By Kevin Carr
Our Scotland correspondent
I have recently returned from a 10-day trip to Israel with 32 other participants of Taglit Birthright, an organisation that seeks to give people with Jewish ancestry a free trip to Israel.
Founded in 1999 as a trial run, by two American Jewish philanthropists who were concerned at the rate of assimilation amongst Jews in America, Taglit has grown into an organisation with an operational budget of more than $40 million, connecting Jews from all over the world with the State of Israel.
The idea to bind Jews with a foreign land by offering an all expenses paid trip to Israel, naturally, required some gall.
Taglit’s boldness as a start up company has become synonymous with Israel’s image as the start-up nation, with the most start-ups per capita of any country in the world.
The 10-day itinerary combines group bonding, religious spiritualism, national identity and memory, to create a connection with the Jewish state.
Many of the participants have never been to the country before, with some, having little to no knowledge of Judaism preceding the ten day free gift.
Our first group visit to the Druze centre was an educational talk on the Druze community in Israel, followed by a traditional Druze lunch.
The Druze talked of their prosperity in Israel and the situation of the Druze community inside Israel, is far superior than in any other Middle Eastern nation.
Israeli dancing, water rafting and water hiking offered a light hearted cultural expose of Israel in the first three days.
Then that laughter came to a sudden end en route to our first activity in Jerusalem — Yad Vashem.
Joshua, one of the leaders, stands up at the front of the bus and opens the floor to those who would like to speak about the Shoah.
No one obliges and he continues, citing his own personal experience of the Holocaust.
Close and personal to him, he struggles to finish his sentence: “I thought I could hold it together but I can’t.”
Clearly upset, Joshua turns his back to the rest of the bus and while not visible to the whole bus, proceeds to burst in to tears.
Only the sound of the vehicle could be heard. A few words from the back of the bus. Everything had, within the space of a minute, turned serious. A 360 degree change in atmosphere.
The mood changes again as we enter the Holy City, with the song Jerusalem blaring on the bus.
The replication of the Israeli psyche is present throughout this trip. It makes me wonder whether this is on purpose or pure coincidence. I suspect the former.
Of all the organised tour buses to Israel, Taglit is undoubtedly unique.
There is no other organisation in the world that offers members of a nation’s diaspora, en masse, an all paid for trip to the country of their people.
The strength and scale of Birthright has caused the organisation to be embroiled in some unwanted media coverage.
Over the past year, an increasing number of American Jews have staged protests while on tour.
Critics believe that Birthright is engaged in a propaganda effort to encourage young Jews to emigrate to Israel.
However, the Jewish state’s political importance in the world means that any major strategic connection between the diaspora and the state is heavily scrutinised.
Extreme political parties, Youtube figures and conspiracy theorists alike, see a link between Israel’s presence in the West Bank and a plan to settle Jews from the diaspora in illegal settlements.
Fascinating Youtube viewing but in reality, the claims are either exaggerated and in some cases, unfounded.
Those who had not realised the strategic aims of this trip beforehand, were most likely made aware after their participation in the Birthright mega event.
This event was the only one highlighted in the itinerary. I was aware that it would be a quite spectacular evening but not as spectacular as it turned out to be.
Held in Caesarea, an amphitheatre was hired to accommodate all current, summer Taglit participants.
We were joined by around 800 to 1,000 soldiers, who were dotted about the amphitheatre.
The diaspora was bonding with the state and the state, with the Jewish diaspora.
While enjoying my meal, a member of our British tour bus asks me what the mega event is all about.
I explain that this is an event to encourage young Jews to ‘get together’, sing in nationalisitic spirit and yes, even meet their next wife or husband.
A few of my fellow Brits are visibly bewildered by what they are witnessing.
A girl shakes her head in disbelief, “this is just so weird”.
The patriotism, the chanting, the community, they’re too British for this.
Inside the amphitheatre, the herd of young Tagliters are treated to a 60-minute long barrage of hip hop, chart and dance music.
Before the main event even starts, those in my group, who, were originally cowering away from joining any spontaneous dance and sing-song outside the amphitheatre, found themselves caught up in this hip hop patriotism. This was an historical moment.
Many civilisations have been and gone. The Romans did not survive, the Incas did not survive, the Babylonians, too, did not survive.
Here we were, the ancient Jewish civilisation, standing in an amphitheatre more than 2,000 years old, gathered in our native land of Israel.
We were not witnessing history but actively participating in it. The Prime Minister speaks to us on a televised recording. A crowd of Americans then chant: “Bibi, Bibi.”
For most of the group, this was definitely not the most significant event of the trip.
Most came away from it, describing it as “interesting”; some were not impressed.
It was the gathering the next day, after our visit to Yad Vashem, that changed everything.
Brits do not like to talk about their emotions. We are a reserved people, but memory is a powerful thing.
After a talk by Eylon Levi, a presenter at France’s 24/7 news, we stayed assembled for a quick round-up discussion on our visit to the world renowned Holocaust memorial.
What unfolded over those 15 minutes was something, only a few minutes earlier, I would never have expected.
One by one, participants volunteered their thoughts on the Holocaust and their Jewish identity.
Like a domino effect, one person cried, then another and another, until at one stage, more than half the room was in tears.
Out of the ashes of the Holocaust, came the State of Israel.
At the announcement of the modern state’s creation at midnight, the Jewish people were again forced into a war for survival.
The resilience of the nation and its citizens cannot be overstated. In its 71-year history, Israel has fought multiple wars for its life.
The ever-real threat of war means that Israel places an unparalleled value on its army.
The memorial to the fallen highlights the ultimate sacrifice that so many have had to make to defend the young nation.
The cemetery is beautiful. Every grave is built above ground, like a small tomb.
The reality of the country’s perilous and unpredictable situation hits home as I look at the numbers on the graves. 18. 17. 22. 22. 23. 21.
Our tour guide, Ori, informs us who some of these soldiers were, what they did and how they died.
It is the harshness of Israel’s position in the Middle East, the environment of the country and the innovation of the Israel Defence Forces, which has helped make this country bloom.
We spent our final three days in Tel Aviv, a city that before 1909, was all but dessert.
The Taglit Birthright innovation centre, located inside Israel's stock exchange, gave us an insight into just some of the amazing start-ups popping up inside Israel.
The owner of one, Lior, talks to us about his company, Steps. At the end of the talk, I ask him about Israel's reputation as the start-up nation and how significant the army is in fostering innovation:
“The army helps a lot,” he replies. “They give you the tools needed to help you create and innovate. Our environment helps a lot, too.
“It is unpredictable here, you have to adjust and adapt from a young age because you never know what will happen in the Middle East.
“It is very common for people to take a year out before the army. They get involved in some of the youth movements. They give you the preparation, the necessities to help you succeed in life.”
Tel Aviv may be the centre of Israel’s economic activity but unlike the UK, the wealth, over the past 20 years, is being spread throughout the entire country.
It is unlikely that Israel will have the same success that Britain did at the height of its power.
However, the nation is on track to become an economic powerhouse — unthinkable at the turn of the century. That, however, is Israel. Making the impossible, possible.
By the end of the trip, almost all of the participants I spoke to said that they had a closer connection to their Jewish heritage and to Israel.
A couple even said they would consider aliya. The trip was a success then, British Jews had been brought closer to Judaism and Israel.
Would there be the same question marks if an Irish-American billionaire did the same with the Irish diaspora in America, or a rich Italian-American or for that matter, a rich Scottish American? No, is the answer.
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