Is Birthright for Bibi?

Haim Watzman

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.

8 thoughts on “Is Birthright for Bibi?”

  1. My problem with Birthright is that it’s spending communal money on people less likely to end up remaining connected to the Jewish community — and this at the expense of people who already have committed to remain connected.

    My kids attend Jewish say school, which has a Birthright-type trip as part of its curriculum. But we have to pay more than $3,500 a kid for the privilege. That’s on top of $10K+ tuition. And having been on the school trip, our kids will be ineligible for a Birthright trip.

    As you can imagine, I’m not too responsive when the UJA fundraisers come knocking at the door.

    By the way, I spent a “gap year” in Israel on a Zionist youth group program in the early 70’s which had a total fee of $1,100. Adjusting for inflation, the fee in 2008 dollars would be about $5,800. The ruition being occurring charged for this same program today is $14,000.

    The American Jewish community got a good investment on that subsidized $1,100 tuition, even if you would discount my “heretical” blogging since 2005. I’ve spent over 30 years as an engaged and committed member of various Jewish communities, helping make Jewish life happen on ca,pus, keeping ,y sysnagogue running, and raising a Jewish family.

    Maybe Adelson and the other moneybags should be using more of their loot to subsidize the existing programs that serve young people likely to remain connected to Judaism. And, of course, there art other ways that people can connect to Judaism bedsides taking a trip to Israel.

  2. You’re entirely misrepresenting my article. I simply don’t say that Birthright is “a propaganda machine aimed at promoting a particular right-wing nationalist vision of the Jewish state.” The idea that Birthright is propagandistic is entirely incidental to my piece. Rather, I’m arguing that in the implicit transaction between the participant and the donor, the donor receives a certain amount of status, and in the case of Adelson, who gave such a huge percentage of Birthright’s operating costs, the donor receives a lot of status. I argued that participants should consider that Adelson uses this status to pursue a right wing agenda, and as such those who take his money are implicated in his political work.

  3. Again, you’ve furthered my education.

    When my nephew returned from a Birthright trip, I asked him if they had visited the occupied territories. He said no, it was too dangerous.

    But the occupied territories and what is going on there are a (I hesitate to say integral) part of modern day Israel and definitely a product of the policy, stated or otherwise, of the Israeli government. The territories are THE issue and a place that a good number of Israelis call home.

    It would be one thing if it were simply a vacation trip to Israel, but since it is, as I understand, a deliberate attempt to form a bond with the country how can one visit only a part of the area? To say it is too dangerous is a nice way to escape the whole issue with few objections – especially from concerned parents. To say instead that it isn’t legally part of Israel would be honest, but I wonder what politics would be involved in finding someone who, acting as a Birthright guide, would say it.

    What I draw from your description of how the program works is that those who wish to send their children can tailor the visit to reflect the Israel they would like their children to know, so that Birthright is really the same birthright we all have; to be given a view of the world from the eyes of those who gave us birth. It is up to us as individuals to pull that filter from our eyes and find the world for ourselves.

    I found out that one young man from a family we know was determined to go on a Birthright trip and get into the occupied territories to take a look. But I was told his effort was the act of an idiot and “self-hater”

  4. You sure about this? My stepdaughter’s best friend is a Birthright trip leader and she’s to the Left of Gershon…..and she’s never taken a trip over the Green Line….

  5. One can speak to settlers without crossing the Green Line: They probably held a panel in Jerusalem or elsewhere; it’s a technicality. The problem is the imbalance of the information that participants are fed.

  6. Why shouldnt Birthright represent in part the views of its funders? There are already groups more in line with Josh Nathan-Kazis’ viewpoints, such as International Solidarity Movement, Birhtright palestine, and others. If one wants to do something really daring, they can sail a boat into Gaza and provide aid to hamas. That would be an unforgettable experience for a young Jew

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