results (Sasson, Kadushin, and Saxe, 2008). The only definitive conclusion that can be drawn is that this concern is present among those proposing the studies. And so, rooted in this worry, the Birthright programme hopes to promote an identity which has political as well as religious properties, hopes to stimulate Jewish religious and social activities, as well as support for the Jewish ‘birthright’ of the Promised Land.

Research shows that, to a certain degree, its goals have indeed been met. Survey studies of the participants show that their sentiments have been altered. The most effective changes that occur, according to the report by Saxe et al. (2002) have to do with participants feeling more Jewish when they have completed the trip and professing a desire to engage more with their local Jewish communities. The salience of one’s Jewish identity was reported at 74-76% for participants and 65-66% for non-participants, showing the clear impact of the trip. Participants report feeling a greater connection with Israel, and there are high rates of return to Israel within a year after the initial tour (Saxe et al. 2002). The largest difference shown by the survey results was in ‘caring for Israel’. The extent to which the participants feel connected to Israel is significant when compared with non-participants, although this personal connection declines in follow-up surveys three months or one year later. Still, after one year the participants show a higher connection than non-participants, showing that the overall goal of establishing a connection with Israel is achieved. Conclusively, Birthright is very well designed for its stated purpose and literature in anthropology as well as in tourism studies supports the effectiveness of this programme. Here I investigate the methods employed by the Taglit-Birthright program in order to achieve its goals of promoting identity development in their participants.

The way that Birthright alters the identity in many of its participants can be conceptualised through Victor Turner’s ideas developed in his work The Ritual Process (1995 [1969]). He presents the ideas of liminality and communitas: two important phases generated in rites of passage across cultures. Birthright Israel easily fits into this model, as it ushers its young participants through the land represented as their ancestral ‘birthright’: implicitly, the name of the programme refers to a rite of passage. The concept of liminality refers to the state of mind during a ritual: a sense of timelessness, a suspension from one’s normal societal status and obligations, and essentially a weakened form of oneself which allows for growth, change, and passage into a more developed form, such as adulthood or an advanced title. Communitas is the communion between people that occurs in a society, especially those who are experiencing a state of liminality together, and it may take a variety of forms, here described by Turner:

[I]t is necessary to distinguish between: (1) existential or spontaneous communitas—approximately what the hippies today would call “a happening,” and what William Blake might have called “bewinged moment as it flies,” or, later, “mutual forgiveness of each vice”; (2) normative communitas where, under the influence of time, the need to mobilize and organize resources, and the necessity for social control among members of the group in pursuance of these goals, the existential communitas is organized into a perduring social system; and (3) ideological communitas, which is a label one can apply to a variety of utopian models of societies based on existential communitas. (p.132)

Birthright Israel incorporates all three types of communitas that Turner sets out, as shall be described. But first, we are going to look deeper into the details of the trip.

Birthright is an umbrella programme and a channel of funding for 23 small tour organisations, which split participants into buses of 40 people and fine-tune the individual schedules. These trip organisers deliver their tour of Israel with varying emphases on the outdoor, religious, or politically discursive elements of the trip to Israel; however, all trips visit a specific list of holy sites, and include ‘encounters with Israeli peers,’ where five soldiers from the Israeli Defense Forces are relieved of their compulsory military service for five of the ten days of the group’s tour in order to join the visitors in their activities. The participants are able to choose their tour operator based on these certain emphases, and this may aid participants in feeling that the tour is tailored to them, even though the itineraries for the various tour organisations are all quite similar. This also serves to foster feelings of solidarity between the participants since they are more likely to share their experience comfortably and positively with others of a more selectively similar background. Saxe et al. tell us that the groups are ‘balanced by gender and interests’, although it is unclear what the latter may be referring to exactly (2002, p.5).

Dennison Nash, in his work Anthropology of Tourism (1996), explains that the cohesiveness of the tour group as well as the quality of leadership of the guide are very important for tourists’ satisfaction with their overall experience. Leadership on Birthright is extensive: two ‘Jewish professionals’ from the participants’ home country convene the trip in addition to the certified Israeli tour guide. In this author’s own experience of the tour, two fully-trained Rabbis accompanied the tour. Throughout the trip, these Rabbis facilitated discussions on the historical, religious, and spiritual attributes of the itinerary, and acted as confidants to participants seeking personal guidance. As a result, leadership and guidance were fully provided for the tour group of 40 participants, which would have been impossible to dispense had there only been one guide accompanying the group.

This kind of personal guiding has received a new classification in tourism studies. Previously, Erik Cohen (1985) classified the ‘pathfinder’ and the ‘mentor’ as two categories of tour guides. Cohen, Ifergan and Cohen (2002) describe a third role of the ‘madrich’: a new kind of counsellor-guide for today’s tourists seeking personal connections during their journey. Specifically, the madrichs will act as role models to young tourists, and will not set themselves apart from the group socially or by manner of dress. This is a shift towards more personal tour guides who seem to be especially tailored to tours very similar to Birthright, and seek to make a personal impact on its participants. Cohen, Ifergan and Cohen tell us:

The madrichs do not seem to fit either of the traditional concepts of the guide, the pathfinder or the mentor/tutor, though they share some characteristics of both. The madrich operates as an educational and ideological ‘model’ as conceptualized in the framework of formal education…. However, to those from the home countries, Israel may be almost as foreign as it is to the participants themselves. The mission of the home country madrich is entirely group-oriented and inner-directed. (922)

The Birthright program actively employs this new kind of guide for its participants, and uses this personal interaction as one of the central tenets of the experience (Saxe, 2008). Utilising personal guides such as these contributes to the feeling of liminality, by which the participants can more easily envision their new role as a person with a strong Jewish identity and steadfast support for Israel by associating with this Jewish role model.

The other impactive strategy practiced by Birthright is the mifgash ‘encounter’ with Israeli peers. In this element of the programme, five soldiers from the Israeli Defence Forces of approximately the same age as the Birthright participants, join the bus. They go to the attractions, stay in the same hotel rooms and fraternise with the participants on the free nights when there is drinking and relaxation. There can even be sexual relations, if the opportunity arises. This interaction has a profound impression on the participants, and leads to greater sympathy for Israel. A relevant study has been produced by Pizam, Uriely and Reichel (2000) who looked at attitude changes in two different communities of working tourists in Israel. They wanted to discover what elements of an encounter with native Israelis lead to a more emotionally impactful experience, such as the length of time of the tourists’ stay, whether they received financial benefits for their time and labour, or whether the tourists lived in communal environments with the Israelis. These authors concluded that the intensity of contact between hosts and guests was most important in the tourists’ positive perceptions of their surroundings, which was most often achieved in situations where the participants lived and dined in communal environments with the Israelis. Pizam, Uriely and Reichel explain:

The higher the intensity of the social relationship between hosts and long-term tourists, the more favourable were the feelings of these tourists towards their hosts, and the more positive was the change in attitude towards hosts and the destination. Furthermore, it was found that the higher the intensity of social relationship between hosts and long-term tourists, the higher was the satisfaction of these tourists with their stay and experience. [my emphasis] (p.405)

Although the Birthright tour lasts a short period of just ten days, it seems that these findings can still be related. This contributes to Turner’s idea of communitas as impacting the participants as they develop emotional attachments to Israelis and Israel.

Let us return to Turner’s concept of liminality, looking at how this applies to the participants of Birthright. He says on page 95,
Liminal entities are neither here nor there, they are betwixt and between the positions assigned and arrayed by law, custom, convention, and ceremonial…. It is as though they are being reduced or ground down to a uniform condition to be fashioned anew and endowed with additional powers to enable them to cope with their new station in life.

In this situation, their ‘new station in life’ is that of an active and engaged Jewish adult, fully integrated into an international Jewish cultural scheme, having been bestowed with the ‘gift’ of their ‘birthright’. However, this message does not occur in a vacuum, since this ancestral birthright takes place in a hotly contested Israeli/Palestinian conflict for land, power, and resources. While these young adults are in a state of liminality, political messages, both overt and subtle, are communicated throughout this period of personal development. As a result, these messages may be absorbed during the participants’ process of identity formation throughout the programme. The tour guide and Rabbis accompanying the trip continually stress the message that Israel is a second home to any Jew, that the participants should return whenever possible, and that it would be a positive choice to move to Israel if they felt the inclination. As per the example of the opening paragraph, participants do often develop sentimental attachments to the State of Israel, and return to their place of origin with a newly developed perspective towards the country, influenced by Zionist ideas. Indeed, it is unlikely that similar results would be as successfully achieved if the participants were older adults, which may be why the age restriction for Birthright is 18 to 26.

The Birthright programme is remarkable because of its large-scale influence and because it is free of cost, but the style of the trip reflects many other tours of its kind to Jerusalem and Israel. It is in no way unique in its political objectives, and there are several tour organisations presenting the opposite perspective, offering tours of Palestinian territories, run by Palestinian operators and also leftist Jewish/Israeli organisations. Birthright aligns with what Brin (2006) describes as ‘solidarity’ tours, designed to turn tourists into unofficial spokespersons for the ‘Israeli side’ of the conflict. These involve taking participants to the Separation Barrier and other points of political interest in the country. In this author’s own experience, participants were taken to such contested areas as the Golan Heights and to the National Cemetery in Jerusalem to visit the graves of fallen Israeli soldiers, all the while right alongside their mifgash peers who were currently serving in the Israeli Defence Forces.

These strategies seem to border on outright manipulation of the participants’ sentiments; however, in many cases, the participants joyfully become active and enthusiastic recipients of these messages. Brin (2006) makes clear that the political aspect of tourism lies in the tourists as well as the hosts, as many participants are seeking tours which will validate their beliefs of a political situation, while hosts are equally eager to develop support for their side in the conflict by hosting and providing displays of their values. Some participants of Birthright go to Israel anticipating these messages and fully absorb them; some sign up because the journey is free, and become influenced inadvertently; some take the messages a la carte and separate the religious ideas from the political. It would be wrong to assume that these messages are accepted wholesale by the participants, but the trip does seem to have a strong enough impact that excitement about Birthright continues to grow, both in terms of supply and demand.

In the light of all of this, it seems no surprise that the Israeli government partially finances the Birthright programme. This has become a significant opportunity for the Israeli government to promote a positive image of itself, and the investment in these tourists today may lead to a healthier tourism industry tomorrow. Tourism in Jerusalem has fluctuated wildly due to the violence of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict since late 1987, with sharp drops in the industry which has been affected by violence from both sides of the conflict. Between 2000 and 2002, the number of tourists coming to Jerusalem plummeted by 80%, with more than 660 hotel rooms in the city closed due to low profitability. However, these sharp declines have been alleviated by the birth of this politically-oriented tourism in Israel. In times of crisis for the tourism industry, politically-oriented tours, working with highly personal encounters in sentimentally strong environments may be the last angle through which to attract visitors.

And so, Birthright encompasses all three notions of communitas set out by Turner. The existential or spontaneous communitas is generally achieved by the mifgash personal encounters with Israeli peers, as well as amongst the participants themselves; normative communitas is achieved through the communication of political messages intended to unify an international Jewish network of younger generations in support of the State of Israel; and ideological communitas is conveyed through the Zionist ideas of the programme, which frequently exercise utopian imagery. As the Birthright programme matches a model of rites of passage, from the individual experiencing liminality in their journey to the group communing over their shared identity, Turner’s conceptual framework has helped us to understand the effectiveness of Taglit-Birthright’s strategies for identity formation in its participants. As Birthright continues into its second decade of operation, it will have a greater population upon which to continue to promote its ideas. How effective it will be in influencing participants’ identities in the long term is yet to be seen.

Brin, E. (2006) ‘Politically-oriented tourism in Jerusalem.’ Tourist Studies. 6, p.215-243.

Cohen, E. (1985) The Tourist Guide: The Origins, Structure and Dynamics of a Role. Annals of Tourism Research. 12, pp.5-29.

Cohen, E. H., Ifergam, M., Cohen, E. (2002) ‘A New Paradigm in Guiding: The Madrich as a Role Model.’ Annals of Tourism Research, 29 (4), pp. 919-932.

Nash, D. (1996) Anthropology of Tourism. Oxford: Pergamom.

Pizam, A., Natan U., & Reichel, A. (2000) The intensity of tourist-host social relationship and its effects on satisfaction and change of attitudes: the case of working tourists in Israel. Tourism Management. 21, pp.395-406.

Sasson, T., Kadushin, C., & Saxe, L. (2008) American Jewish Attachment to Israel: An Assessment of the “Distancing Hypothesis” [Internet]. Waltham, Massachusetts: Steinhardt Social Research Institute. Available from: <http://cmjs.org/files/IsraelAttach.030308.22.pdf> [Accessed 18 October 2008].

Saxe, L., Kadushin, C., Kelner, S., Rosen, M. I., Yereslove, E. (2002) A Mega-Experiment in Jewish Education: The Impact of birthright Israel [Internet]. Waltham, Massachusetts: Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies. Available from: <http://cmjs.org/files/bri3_full.pdf> [Accessed 18 October 2008]

Saxe, L. (2008) Connecting Diaspora Youth Adults to Israel: Lessons from Taglit-Birthright Israel [Internet]. Waltham, Massachusetts: Steinhardt Social Research Institute. Available from: <http://cmjs.org/files/Herzilya.022108.pdf> [Accessed 2 November 2008].

Taglit-Birthright Israel. (2008a) Taglit-Birthright Israel: Press Center [Internet].
Available from <http://www.birthrightisrael.com/site/PageServer?pagename=about_presscenter> [Accessed 23 October 2008]

Taglit-Birthright Israel. (2008b) Taglit-Birthright Israel: About Us [Internet].
Available from: <http://www.birthrightisrael.com/site/PageServer?pagename=about_main> [Accessed 23 October 2008].

Turner, V. (1995 [1969]) The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure. New York: Aldine de Gruyter

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