Since 1999 hundreds of thousands of young North American Jews have visited Israel on an all-expense-paid 10-day pilgrimage-tour known as Birthright Israel. The most elaborate of the state-supported homeland tours that are cropping up all over the world, this half-billion-dollar venture seeks to deepen the ties binding the Jewish Diaspora to Israel. But unlike Jewish pilgrimages of millennia past, Birthright Israel adopts and adapts the practices of modern mass tourism. What happens when a state looks to tourism to create a new pilgrimage ritual for the 21st century? How does the act of touring shape identity? How do the organizers of Birthright seek to turn the identity-shaping potentials of tourism to the service of building Jewish identity, and how are their efforts complicated by inherent aspects of tourism itself?
Shaul Kelner is Associate Professor of Sociology and Jewish Studies at Vanderbilt University and Director of Vanderbilt's Program in Jewish Studies. He studies the cultural politics of American Jewish identity.
Prof. Kelner has been a Fellow of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem's Institute for Advanced Studies, and a visiting scholar at Tel Aviv University. He is the author of Tours That Bind: Diaspora, Pilgrimage and Israeli Birthright Tourism (NYU Press, 2010), which received awards from the Association for Jewish Studies and American Sociological Association.