Gidi Mark was the first employee of Birthright Israel – a revolutionary organization that in 18 years has brought more than 600,000 young people from 67 countries to Israel.
Mark, a former diplomat with Israel’s Foreign Ministry, took a chance on the new venture – initiated by Yossi Beilin – to give every young Jew a free trip to Israel. In 1998, Mark became chief operating officer of the project while it was still in the planning stage. Ten years later he was promoted to CEO, which he still as serves today.
“When we first started, we really hoped to increase dramatically the number of young Jews coming to experience Israel. But reaching 50,000 a year, plus some 10,000 Israelis who join them, up from 2,000 who came to Israel every year [pre-Birthright] – if I would have said so then, everyone would have hospitalized me,” Mark told The Jerusalem Post in August at a ceremony for participants in Birthright’s 10-week Excel internship program.
“Now that we’re planning to increase our numbers even more I can say the sky is not the limit,” he said confidently, stressing the importance of the support of Birthright’s donors and partners.
Thanks to a $70 million donation pledged by Jewish American philanthropists Sheldon and Dr. Miriam Adelson – the biggest donation in the organization’s history – Birthright will now be able to break its record number of visits by Jewish youths to Israel. The group saw its largest year to date in 2018, with almost 50,000 participants from abroad in addition to 8,000 Israelis.
“We are today the single largest Jewish educational program in the Jewish world, and the largest Jewish organization that was established in the 21st century,” Mark said.
Mark sees Birthright Israel as a leader in building Israel-Diaspora relationships.
“We have built a strong living bridge between Israel and the Diaspora. Never in the past have there been close to 600,000 young Jews who know 100,000 Israelis. Jewish people have never had so many friends from both sides of the ocean, and this is the silent reality,” he said, also referring to the “problematic reality” of Israel-Diaspora relations as frequently portrayed in the media.
“When we started Birthright 18 years ago there was a very small group of Israelis who had ever heard about what it means to be a Jew in the Diaspora... and vice versa,” he said.
He also noted the role that social media plays today in keeping those relationships alive. “A lot of times when people talk about distancing [between Israel and the Diaspora] they don’t think about these connections,” Mark said.
“I believe the State of Israel belongs to every Jew in the world, regardless of whether or not they live here, and we need to give them an unbiased, totally balanced experience of Israel for them to start their Jewish journey,” he told the Post.
Birthright Israel was recently caught up in a controversy after several participants connected with the far-left IfNotNow organization walked out of the 10-day trip, decrying its bias about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Mark noted that Birthright has becoming a target of pressures from the Left and the Right in an attempt to make the trips part of their political agenda.
“We try, and I believe we succeed in remaining strongly apolitical, never to forget we are education, not hasbara [public diplomacy] or political, because we are about connecting our participants to basic values of the Jewish people and we urge them to see complexities and to make their own opinions,” he said.
“We need to remember there are other places where people can meet settlers or Palestinians, and they should do so.... They should see whatever they want, but this is our program. We don’t want to become a place where political debates will take over the whole 10 days, because there are many other things young Jews should see.”
Mark also noted that Birthright offers longer specialized programs that involve encounters with Arab citizens of Israel. These encounters were suspended in November, sparking outrage, though they were only briefly halted in order to restructure the programs and were resumed a month later. Other trips also include encounters with Israeli Arabs as part of their schedule, as decided by the Trip Organizers.
One complaint raised by activists who left one bus was that the maps used on the tour did not show the Green Line delineating pre-1967 Israel and the West Bank. Mark commented that participants receive several maps given from trip organizers who are outsourced and most of those maps do differentiate between territories. He added, “We are preparing a map that will show all the history of the borders of Israel in the last century.”
The only challenge Mark sees to Birthright’s future is staying relevant to the younger generation. “The fact that we have been until now doesn’t mean we always will be. We can’t promise we will be, but we can promise we will do our best not to miss an opportunity to be relevant,” he said.
Birthright has significantly expanded its activities in the past six years, developing nearly 200 niche trips for those who are interested in learning – among other topics – about Israel’s social fabric, fashion, cuisine or spirituality. The organization also offers the opportunity to study abroad, internship programs and the ability for participants to join with Israelis in generating start-ups together. Birthright also increased the age of eligible participants and has introduced a 27-32 age group.
“And we have new ideas in the pipeline that we will implement in the coming years,” Mark said. “We understand we need to experiment with new things all the time because when the world changes we want to be there.”