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  • Ethnographers and History
  • Shaul Kelner (bio)

1. How does the history we choose to engage with shape the ethnographic tale we tell, and what type of historical consciousness do we bring to the work?

In his 1945 manifesto on hiking as a form of Zionist education, Zev Vilnay opens with the comment, “Even in ancient times, the Israelite was accustomed to wander the Land of Israel and to know it well.”1 Most of the pamphlet goes on to address matters practical and philosophical associated with the structure, staffing and pedagogy of ritualized hiking (tiyul). Before he addresses that, however, Vilnay’s initial concern is to “recover roots,” to use Yael Zerubavel’s turn of phrase—to assert historical continuity between contemporary practice and the Jewish past.2 Vilnay’s first chapter is given over to consideration of the biblical pilgrimage festivals and to later Jewish travel writings in the Land of Israel, such as R. Estori Ha-Parhi’s 1322 Sefer Kaftor va-Ferah and R. Moses Cordovero’s accounts in Sefer Gerushin of sixteenth-century kabbalistic excursions in the environs of Safed.3

In writing Tours That Bind: Diaspora, Pilgrimage and Israeli Birthright Tourism4, an ethnography of the state-sponsored tours that have brought more than 300,000 Diaspora Jews to Israel since 1999, I knew well that Vilnay’s perspective was widely shared among educators engaged in the enterprise. Jewish educational travel experiences in Israel—whether for sabras (native-born Israelis),5 new immigrants or Diaspora Jews—have typically been framed as continuous with a premodern Jewish pilgrimage tradition. The ideological and legitimizing thrust of such a framing is clear. As I set out to conduct the research, I faced a choice: to participate in nationalist mythmaking, or to break with it and present the enterprise [End Page 17] of Israel-experience travel as a quintessentially twentieth- and twenty-first-century phenomenon.

Each option implied a different relation to history, and each suggested a different history to engage with. I chose to emphasize a narrative of discontinuity. Birthright Israel and the twentieth-century Diaspora youth tours that preceded it are best understood, I argue, not as the contemporary manifestation of an ancient Jewish pilgrimage tradition, but as a novel practice made possible only by the political, economic, organizational, conceptual and technological resources of the modern age. Without a conception of Diaspora-state relations as a strategic asset for both parties, without a robust tourism industry and a population that enjoys en masse the luxury of leisure time to travel, without a professionalized field of Jewish education, without the technology to move hundreds of thousands of people through the air and the bureaucratic systems to coordinate it, without a philanthropic system capable of financing such an enterprise, Birthright Israel would simply be unimaginable.

The history I chose to engage, therefore, looks not to the premodern Jewish past. My historical focus takes me back to the mid-nineteenth century at the earliest, to engage with three different histories. One regards the rise of the modern mass tourism industry. Another treats the Zionist movement in the prestate period, as well as its development of the cultural and institutional practices of tiyul that would later shape Diaspora youth travel to Israel. The third takes up aspects of twentieth-century American Jewish history relevant to the growth of the Israel-experience program field. This includes institutional histories of Diaspora youth travel programs, such as the Young Judaea Summer Programs in Israel. It also goes beyond an investigation of specific programs to consider broader efforts to build a field of Israel-experience education—efforts that included research, advocacy and institution building.

The latter approach frames Birthright Israel within a moment in the institutional history of American Jewish education. Here, I was concerned with avoiding teleology. It would have been easy to frame the growth of the Israel-experience field as a story that begins with small, independent programs targeted to a limited number of youth-movement leaders and culminates with a massive effort to make a trip to Israel a universal rite of passage for every American Jewish young adult. But this would also have been misleading. Therefore, although the ethnography studied...


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