New Birthright trip for Jewish law enforcement seeks to counter BDS movement

An ad for the "Law Enforcement Israel Adventure"

Every year, thousands of Jewish youth flock to Israel for ten days of sightseeing and Zionist indoctrination through Birthright Israel, an organization that offers the trips free of charge to young adults with Jewish heritage.

Beginning in May, Birthright and its partner organizations will pilot a new trip specially tailored to a specific demographic: Jewish law enforcement officers.

In February, the Jewish National Fund (JNF) announced the first ever “Law Enforcement Israel Adventure,” designed to “connect law enforcement officials to their Jewish roots and Israeli counterparts.”

Asked why Jewish police need their own Birthright trip, JNF spokesperson Adam Brill, himself a former Detective with the New York City Police Department, said it’s important for cops to have a connection to “their homeland.”

“It’s part of our DNA to want to help out others and make society better,” he said.

But later in conversation, he acknowledged that the trip was conceived, in part, as a reaction to the growing influence of the Boycott Divest and Sanctions (BDS) movement.

“They hear only bad things about Israel…from this BDS community that’s out there today, which is borderline anti-Semitic in its tone and is there to malign Israel all the time,” Brill said.

“We’re hoping to take the officer away from the department and community and let them see for themselves, without media telling them what’s going on,” he added.

If the law enforcement trip is anything like other Birthright ventures, there will indeed be no media, but rather a well-oiled propaganda machine––replete with fake Bedouin tents, checkpoints re-imagined as tollbooths, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shrouded in fog machine haze––telling police officers “what’s going on.”

Participating officers will also be matched with Israeli cops who will travel with them in the hope of forming friendships. It’s a heightened level of personal connection that Brill says doesn’t necessarily happen in the numerous programs that already send American law enforcement officers of any background, Jewish or otherwise, to Israel––like the Georgia-based GILEE program, which doles out counter-terrorism training and Islamophobia in equal measures.

“We wanted to pair these folks with Jewish Israeli police officers to share stories…When you’re walking through the old cities and the new cities that are being created in Israel, you can share these very personal stories,” Brill said.

This isn’t the first time that Birthright Israel has created a specialized program for a niche group. The organization currently offers trips tailored to LGBTQ people, foodies, and techies; in the past there have been special trips for skateboarders and hip-hop enthusiasts. Then there are Birthright spinoffs like Honeymoon Israel, and a Birthright-like trip for evangelical Christians.

The timing of the launch of Birthright’s law enforcement trip suggests that the program was perhaps conceived not only with BDS in mind, but also in response to the Black Lives Matter movement and the growing outrage over racist policing in the United States.

“Many young, progressive, American Jews are as outraged by the oppressive and racist policies of Israel as they are with U.S. law enforcement,” Naomi Dann, of Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), told Mondoweiss.

“It’s deeply ironic that an organization that has played a large role in displacing Palestinians from their land is sponsoring a trip to sell Israel to young American-Jewish law enforcement officers,” Dann said.

Ironic, maybe also savvy. Young police officers who view critiques of the criminal justice system as personal attacks may be poised, now more than ever, to embrace any ideology that reinforces their righteousness.

Brill told Mondoweiss that the law enforcement Birthright trip is the brainchild of Rabbi Tzvi “Harry” Berkowitz, chief chaplain of New York City’s Metro Transit Authority. Berkowitz approached JNF with the idea and the organization ran with it. Now, Berkowitz is busy recruiting officers to participate.

“He’s going to Florida to sell to several hundred police officers down there and get the word out…the hope is to expand it,” he said.