It seems like mifgashim, meetings between American Jews and Israeli Jews, have quickly become a core element of Israel education. Proponents of mifgashim both in universities and in the field argue that they are essential not merely because they are effective in fostering participants’ deep and lasting connections to Israel, but because they offer participants an “authentic” experience that replaces stereotypes with reality.
In Loving the Real Israel, Alex Sinclair argues that mifgashim “replace American Jews’ stereotypes about Israel and Israelis with genuine personal encounters and friendships with real people” (103). In Israel Education Matters Lisa Grant and Ezra Kopelowitz argue that “fostering social connections between Diaspora and Israeli Jews makes Israel a more personal accessible reality” (102).
This enthusiasm for mifgashim isn’t limited to academics. The most popular Israel trip in the world, Taglit-Brithright writes on its website that mifgashim have become “a central and integral part of the ten day educational experience, and…is cited by more than 80% of participants as the most important part of their journey.” The iCenter includes mifgashim in its “Aleph-Bet” of Israel education” because “is one of the few methods we have that make an educational experience authentic.”
Unlike other parts of an Israel trip, like swimming in the Dead Sea or visiting the Kotel, which, while fun, may leave participants feeling like they are in a “tourist bubble,” mifgashim, according to the logic above, allow American Jews to get to know the “real Israel.” Its authenticity as well as its effectiveness make mifgashim such an appealing educational approach.
But are mifgashim really the transparent window into contemporary Israeli society proponents would have us believe? How do mifgashim represent this “real Israel” for educational tours?
According to a 2013 Yad Hanadiv report on the state of Israeli education, the Israeli public school system serves close to 1.5 million students in four parallel school systems: a secular system, a religious system, an Arab system and a Haredi (Ultra Orthodox) system. While students cannot be barred from attending a school on sectarian grounds, crossover is rare.
In terms of student numbers, almost half of all Israeli school children are either Arab or Haredi. Given the higher average birthrates in the Arab and Haredi communities, the proportion of Arab and Haredi students will increase in the coming years.
With the exception of a small number of educational tour programs, however, mifgashim are quite selective about the “real Israel” to which they expose their American participants, including primarily secular Israeli Jews and nationalist-religious Israeli Jews. In other words, the Mifgash approach, which is lauded precisely because it offers American Jews access to the “real Israel” excludes close to half the population of the country (not including the Palestinian residents of the West Bank and Gaza).
Given these statistics, educational tour organizers must acknowledge that the goal of mifgashim is not to replace a stereotyped image of Israel with the unvarnished truth. Instead, they introduce participants to some Israelis and not others precisely because they want to cultivate a particular image of Israel to the exclusion of another. If this is what mifgashim are all about, then educators should acknowledge that their purpose is to introduce young Americans to particular Israelis whom, they hope, will help them Americans feel connected to Israel.
If organizers of educational tours wish to have their participants encounter the “real Israel,” then they should expand mifgashim to include representatives of the full spectrum of Israelis. They should help American students shed their stereotypes of Israelis as secular kibbutznikim, start-up entrepreneurs, or soldiers wearing knitted kippot and tzitzit. They should teach them that there are many Israelis also do not serve in the army, wear only black and white, and live on government stipends.
They, too, are part of the “real Israel.”