JERUSALEM, Dec. 27 (JTA) — The first of some 6,015 young people from 12 countries have begun their free tours of Israel in a program designed to boost Jewish identity.
Rabbi Michael Melchior, Israel’s minister for Israeli society and world Jewish communities, hailed the launch of Birthright Israel as a “historic breakthrough” in Israel-Diaspora relations.
Some 15,000 young Jews applied for the first 6,000 spots on winter break tours.
The first group of about 170 college students from Arizona and the B’nai B’rith Youth Organization already started its tour Dec. 19 and 420 more American students will land on Thursday. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak will address the first groups on the night of Jan. 8.
The $210 million program, funded by prominent Jewish philanthropists led by Charles Bronfman and Michael Steinhardt, aims to bring 50,000 young, unaffiliated Jews to Israel over the next five years, including 16,000 in 2000 alone. The program aims to provide 15- to 26-year-olds with a free, first-time trip to Israel.
Meanwhile, Birthright released a poll of Israelis that showed nearly 82 percent of Israelis support in principle giving all Jewish youth outside Israel an opportunity to come to the Jewish state. However, those polled were not asked if they would support spending Israeli money on the project.
Melchior fended off criticism from those who say Israel should not spend taxpayer money on Birthright at a time when unemployment is on the rise.
He said such claims were “unacceptable” since Israel would have to “close half the country” if it scrapped all government spending not aimed at reducing unemployment.
Melchior said that in the unemployment-stricken town of Kiryat Malachi, for example, most public buildings are backed by money from Jewish philanthropists overseas.
“If we want to have donors and people who take care of Israel’s strategic strength, we must invest in the next generation,” he said.