NEW YORK (Jun. 18)
Birthright israel has caught ineligible participants on its free trips, which are reserved for young adults who never before have been on a peer trip to the Jewish state.
Responding to the discovery, officials at birthright, one of the most popular Israel travel programs, fired off a mass e-mail to trip providers on Wednesday warning against further infractions.
The revelation comes as Israel programs are struggling to keep enrollment up during the Palestinian intifada. The prospect of falling enrollment could threaten birthright, whose future funding is not assured.
Gideon Mark, the program’s international director of marketing, said birthright has taken steps to make candidate checks more stringent to quiet rumors that the program was relaxing requirements to inflate its numbers.
“In the past few days, upon landings of groups at Ben Gurion International Airport, we have found seven ineligible participants,” the e-mail from the program’s Israel office stated.
“The main reasons for the ineligibility are age and previous disqualifying experiences in Israel, i.e., trips to Israel which are contrary to our approved criteria,” the letter said.
It reminded trip providers, which range from Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, of their obligation to check participants’ passports prior to departure.
The issue of uneven enforcement of birthright requirements among different tour providers was raised by federation leaders last December when they renegotiated their funding for the program.
The seven ineligible travelers, all from North America, were caught during a passport check in Israel. Four came from one trip organizer.
“If we find someone who is ineligible, we are going to send him or her immediately back home,” Mark said.
In its e-mail, birthright said it would charge the guilty trip organizers for expenses incurred.
Mark stressed that the seven ineligible participants represented just a “handful” of the 2,000 who have arrived for summer programs this year.
Asked if birthright had ever before found so many ineligible participants, Mark said, “I don’t recall.”
Funding for birthright is split evenly among the Israeli government, world Jewish communities and several mega- donors. The program was projected to cost $210 million for its first five years, but the number may be readjusted after a recent Knesset decision to cut Israel’s share of funding.
Birthright originally expected to bring to Israel 90,000 young adults in five years. Now entering its fourth year, it has brought about 40,000.
“Birthright has a very strong attraction for many, and that’s why we are very cautious to give this gift of the Jewish people only to those who are eligible,” Mark said.
Several sources say the blame for the ineligible participants lies with birthright’s trip providers, who are responsible for screening the young people, aged 18 to 26, whom they send.
“Each individual tour provider is responsible for enforcing the rules, and it’s not something that birthright is responsible for,” said Jeff Rubin, director of communications for Hillel.
Rubin said birthright had never told providers they should loosen requirements.
“We’re pleased that birthright is enforcing the rules that have been established since the outset of the program,” he said.
According to Marlene Post, chairwoman of birthright israel USA, the incident reflects the desire of the youths interested in Israel to return to Israel.
“They faked it because they really wanted to get back,” she said. “Does it make me unhappy? Of course. It makes me unhappy that the Jewish community doesn’t have lots of opportunities for young people to return on another trip to Israel when they really want to.”