If you’re unfamiliar with the “Birthright” trip program, chances are high that you live in a cave, you aren’t Jewish, and/or you don’t know anyone who is Jewish. That’s because the high-profile program – funded largely by private donations – sends 50,000 Jewish young adults each year on an all-expenses-paid trip to Israel. Indeed, since the program’s inception, they have apparently sponsored over half a million individuals on these educational trips designed to strengthen religious and cultural identity.
By all accounts, the trip is entirely benign from a U.S. national security perspective: visiting world heritage sites, hiking biblical landscapes, and riding camels, to name a few of the advertised activities. And, while it is true that off-duty Israeli soldiers provide security for the tour groups, I’ve never heard any allegations that program participants were being recruited to work for the intelligence service of our staunchest Mideast ally (and the only democracy in the region) or otherwise co-opted for purposes inimical to U.S. interests. To the contrary, I recall one friend who attended the trip many years ago recounting all the American friends he had made during his adventures.
CIA’s Birthright Suspicions
Yet it seems that security officials within our nation’s intelligence community – particularly the CIA – missed that memo and think more nefarious activities are afoot between American college kids floating in the Dead Sea, listening to Israeli pop music, and enjoying pints of Goldstar (a predominant beer there).
In multiple cases over the years I’ve seen security clearances denied and promising young careers derailed under “foreign influence” considerations for, in part, having participated in the Birthright Israel trip. I say “in part” because each of these cases have included additional, equally benign elements that have been deemed “disqualifying” and presented as some sort of pattern. For example, accepting “friend” requests on Facebook from a couple peer-aged Israeli soldiers who the applicant met on the Birthright trip, or applying for – not even accepting – an unpaid college internship at an Israeli consulate years prior. (I once jokingly asked CIA officials if the applicant “following” the Agency’s Twitter account would mitigate the Facebook concerns, but they didn’t seem amused…)
I’ll leave for others to judge whether these denials are permeated with the scent of anti-Semitism, but I will say this: there is a long and ugly history within the intelligence community of assuming that individuals of Jewish faith have “divided loyalties” (i.e. that one cannot be simultaneously of Jewish faith and strict American loyalty). That attitude is a disturbing relic of decades past and one that was as untrue then as it is now.
Nonetheless, as a result of the current prevailing winds, those who are considering a career in intelligence should proceed with caution when considering participating in a Birthright trip. Here’s to hoping that changes.
This article is intended as general information only and should not be construed as legal advice. Consult an attorney regarding your specific situation.