Today’s idea comes from Eli Valley, a writer and artist living in New York. His comics appear monthly in The Forward, and he is the author of The Great Jewish Cities of Central and Eastern Europe. His website is evcomics.com.
Eli’s idea is Birthright Diaspora, a global initiative to provide Jews with immersion experiences in far-flung Jewish communities.
Birthright Diaspora will make Jews proud again.
It’s a strange thing to say, isn’t it? For one thing, despite the insistent proclamations of Jewish fund-raising letters and Israeli political and cultural leaders, most Jews in the Diaspora are not living on the brink of physical, spiritual or cultural devastation. In fact, by and large they’re pretty proud of who they are already. Secondly, to associate Diaspora experiences with “pride” is to break one of the major taboos of modern Jewish education. Israel is the pinnacle of pride; Diaspora the domain of destruction. That’s why education about the Diaspora designed for fifteen-year olds has meant role-playing “discrimination, persecution, forced conversion, outmarriage, assimilation, [and] (im)migration” so that “the message of a diminishing Jewish world and Israel as the only country with a growing Jewish population should be apparent.”
Yay, let’s role-play some more!
Even Birthright Israel, for all its enormous accomplishments as a global immersion-based educational vehicle and new Jewish rite-of-passage, suggests a binary notion of Jewish history and identity: “Israel made Jews proud … [it] represents the ideological revolution in which Jews became the ‘subjects’ of history rather than the ‘objects.’”
And yet, as it turns out, more than a few Jews have been proud actors on the historical stage since the Roman conquest of Palestine in 70 CE. It’s time to expand our notions of positive Jewish identity and at long last move beyond an ideology that fretfully masquerades self-hatred as Jewish empowerment. By digging through centuries of global Jewish life, Birthright Diaspora will help transform Jewish self-awareness and break the dichotomy of “hero” and “victim” that has handicapped internal Jewish intellectual inquiry for decades. The goal is not merely widespread immersion experiences in global Jewish communities but a renewed understanding of Diaspora as a Birthright that forms the roots of Jewish consciousness. If implemented effectively, Birthright Diaspora can lead to an existential transformation in the way Jews and Israelis view themselves and the world.
The program is not meant to replace Birthright Israel but rather to exist in tandem as a supplementary option for Jewish education and identity enrichment for young adults. Although there currently exist various Jewish educational trips in the Diaspora, many of these perpetuate longstanding ideologies either by focusing on death and destruction or by positioning Israeli or American visitors as spiritual or economic rescuers of the locals. Birthright Diaspora will have a different focus: immersion experiences in living Jewish communities, past and present, in which the visitors learn from, and share with, the local Jewish populations. Participants as well as destinations will be selected by lottery. To ensure geographic diversity, destinations will be at least 1,000 miles away from, and in countries different from, the respective participant’s place of birth or current residence. For ten-day trips, it is possible to aim for immersions in three or four communities in a particular region, but this can be adjusted based on the region and proximity of communities. Like Birthright Israel, Birthright Diaspora will utilize various trip providers, many of which will focus on particular aspects of Diaspora Jewish life and/or cohorts of participants, with similar ideological constraints: Just as Birthright Israel does not allow trips to be run by Jews for Jesus or Jews for Hezbollah, Birthright Diaspora will not permit the trips to become necrophiliac surveys of Diaspora doom.
It cannot be stressed enough: The focus of the trips will be the life of the communities, past and present. Jewish sites will be used as launching pads for discussions and experiences of local Jewish history, religion, art, folklore and contemporary life. Participants will explore the ways in which the dynamics of Diaspora formed the backbone of modern Jewish consciousness intellectually, culturally, socially and ethically. Periods of trial will not be elided, but neither will they be fetishized. In an effort to offer a more nuanced picture of the Diaspora than has generally been provided, special attention will be paid to the intermingling and cross-fertilization of Jewish and non-Jewish cultures that has occurred in every community and in almost every period of Jewish history. Whether in Canada, Brazil or India, participants will hear tales of communities as well as families, both famous and little-known, and explore the ways individuals celebrated, wrestled with, contributed to, fled, and drew inspiration from Jewish civilization and from the customs and philosophies of the outside world. Birthright Diaspora will also utilize “mifgashim” among current Jewish residents in the same age group as the visitors. There will be great opportunities for service learning programs, but in keeping with Birthright Diaspora’s efforts to break ideological dichotomies, Jewish poorism will not be permitted. Instead, service learning will be provided on a reciprocal basis. For example, if a group from Houston is involved in repairing a cemetery in Cracow, a group from Poland will repair a cemetery (or engage in another local service activity) as part of its visit to Houston.
Finally, Birthright Diaspora will not be a success unless it also includes trips by Israeli young adults to Jewish communities around the world. This is partly to emphasize Jewish solidarity and the equality of all Diaspora communities, including Israel; partly to reorient an education system skewed by assumptions of geographic supremacy; partly to stress the importance of Diaspora life as a vital factor in the formation of Jewish consciousness; and partly to educate young Israelis about worldwide Jewish life as participants and observers rather than as emissaries, shepherds or eulogists. A massive advertising campaign will be implemented to educate Israelis that the Diaspora is their birthright; hopefully the trips will become a part of Israel’s education system. In fact, there are added benefits to global educational programs geared towards Israelis. Imagine the possibilities of Israelis learning about Jewish life, for instance, in countries that have rights enshrined in Constitutions; or in societies that protect the freedom of religion and the integrity of the state by scrupulously separating the two; or in nations that vigilantly guard the democratic and human rights of all their citizens and even of their non-citizens.
The benefits do not end there. It is a cliche to note that the world has become interconnected as never before. What isn’t often noted is that in the Jewish world, the interconnectivity often manifests itself through ripples emanating from the perceived center of Jewish life in Jerusalem. While it is inaccurate to blame antisemitism on Israeli policy, it is equally fallacious to deny that the policies instituted by the world’s only Jewish sovereignty have repercussions on the world’s attitudes towards Jews. One goal of Birthright Diaspora will be to help reorient Israelis into global citizenship through interactions with Diaspora communities and through education about the history of Diaspora Jewish involvement in the larger world.
After all, one paradox of modern Zionism is that we are told that Israel has freed us from the shackles of the ghetto, both physically and, crucially, mentally. And yet, some of Israel’s most vociferous advocates today claim that Israel has become “the ‘Jew’ among the states of the world.” Clearly, the ghetto mentality has not disappeared; it has merely transposed itself into a national identity. Hopefully, Birthright Diaspora will begin to alter this construct by helping Israel break out of its ghetto walls.
I know, it is the absolute height of arrogance for an American to suggest Israel implement a system of education with an eye towards social engineering. For the past six decades, it’s been a one-way street of Zionist education with an eye towards social engineering in the Diaspora. This has never been called “arrogant” but, rather, “the status quo.” But it’s time, for the sake of all of us, to change the paradigm. If Birthright Diaspora helps institute new ways of thinking in Israel, maybe it can actually help lead to an end to Israel’s isolation and, who knows, perhaps even a road towards peace between Israel and its neighbors. If this happens, Birthright Diaspora has the potential to be the most Zionist innovation since the first Israeli borrowed felafel from the Egyptians.
This post is part of the series 28 Days, 28 Ideas. Check out yesterday’s idea, “Collaborating for Community Safety”, over at the Jewish Federations of North America. And be sure to check out tomorrow’s idea at Jewschool. You can also visit 28days28ideas.com for the full list of ideas as they progress.