Is Birthright a wonderful program that encourages Jewish identity and commitment to Israel, or is it a propaganda machine aimed at promoting a particular right-wing nationalist vision of the Jewish state?
The latter, says Josh Nathan-Kazis in his op-ed How Your Free Trip Will Help Israeli Hard Liner Benjamin Netanyahu Become Prime Minister in the Jewish student magazine New Voices . Nathan-Kazis focuses on Birthright’s dependence on the largesse of right-wing casino tycoon Sheldon Adelson. According to Nathan-Kazis, Adelson has donated $67 million to Birthright and supplied a third of its operating budget for 2008. Adelson also funds the right-wing, pro-Likud newspaper Yisrael HaYom and is a major backer of the Jerusalem-based neo-con think-tank, The Shalem Center
Nathan-Kazis is right that wherever money is involved, we should suspect political influence. And, in fact, some young American Jews who sign up for a Birthright trips find themselves being handed a largely Greater Israel, neo-con bill of goods on their trips. But certainly not all, and evidently not because of Adelson’s money.
Nathan-Kazis adduces no evidence that Adelson has sought to impose his views on Birthright programs, or that the organization feels required to adhere to his politics in order not to lose his money. And, in fact, the way the organization works would make that difficult. Birthright programs are run by a number of trip organizers who independently develop and publicize their own itineraries. Each such organization has its own specialty and some have specific religious, ideological, or cultural views of Israel they seek to promote. Birthright travelers are free to choose among them.
Birthright offers enrollees advice on how to choose a trip, and even recommends asking “What is the sponsor’s primary mission, ideology and philosophy?.”
Nevertheless, from my experience as an occasional speaker to Birthright groups, most participants don’t ask such questions. In many cases, they know little about Israeli culture and politics, so they don’t know what to ask. And most organizers say they offer a range of experiences and viewpoints, so their agendas are not always clear.
The worst thing that can happen on a Birthright trip is for participants to be given the impression that if they do not identify with a particular view of Israel, they cannot be Zionists. On any number of occasions I’ve encountered groups who have been given a relatively narrow view of the Israel-Palestine conflict. They’ve met settlers in the West Bank and heard security experts explain why giving up the territories would put Israel in mortal danger, but they have not heard many voices that advocate cutting a deal with the Palestinians—even though that’s a widespread view held by a large portion of the Israeli public.
Furthermore, some Birthright trips fail to show participants how broad the range of Israeli public debate and culture is. When I offer my own critical but loyal view of important issues, and mention that Israel has plenty of movements, organizations, and NGOs that work for greater social justice, I always see a lot of faces light up.
Birthright is an important program and it should not be hijacked by any one agenda, right or left. But the best way to do that is for trip organizers to be more explicit about their ideological and political philosophies and, in particular, for participants to make educated choices in choosing which trips to sign up for.