Let me be direct: the men in Birthright ads are hot. As in, “let’s do something not tzanua together” hot. This queer man, despite his dovish tendencies, distaste for right-wing “anti-assimilation” efforts, and critiques of Israel, is not completely displeased when a Birthright ad featuring smiling, shirtless, muscular Jewish men surfaces on Facebook. The Jewish fetish I once harangued against? Absolutely – but hey, I’m human too.
If you think about it, my lecherousness reflects the goals of these ads: to present Israel as a sexual playground.
Allow me to explain, though I should note first that I have not been on Birthright; my own visits to Israel have largely been to see relatives. I have no intent to go on a trip. That said, program advertisements regularly show up in my email and Facebook newsfeeds. Furthermore, Birthright’s marketing is indicative of wider Israeli tourist marketing, and is thus worthy of deeper examination.
Let’s turn back to sexy Birthright. Now, it has been made very clear by Birthright’s very special bankrollers and other promoters that one of the targets of Birthright is to have Jews, ahem, breed with other Jews. One narrator recalled that Sheldon Adelson himself made jokes about Jews “knowing” [biblically] other Jews on the trip. Beyond the right-wing worry about, you know, young Jewry’s impatience with the terror-laden, nationalism-driven, human rights-trampling Occupation, those like Birthright’s organizers are also concerned that Jews may be spreading their seed too often with scary Gentiles. Because, of course, the Jewish bloodline has always been pure. What could be better than mixing young, virile Jews – potential propagators of future tefillin-wrappers, Philip Roths, and cooking implement inventors – to this end? A magical trip to start magical romances.
So sexiness has a role to play then in Birthright marketing. If this trip to Israel is a sensual experience – filled with virile, muscular Jewish men who do virile, masculine things, it serves the goal of making sure that “rejoicing in the Kingdom of the Lord” is rejoicing between Jews. If this voyage is one intended to arouse all the senses, then it makes sense to speak of the beach beauties of Tel Aviv and Eilat. And if one goal is to prevent young Jewish men and women from shacking up with those goyim, then it is thus a natural progression that Israel is marketed as a romantic dreamland. A sexual playground.
How does this manifest in advertisements? Well, there is the aforementioned use of Jewish bodies. It is almost de jure that Birthright trips make pilgrimages to at least one place – often several – where the shirts come off and the cameras start clicking. That place might be Gilabun or the Dead Sea, but the place is irrelevant. That moment of the trip is constantly featured: shining, muscular AEPi brothers and bikini-clad Jewish ladies smiling and beaming on sandy dunes. Two messages surface: firstly, “you will have fun on this trip”; secondly, “you will meet some really hot people that make you happy in that very special way, wink wink.” It works – even I, one who thinks not nice things of Birthright, get a bit covetous.
Then there is the presentation of the Israeli as a sexual, sensual being. Don’t get me wrong – “improvements in American-Israeli relations” would probably happen anyway. The number of “I banged a soldier boy on Birthright” stories, fictional or not, is not insignificant. Birthright plays up to this trend. The people of Israel – written to read as “young, fit, secular white Ashkenazim” – are presented as hip, trendy, and good-looking. They are described and introduced much as one might try to introduce themselves on an OKCupid profile: irresistible. Specialized trips also promise exposure to Israel’s most sexualized events – the Pride Parade for the LGBTQ trip; beaches for others. Some Birthright participants have even noted that the guards themselves act as sexual objects. Given that the guards are often praised for being of similar age, this thought puts them into a new light. They are young, virile Israeli bodies accessible to and tempting for the American who must be seduced. That said, the “sexy Israeli” has been a frequent feature of Israeli tourism marketing for years now. Gay men from across Europe are tempted by images of Eliad Cohen in various states of undress, and straight men are beckoned to Israel by bikini-clad soldiers. Holy Land? Think “Hedon-Land.”
Is Birthright a sex-crazed voyage on par with MTV-scripted Spring Break television serials? Obviously not. Is it a Puritanical voyage of Jewish propriety? Not always. The advertisements and imagery presented to sell the trip portray Israel as the great sexual playground for the visiting American. It seeks to limit the sexual agency of the young American traveler to his/her own Jewish brethren. Furthermore, exercising the opportunity to sleep with other Jews becomes a key attraction of the trip. Thus Israel is made into a sexual playground: a place for the sensual excitement of “regenerating” the Jewish people.
It is perhaps tempting to dismiss such a thought as academic, Foucauldian, or overdone. But in an age when young Jews are told again and again of the danger of “assimilation” through intermarriage, the connection of Jewish identity and sexuality is not trivial, but cuts to the very heart of the young American Jew’s lived experience. That handsome fellow in the ad is not just eye candy; he represents another rendition of the “blood purity” obsession that, with reverse effect, has been around for decades. Of course, there is nothing wrong with finding people pretty, as long as you are respectful of their boundaries and space and kind. The beaches of Israel and New Jersey alike are filled with pretty Jewish men. Your libido is your libido whether you are glancing at the lady on the train in Rehovot or Rogers Park. And it is this fact that Birthright seeks to exploit.
Jonathan P. Katz is a student at the University of Chicago.