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Getting Birthright Wrong: There's Nothing Sinister About It
In mid-June, The Nation 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 10-day tours of the Jewish state. 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 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 even this memory is marred by the feeling of having succumbed to Birthright's sinister agenda: "pumping out not only Jewish baby-makers but defenders of Israel."
And in Feldman's view, her peers took the bait. Exhausted by their emotionally charged encounters with the Western Wall and Yad Vashem, overstimulated by a visit to the Mount Herzl military cemetery, most fail to see through Birthright's manipulative designs. Despite the participants' "self-described liberal" dispositions, too many of them, Feldman reports, "became convinced on the trip of the necessity of a Jewish state 'to protect Judaism.' "
Does Birthright have such an agenda? The question is almost too silly to entertain. Feldman herself notes that Birthright was created in an effort "to plug the dam of assimilation" and respond to the Diaspora's "crisis of continuity" 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 is that "what began as an identity booster has become an ideology machine" -- although she doesn't explain when the alleged transformation occurred. The fact is that Birthright today is no less and 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?
The only interesting aspect of Feldman's article is how 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, along with a self-righteous sense of entitlement, to view a free trip to Israel as anything other than a gift. Feldman has exploited this gift in a petulant debunking for The Nation made possible by the same philanthropists whom she accuses of putting one over on her.
And this, mutatis mutandis, is what Birthright has been up against from the start. Feldman's refusal to view Israel outside the lens of her established political viewpoint 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. It's a statement informed by thousands of years of tradition. Only someone who views Israel essentially in terms of the Palestinian call for a right of return could interpret it as anything else. But the fact that Feldman did compels us to ask: 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.
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 now are better than even -- which is more than appeared likely a decade ago.