Making Tourism Kosher
By Caryn Aviv
When young Jewish tourists visit Israel, they arrive with a lot of baggage, most conspicuously their own diasporic Jewish identities. How do these young men and women interpret their experiences in Israel? How do they construct meaning in a foreign place? What does it mean to feel connected to more than one place? These are some of the questions that Shaul Kelner, a sociologist at Vanderbilt University, explores in his valuable 2011 book, Tours that Bind: Diaspora, Pilgrimage, and Israeli Birthright Tourism.

Kelner’s book is the result of three years spent tagging along with Birthright tours (although Kelner has actually spent around ten years pondering Jewish mass tourism to Israel). Here, he uses the Birthright Israel phenomenon to not only answer the questions above, but to explore questions about global Jewish identities and homeland-diaspora tourism more generally. These are complex questions, and Tours that Bind is not a vacation read. It is aimed at a scholarly, not a general, audience. (Full disclosure: I have assigned Tours that Bind in my undergraduate “Global Jewish Secular Societies” course at CU Boulder, and I’ve watched my students struggle to understand its academic language and sophisticated theoretical framework).

Fortunately, Kelner’s material is not just difficult; it’s also fascinating. Kelner looks at the ways tourists explore their own sense of Jewish selfhood and peoplehood on these trips. He looks at contested political claims in a conflict zone. He examines how place is “consumed” and how meaning is produced. He interviews tourists, tour guides, and Birthright staffers. His record of conversations, and his observations of people and places, are both humanizing and deeply illuminating.

Kelner suggests that Birthright tours can explain how flexible and cultivated identifications with a nation-state can transcend more limited notions of citizenship (i.e., residence within the nation-state). He argues that diaspora tourism can and does develop and enlarge the boundaries of a global political community. But not surprisingly, it’s complicated and more nuanced than critics of Birthright Israel, and the program organizers themselves, would suggest. In Kelner’s analysis, the very idea of homeland-diaspora tourism is complex, nuanced, and subject to unintended or unexpected constructions of meaning. On the one hand, Birthright Israel tours often create a sense of belonging and unity for participants who might be searching for answers to questions about their own Jewish identity. On the other hand, this type of tourism to Israel often engenders ambivalence and a disorienting sense of dislocation and outsiderness.  

Kelner describes and analyzes how participants often deploy a discourse of thinking they’re “at home” in Israel, while simultaneously encountering deeply challenging feelings and experiences of being “not at home.” In one of the most pithy ways of describing this phenomenon, Kelner argues that the Birthright experience is “where modern nationalism and postmodern transnationalism meet.” 

One of the most interesting chapters explores the thorny dilemmas of nationalism and narrative in a conflict zone.  Kelner pays careful attention to the multiple ways tour guides frame, interpret, and represent Arab/Palestinian-Israeli histories of conflict. He also turns his analytic lens on the ways participants themselves try to make sense of the competing claims regarding political legitimacy, sovereignty, and struggles over land. In one long ethnographic section, Kelner describes how tour guides unevenly attempt to convey multiple perspectives. Some tour guides prod their participants to pay attention, engage in ethical reasoning, and think more deeply about what might be at stake, for Israeli Jews, and for themselves as diaspora Jews, in such a politically contested place, while others shut off or dismiss questions and claims that might directly challenge the guides’ dominant framing of the conflict. 

Kelner is clearly writing to convince scholars that Birthright Israel, and homeland-diaspora tourism more generally, is vital to understanding the complexities of contemporary global Jewish identities and relationships to nationalism and place.  He’s also challenging Jewish Studies academics to consider more seriously the implications and impacts that major communal investments (such as Birthright) might have on how the very discourses and practices of Jewish identity are shaped in the 21st century. On its own terms, then, the book succeeds mightily. Kelner has written a thoughtful, scholarly monograph, and his passion for thinking about place, Jewish identity, and belonging are powerfully evident.

Caryn Aviv is the Posen Lecturer in Secular Jewish Culture in the Center for Judaic Studies at University of Colorado—Boulder. Aviv is co-author, with David Shneer, of Queer Jews (Routledge, 2002) and New Jews: The End of the Jewish Diaspora (New York University Press, 2005). Aviv’s most recent book is titled Unappointed Ambassadors: American Jews and Israeli-Palestinian Reconciliation.

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