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.
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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