There is Probably Something in the Food, or, a Discussion about Birthright and Propaganda
Sandy Fox is a graduate student in History and Israel Studies at NYU, studying the history of Israeli education and youth culture. Her work includes research on the history and politics of Israeli and Palestinian Sesame Street programs. Sandy is a Brooklyn resident and a camp counselor for life.
This is our Gchat conversation about staffing Birthright.
Me: So, Sandy Fox, you and I have both staffed Birthright trips. What do you have to say about propaganda?
Sandy: Plenty of that, but much less than I expected?
Me: There’s the “make aliyah” thing. Is that what you were thinking of?
Sandy: A lot more “Jewish peoplehood” propaganda rather than Israeli hasbara (advocacy) political propaganda. I didn’t feel that our guide was pushing a political agenda regarding Zionism or the occupation or any of that. If anything, he was an earthy crunchy type, in the best way possible.
Me: That’s been my experience as well. Is that bad, do you think? Jewish peoplehood as propaganda?
Sandy: I don’t actually think that the whole Jewish peoplehood agenda – which also includes inviting people to explore their Jewish identity – is a bad thing. In fact, I found that most of my participants came on the trip looking for a connection to Judaism that they felt they lacked. We had a particularly emotional experience during Friday night tefillot overlooking the Kotel. I was the staff member in charge, and I basically got a bunch of participants to agree to help me lead. But it wasn’t going to be traditional tefillot in any way, because most of them had no knowledge of liturgy. What I asked of them was to bring something – a poem, a story, whatever they wanted – to share with the group, maybe a reflection on a Shabbat experience they’ve had, or something about the week, or if it was their first Shabbat ever, to talk about that. I think about 6 participants got up and talked, and it was incredibly powerful. They all told such personal stories of searching for connections to Judaism, trials and loss and it seemed like practically everyone cried.
I can’t call that propaganda. All I did was sit them in a circle and say, hey, talk to the group about whatever you want. It could have ended up being very superficial, but people wanted to share, and talk, and cry. Maybe something is in the food?
Me: It’s definitely in the food.
Sandy: The schnitzel is laced with cocaine?
Me: I think we’ve uncovered the secret.
Sandy: The other aspect of Taglit is that it’s not like we can make a blanket statement about it. There are all these buses and trip providers that operate differently. Even the dynamic of each staff is so varied. So I can say, hey Chanel, on my trip, everything was so cool and open, and people asked the tough questions and cried. But on other trips I’m quite sure there is serious propaganda, in the hasbara sense of the word.
Me: Do you think your group was expecting hasbara?
Sandy: Only a few of my participants came with great skepticism of the whole operation and what they found was that the trip was not full of propaganda, and that they had me to come to with questions about anything from British mandate history to the occupation, but not every trip has Israeli history nerds as madrichim (leaders). How people who don’t have extensive knowledge on the subject answer such intense questions is hard to imagine. These were SPECIFIC questions. And great! I had to do research in order to answer some
Me: I try to send people into the Birthright experience with a lot of information, and hope that they come back confused and angry and a little bit in love.
Sandy: The ones who were truly in love were the less skeptical ones at the outset. The ones who came skeptical left feeling complicated but happy they did it. And I don’t think they hated Israel or Zionism at the end, but they also had me next to them on the bus talking about my complicated relationship with Zionism, so maybe they understood that it was okay to feel complicated about it.
Me: I mean, if they come back all hasbararahraha, I’d be disappointed. But I also tell people that Israel hurts my heart, which is not an answer to anything or an explanation.
Anyway, Jewish peoplehood as propaganda? Did you think that was a thing on the trip? And do you think it’s bad?
Sandy: There is an Israeli I know with who would call that FASCIST propaganda. (People love calling things fascist, right?) I wholeheartedly disagree, but I think there is something about the diaspora (or American) approach to Judaism that welcomes this “peoplehood” idea differently than Israeli secular culture. I don’t think that the Jewish peoplehood message is inherently bad. It can surely be used for more right-wing purposes (like a gateway drug to hasbara), but it doesn’t have to go there.
Me: Do you think it’s this non specific propaganda thing that makes people skeptical? What do you think people are afraid of?
Sandy: If there were a clear and open ideology that people could site (I mean, past some vague watered-down mission statement), maybe birthright would seem less insidious. People are afraid of how group mentality works so well, which it does!!! But also, people who come afraid don’t leave brainwashed. You leave brainwashed if you were looking to be brainwashed. Something makes certain people more prone to wanting to change their lives after Birthright (not necessarily in mindless brainwashed ways per se) — being at a crossroads is sometimes a factor – participants who are graduating college and want to figure out what’s next start considering programs or aliyah.
Me: I went on Birthright, and at the time, I was at various life crossroads. I’m not sure if I bought any political propaganda, but I was super into being in Israel (Palestine came later), and I did get more observant.
Sandy: That seems to be happening with one or more of my participants. Two are going back next month to the Young Judaea program WUJS for 5 months. I can’t believe it.
Me: One of mine turned around almost immediately and did Otzma. I don’t know that I think that’s bad, and it scares me a little bit that I don’t.
Sandy: Well, I’m in grad school for Israeli history now and I feel my connection to Zionism challenged all the time.
Sandy: Seriously, I’m wondering if I’ll wake up one day and finally be able to abandon my identity as a left-wing Zionist.
Sandy: It seems obvious to most people around me that I’m wrong, but I don’t feel it yet. And I’m absorbing a lot of information about Palestinian society and politics now, becoming more and more fluent in the issues surrounding occupation, tragedy… I’m glad to be getting this thorough education, it really puts into the forefront what the difference is between what people call “heritage learning” and academic learning.
me: THAT IS INTERESTING. SAY MORE.
Sandy: I don’t think I’ll staff Birthright again. It’s just too damn confusing to do education on birthright and then a week later be in a college classroom TA-ing the Israel lecture course. Birthright is heritage learning, and that is a totally different type of teaching. Now I have students who are Jewish, Israeli, Palestinian, Asian, Indian, Christian. It’s a fabulous challenge to teach Israel topics to people who hadn’t seen it on a map until a week ago and to have to mitigate the classroom dynamics of students who are emotionally attached to the subject and students who aren’t and students who are just there to fulfill a requirement, because it was the one cultures and context class that fit in their schedule
me: Do you think it ‘s impossible to do responsible heritage education? When i worked for Hillel, there were SO MANY angry folks who felt like they’d been brainwashed.
Sandy: I’ve been brainwashed, you’ve been brainwashed. Everyone has been on some level, on some topic. I think it is irresponsible to not tell the full truth about the conflict and the occupation to “heritage learners” because they often grow up and feel that they were brainwashed and then they have all sorts of legitimate anger about that.
The question is how one reacts to that at a later age. Does one come out of the youth movement having more questions and continuing to engage with Israel, or do they shut down? Those aren’t the only two options, of course, but those are common paths. I’m not surprised that my youth movement lied by omission, but I think it actually would have produced better grown up Zionists if the adults had been honest with the kiddies. It’s so complicated. Heritage education is inherently flawed, but irresponsible – I think it depends. I grew up with a steady stream of heritage education experiences through my involvement in a Zionist youth movement. I was never was taught to hate or to delegitimize Palestinians. but I wasn’t told much about their lives in Israel or in the occupied territories either. It’s flawed by what it omits.
Me: Like Birthright.
Sandy: Yeah, like Birthright.