An explosive report in Jewish Currents — “Birthright Israel and #MeToo” — details the “often-fraught sexual and gender dynamics on the famous free trip to Israel.”
What caught my eye, along with the allegations of sexual assault, was Sarah Seltzer’s description of the Birthright environment:
But many spoke of something more: a pervasive environment of sexual pressure that encourages Jews to meet, marry, and, someday, procreate with other Jews while being awed by the beauty and culture of Israel. This expectation is communicated before the trip even begins by official social media, and on the trips is expressed most directly around American women and Israeli soldiers.
There’s a certain pressure applied to the young Jews on Birthright trips: Even if you don’t make aliyah (but you should), you need to have Jewish babies. I remember on my Birthright trip, in the winter of 2014, we did an activity where our tour guide divided us up into groups and gave us slips of paper with “Jewish values.” These values included things along the lines of “moving to Israel,” “serving in the Israeli army,” “marrying Jewish,” and “raising morally and ethically upright children.” He then asked us to rank them in the order they meant to us: my entire trip (largely reform Jews) ranked the moral values at the top, and the marrying a Jew and moving to Israel ones at the bottom. The organizers of the trip then tried to convince us that our personal values were incorrect. A colleague of mine also recalls this activity on her Birthright trip, where a participant engaged to a non-Jewish woman was made to feel like his values were wrong.
Seltzer quotes an anti-sexual assault organizer, Rebecca Krevat, who explains: Birthright is “a combination of rape culture in our society [at large] and the pressure to create Jewish continuity: that the future of the Jewish people is literally on your back.”
Think of the two Broad City episodes about Birthright. In the episodes, Abbi and Ilana are welcomed to their “Birthmark” trip by Jared, who explains the trip is about the “reproductive future” of the Jewish people. While the episode was really funny (go re-watch the Adam Levine safety video), it touched on a more serious problem inherent in Birthright: the pressure to hook-up with other Jews. As Seltzer writes, “Posts in official Taglit-Birthright social media feeds also celebrate the shidduchs (matches) made between former participants, showing a picture of a proposal or wedding, and a flashback to the pair back in Israel.”
As we know, this kind of pressure (especially in a new location) and toxic hook-up culture often leads to assault. While a young woman may be encouraged by her friends (and the literal Birthright organization) that hooking up with an Israeli soldier should be a goal, that could lead to bad situations. And there’s not much the staff can do; as Seltzer writes, “Most staffers we spoke to recollect an exhausting ten-day sprint, focused almost exclusively on keeping people with the group, preventing dehydration, alcohol poisoning, and illness, and answering constant questions.”
The New York Times reported in 2008 about how matchmaking is becoming “the Ultimate Government Service,” quoting Michael Steinhardt, one of Birthright’s founders. Steinhard explains: “In Birthright there have been many successful matches, and that is the unintended but happy outcome of the trip.” He goes on to talk about the demographic challenges the Jewish community faces (namely, rising intermarriage), and how a trip such as Birthright can bring Jews together. A Brandeis study in 2014 found, “Overall, the likelihood of inmarriage for participants is 72 percent, while for nonparticipants, the likelihood is 51 percent.” Basically, if you go on Birthright, you are more likely to marry a Jew than if you didn’t go on Birthright.
Whether or not you should go on Birthright is a conversation for another day, but the trip needs to reassess the pressure it puts on young Jews to find their Jewish mate. No amount of “Jewish continuity” is worth creating an environment that lends itself to sexual assault.
UPDATE: When asked for comment, a Birthright Israel representative gave the following statement:
Birthright Israel has clear and unwavering rules that require appropriate conduct by participants and staffers, at all times. Our robust reporting procedures and enhanced training programs are backed by a zero tolerance policy for violations of our Code of Conduct, with participants who violate our rules sent home immediately without hesitation. Over the last 18 years, more than 600,000 young Jews have enjoyed and appreciated an incredibly meaningful experience in their homeland. It is wrong to make inaccurate generalizations from a handful of incidents that were not reported and are not a representation of either the experience we provide or our values. Our top priority is always the safety and wellbeing of our participants. While we encourage participants to get to know one another and their Israeli peers, they must respect each other at all times and participants may abstain from any activities at any time should they wish to. We aim to facilitate an open dialogue and empower our participants and are dedicated to providing them with the most meaningful and positive experience possible.