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Getting Birthright Wrong

In mid-June, The Nation magazine, which for decades has provided a special platform for Jewish critics of Zionism, published an article by a young alumna of Birthright Israel, the organization that since 1999 has sent 260,000 young Diaspora Jews (including this writer) on free ten-day tours of the Holy Land. In "The Romance of Birthright Israel," Kiera Feldman, a 2008 graduate of Brown, marshals anecdotal evidence and a sprinkling of recent critical literature to capture what she sees as Birthright's hidden agenda to breed the next generation of Zionists.

Relevant Links
The Court Jews of the 21st Century  Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post. The recent bouts of “confessions” from ex-Zionists dehumanize Israelis and delegitimize Israel.
Impact Birthright  Leonard Saxe, Theodore Sasson, Shahar Hecht, Benjamin Phillips, Michelle Shain, Graham Wright, Charles Kadushin, Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies. The first long-term study of Birthright alumni shows that the experience is a powerful determinant of Jewish identification and attachment to Israel. (PDF)

Feldman's essay focuses as much on her own experience of the organization's brainwashing as on its history. While describing, with relative accuracy, how and why Birthright came into being, she paints her all-expenses-paid trip as a patronizing affair of which her only positive memory is hooking up with her crush in a "fake Bedouin tent." Yet this memory, too, is marred by the feeling of having momentarily succumbed to Birthright's sinister agenda: "pumping out not only Jewish baby-makers but defenders of Israel."

If Birthright's "mind-numbing itinerary" proves almost but not quite successful enough to compromise Feldman's self-consciously distanced "reportorial stance," her peers are not so lucky. Exhausted by their emotionally charged encounters with the Western Wall and Yad Vashem, overstimulated by a visit to the Mount Herzl military cemetery "while embracing a handsome IDF soldier in the late afternoon light," most fail to see through Birthright's manipulative designs. Despite their "self-described liberal" dispositions, too many of them, Feldman is sad to report, "became convinced on the trip of the necessity of a Jewish state 'to protect Judaism.'"

Does Birthright have a secret agenda? The question is almost too silly to entertain. Since its inception in the late 1990s, this initiative has meant different things to different people, but it has never been shy about its purposes. Feldman herself notes that although it enjoys significant funding from the Israeli government, Birthright was created in an effort "to plug the dam of assimilation" and respond to the "crisis of continuity" in the Diaspora, "a crisis characterized not only by intermarriage but by the weakening of Jewish communal ties such as synagogue membership and a waning attachment to Israel." (She seems not to realize that the first phrase is a direct quote from Birthright's cofounder, Michael Steinhardt.)

But Feldman's main problem with Birthright, or so she claims, is that "what began as an identity booster has become an ideology machine"—although she doesn't trouble to supply an explanation of when and how the alleged transformation took place.  The plain fact is that Birthright today is no less and (it bears noting) no more Zionist than it was in 1999. Its trips are administered by a variety of organizations, many of which, by Feldman's own admission, espouse widely divergent ideologies: "from secular to Orthodox, from outdoorsy to LGBT-friendly." Which of these ideologies is Birthright secretly pushing?

In any case her respect for the putatively more benign purposes of early Birthright seems patently insincere: by the end of her trip, Feldman, a "baptized child of intermarriage," seems to regret that the majority of her tour group "said they felt 'more Jewish' and vowed to raise their offspring within the tribe."              

In the end, the only interesting aspect of Feldman's article is how keenly it encapsulates, at its extreme, the syndrome that Birthright was created to combat.  Without a trace of irony, she asserts that the "free trip is framed as a 'gift' from philanthropists, Jewish federations, and the state of Israel."

Framed as a gift? It takes an unseemly combination of hip disengagement with things Jewish with a self-righteous sense of entitlement to view a free, safe trip to Israel as anything other than a gift.  Her statement reminded me of something a friend said to me several years ago when presented with this same gift: "My father is Mr. AIPAC. . . Finally I just said 'Fine, fine. I'll go and get brainwashed.'" If my friend was impressed with his own benevolence in accepting an Israeli vacation on a silver platter, Feldman has exploited hers in a petulant debunking for The Nation made possible by the same philanthropists—cunning, or clueless?—whom she accuses of having tried to put one over on her.

And this, mutatis mutandis, is what Birthright has been up against from the start. Feldman is either unwilling or unable to view Israel outside the lens of her established political viewpoint, a mindset that prevents her from internalizing the least controversial truths. "'Welcome home' is a predominant message," she writes, "a reference to the promise of instant Israeli citizenship for Diaspora Jews under the 1950 Law of Return." No, it's not a reference to any such thing—it's a statement informed by thousands of years of Jewish tradition. Only someone who views Israel essentially in terms of the Palestinian call for a right of return could interpret it as anything else. If an educational tour of Israel, complete with a visit to the Western Wall and the ancestral lands of Jewish heritage, cannot persuade an intelligent twenty-something American Jew to internalize the simple, fundamental connection between Judaism and that tiny strip of land in the eastern Mediterranean, how successful can Birthright actually be in changing the trajectory of Jewish communal life in the Diaspora?

The final results will not be in until a generation from now. But it is already clear that Birthright has, in fact, been a game changer in the Jewish lives of many of its participants, with its alumni 51 percent more likely than their non-alumni counterparts to marry Jewish partners, and 35 percent more likely to view raising their children Jewish as important. And there are other signs of hope. Last year, another Birthright alumna of liberal disposition published a graphic novel entitled How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less. Depicting her own Birthright experience, Sarah Glidden lets us in on her nervous airport farewell to her non-Jewish boyfriend and the running trial she stages in her head to determine whether the program is trying to brainwash her. Ultimately, honesty leads her to depart Israel with a nuanced appreciation for the country, its people, and its challenges.

In the next generation will a higher percentage of young Jewish Americans be committed to Jewish continuity and feel strongly connected to the state of Israel? Part of the answer depends on whether organized Jewry can provide the resources necessary for Birthright alumni to capitalize on their enthusiasm upon their return. But the prospects, at this reading, are better than even—which is more than appeared likely a decade ago.

Philip Getz is assistant editor of the Jewish Review of Books.

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Independent Patriot on July 6, 2011 at 7:43 am (Reply)
Lovely article. It is sad that we allow those Jews who betray their heritage to establish the ground rules for discussion. It is time that we stand up as say "As a Proud Jew" rather than allow the traitors in our midst to canonize their treachery with "As a Jew" polemics. It is also time that we, the overwhelming majority of Jews, stop apologizing for holding fast to our heritage (religion), our love of Israel and our love of our people.Too many Jews in this world need to apologize to their liberal friends that they are still proud Jews. It is time for us to stop reacting and start acting. Create the discussion on our terms not on the terms of those that would destroy us.
Jay A Friedman on July 6, 2011 at 8:17 am (Reply)
I would like to thank Ms. Feldman for setting the record straight.

I now agree with her that a program (any program) that is funded by Jews as well as the State of Israel and the Zionist movement should be directed towards supporting anti-Semitism, denying the existence of a Jewish State, ignoring Jewish history and objecting to a Jewish future.

Am I sorry that Ms. Feldman did not enjoy her free trip?

I couldn't care less!!!
Lea de Lange on July 6, 2011 at 8:41 am (Reply)
For whom is Birthright meant? For Jewish youngsters. They may not know anything about their identity, not the language not the Torah but they have to be Jewish. Embers of the burning bush should still lay dormant in their souls.

The girl in the article, a baptized girl is not really the target of Birthright . The money spent on her could have been spent a whole lot better on those American Jewish youngsters who love themselves and their people.

I do not really understand how a girl so hopelessly alienated could be taken on a Birthright trip. Did she really have a Birthright to the Land of Israel?
Hershl on July 6, 2011 at 8:59 am (Reply)
Wonderful article!

Overall, Birthright does what it is intended to do; deepen the Jewish identity of its participants.

Zionism does not equal Judaism or Jewish identity but it is nice if the kids in BR feel a little more positive connection to the Jewish Homeland.

There will always be naysayers like the person who wrote the Nation article. Who cares. Israel and the Jewish people are here to stay.

Long after the Nation and its ilk are footnotes in obscure historical tomes, we shall still be here.
wildhair8 on July 6, 2011 at 10:16 am (Reply)
you were baptised and therefore not jewish; you were obviously raised with nothing jewish, probably not even rugalach and babka (forget shabbat candles and challlah). how did you even get on this trip??????
cdk on July 6, 2011 at 1:05 pm (Reply)
assuming jay a friedman's comments were, for the most part, tongue in cheek, it's a shame ms feldman took the space on the trip that could have been better suited to someone who was committed to israel, recognizing the need for israel, that israel is a wonderful country and, lest I say, the homeland of the jewish people now and forever.
my son's connection w/ judaism was limited until he went on birthright. upon his graduation from university he made aliyah and served as a paratrooper in the idf during cast lead. he's also promised that he'll only marry a jewish girl.
Savta Achimeir on July 6, 2011 at 1:17 pm (Reply)
Dear G-d in heaven, cries my Southern Jewish soul, such ingraciousness on the part of the Orthodox Leftist and Jewish apostate Feldman. No doubt, idealist that she is, she will reimburse every penny.

to paraphrase Yeats, "What rude beast, its hour come at last/Slouches towards Bethlehem on its free Birthright tour?"
Michael on July 6, 2011 at 1:19 pm (Reply)
While I agree with much of what Philip writes, it's equally naive to delete - nay virtually deny - that a particular ideology, a specific narrative, and a teleological point of view are not part and parcel of the Birthright program. That point of view is: Jewish history converges and finds its most authentic expression in the modern state of Israel - a point of view that certainly can be contested.
Phil Getz on July 6, 2011 at 2:12 pm (Reply)
Birthright's policy (probably wise) requires that participants have one Jewish parent and not actively practice another religion. The fact that Feldman was baptized, presumably early in life, does not by itself indicate that she should have been denied the opportunity to experience Israel with Birthright. Unfortunately, it was her own "steel trap of a heart" as she puts it that prevented her from appreciating the gift she was given.
ben on July 6, 2011 at 2:16 pm (Reply)
Feldman is not Jewish - not because she is baptized but because her mother is not Jewish.
So who cares about her ?
Jay A Friedman on July 6, 2011 at 2:31 pm (Reply)
Att: CDK

I can assure you that my tongue was not in my cheek. It was sticking out as far as I could stick it --- in the direction of Ms. Feldman.
Mark Rosenblatt on July 6, 2011 at 2:37 pm (Reply)
Nice piece, Phil, but now I have to search for Feldman's NATION article online.

You see, I'm currently between NATION subscriptions, and have been so for the past twenty-seven years.

But even a by-the-numbers my-blinders-are-off I-was-once-lost-but-now-I-see apologia such as Feldman's serves a purpose. Until I read your take on THE ROMANCE OF BIRTHRIGHT ISRAEL, I thought my annual NYS tax refund was a gift!

But it's NOT! It's my own money!

What a fool I was!
opensoc on July 6, 2011 at 3:24 pm (Reply)
Birthright is about inheritance : we are the lucky recipients of the values that have shaped the ethics of our civilization and we are , with our birthright, entrusted with the continuity of those values, worth more than any precious jewel. Beware those who reject this trust : Once you are out, it is very difficult to get back in.
Lea de Lange on July 6, 2011 at 3:25 pm (Reply)
Michael, anything could be contested, either with reason or just for the hell of it. But the Birthright program is not a debating society, it exists to take young Jews to the Land of Israel if they so desire. Desire out of love for the Land and the people to whom they belong and want to belong. Not out of hatred and a chance to really have a nice opportunity to slander those hated Jews. That one can do elsewhere. In many places really.
The Editors, Jewish Ideas Daily on July 6, 2011 at 6:45 pm (Reply)
The word "brainwashing" should not have appeared in quotation marks. We regret the error and extend our thanks to Ms. Feldman for pointing it out via Twitter.

The text has been corrected.
Michael on July 6, 2011 at 8:25 pm (Reply)
Lea, You missed my point. The Nation article is an observation/analysis. It may be flawed but it still a critique. My point about BR having a specific point of view (and one that is ideological) is also an observation/analysis. BR is not, as you put it, a debating society because it doesn't care to debate it the ideology and worldview it conveys to its participants. Some participants, however, are bound to figure out that ideology and want to discuss it. The question is: will BR allow such questioning?
uktomia on July 6, 2011 at 10:05 pm (Reply)
No one forced this girl to take part. There are not enough spots for everyone who wants to go. It is meant to be a taste of Israel, a shared experience, a personal journey that means different things to different people. You don't need to hang on every word the tour guide tells you. I am guessing she did not "meet" anyone on the trip or didn't bond with the group. She didn't connect and that happens sometimes. Birthright receives untold numbers of thank you notes, strengthens Jewish identity, creates marriages, and lasting friendships. Occasionally someone has a sour experience. You can't be all things to all people, but as a recipient of similar Israel programs, and as a donor myself, a little gratitude for the opportunity goes a long way.
Rob on July 6, 2011 at 10:15 pm (Reply)
Perhaps Ms. Feldman could undo the effects of Birthright brainwashing and also assuage her guilt over accepting a gift that she does not like by making the symbolic gesture of reimbursing Birthright for the cost of her trip? Don't hold your breath for that.
Hersh David on July 7, 2011 at 2:19 am (Reply)
How ironic that Feldman and Glidden (How to Understand Israel in 60 Days) went on essentially the same program with the same provider and the same focus and came out with such differentiated experience. While I do not at all like how Feldman distorted every syllable she heard on that trip, the beauty of the program is that each one gets it differently.
Erica Lyons on July 7, 2011 at 6:31 am (Reply)
Great article. I am however having a hard time understanding how the original article, Feldman’s article, has sparked a ‘Birthright controversy’. There is no controversy, no brainwashing and no secret agenda. Birthright is clear about their mission: “to send young Jewish adults from all over the world to Israel as a gift in order to diminish the growing division between Israel and Jewish communities around the world; to strengthen the sense of solidarity among world Jewry; and to strengthen participants' personal Jewish identity and connection to the Jewish people.” And yes, by definition, it will be both pro-Israel and pro-Jewish. Sorry this was a surprise for Feldman.
Stuart Berman on July 7, 2011 at 9:07 am (Reply)
Having just returned from a family trip to Israel, we had the pleasure of seeing a Birthright group flying to Israel. It was a great way to inspire my children before we even arrived in Israel.

I have however see one unintended consequence from the program which is that many families use the program as an excuse for not traveling to Israel. I can't recount how many times I have heard cash strapped Jewish parents (aren't we all cash strapped?) say that instead of going to Israel after their child's bar/bat mitzvah they will wait until their child is 18 and save some money. In my mind that is a lose-lose proposition.
Hersh David on July 7, 2011 at 11:41 am (Reply)
Michael. your premise is exactly what is wrong with Feldmans article. Their are dissenting opinions presented, there is debate, there is critical analysis. The trip she was on does not portray Israel with rose color glasses, rather a living breathing struggling successful country.
Lea de Lange on July 7, 2011 at 3:25 pm (Reply)
Michael, nobody tries to brainwash people who come on this BR-trip. Nobody HAS to come, nobody is in any way persuaded to make this trip. One has to feel the NEED to enjoy one's Birthright. This am I. This is my country, my people, I want to go there, to meet, to embrace it all. This trip is a Right. No pressure. It is also not an endeavour to win souls for the Jewish people or citizens for the State of Israel.
And again, it is not a debating society. People who like to debate Israel, it's rights and wrongs, may be even it's right to exist, who knows, can do that all over the world. They do not not have to come to Israel for this, they most certainly should not use money donated by Israel (the State and the nation) to follow this urge.
A Birthright does not HAVE TO BE enjoyed, it MAY BE enjoyed. A Jew has to bend down deeply to kiss the soil of the Land, no one, but no one presses this soil on a silver platter to anyone's lips by force.
Phil Getz on July 7, 2011 at 6:47 pm (Reply)
I'm surprised nobody has noted Feldman's use of industrial language ("pumping out" & "ideology machine"). By using these words, she reduces all birthright alumni who didn't react the way she did to meat in the big-bad-birthright grinder. Pink Floyd comes to mind.

Any fellow Birthrighters out there?
regina winters on July 11, 2011 at 8:37 am (Reply)
Feldman's article really does not apply to Israel, Birthright, doing root canal work on gift-horse teeth. But it says a lot about the trauma of intermarriage, the harm it does the children. Baptized, with a Jewish patronym, Feldman is neither here nor there, and takes it out on Israel, Birthright--i.e. The Jews.
Self-hating Jews are bad enough. Now we are getting self-hating half-Jews!! Oy!
Ruth Taylor on July 19, 2011 at 7:06 am (Reply)
I have read both articles, and do not see the insincerity or condescending attitude in Feldman that Getz portrays here. In fact, he seems to want more to demonize the young writer rather than to engage with her opinions. The facts as I understand them is that Birthright trips are a frank selling job of Israel -- much like the free trips designed to sell condos in vacation spots -- and participants are correct to be aware of that as they take advantage of the "free and safe" trip that Getz advertises.

Israel's actual problem can be seen encapsulated in the above description. It is not safe, because it in a perpetual state of war. The war is perpetual because by most assessments it is unjust. My own Jewishness, which is both secular and essential, does not encompass tribalism so absoulte that it forgives injustice just because members of the tribe are commiting it.
Stuart Berman on July 19, 2011 at 12:18 pm (Reply)
@Ruth - how is travel to Israel unsafe? How many millions of tourists travel to Israel each year without any problems? Statistically you are in far more danger driving in a car to the airport than you are traveling to Israel. As an Israeli soldier I was at more risk of getting hurt in a traffic accident than by enemy fire.

You may be right about perpetual war, but not for the reasons you give. (Calling the self defense of a people 'unjust' shows that you misunderstand the situation in the Middle East even if you find other that support your view.) Consider the continuing radicalization of Muslims in the Middle East (including the prominence of veiled women in Egypt which used to be largely secular). A Jewish nation (of any shape or size) on land that was once part of the Muslim "Ummah" is simply unacceptable to the religious Muslim. Consider that Arab Christians are being driven out of the Middle East, such as Bethlehem, by Arab Muslims. I guess your definition of justice depends upon the facts and perspectives you choose to embrace.
Ruth Taylor on August 15, 2011 at 1:18 pm (Reply)
I know this was all a month ago, and you probably will not see this, Stuart, but nonetheless:

I do not laud the Muslims, or support any expressed intolerance of the existence of Israel just because I abhor specific Israeli policies and behaviors. Everyone can be (and in my opinion) is wrong here...who will be the first to be righteous?
Dan Davis on November 29, 2011 at 9:28 am (Reply)
Finally, I've found a critical review of the Feldman article, which I found to be one-sided and biased against the concept of return to Zion in favor of "Why don't the Arabs have the same right of return?" Thanks to Philip Getz for an excellent analysis.

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