This summer thousands of high school and college-age Jewish youth have been descending on Israel. These students are participating in the Birthright Israel program, established by philanthropists Charles Bronfman and Michael Steinhardt. Inaugurated during the past winter vacation, Birthright Israel was set up to combat assimilationist trends within Western Judaism, represented most poignantly by intermarriage. Birthright’s Web site declares that the program’s mission is “to strengthen the Jewish identity of our youth and further bond Jewish people worldwide to the country of Israel.” The means to these ends? Providing Jewish high school and college students with a free trip to Israel. While Birthright Israel doesn’t operate its own tours, its “gift” covers the participants’ airfare and their first ten days with an approved peer-group program.
Alain Epp Weaver directs strategic planning for the Mennonite Central Committee and is the author of Mapping Exile and Return: Palestinian Dispossession and a Political Theology for a Shared Future (Fortress).