Kiera Feldman set off quite a storm last month when she wrote in The Nation that Birthright Israel has evolved from “an identity booster has become an ideology machine [in the form of an ultra-Zionist bootcamp.]” Once asserting Birthright’s bias, she then criticizes the organization because this bias allows participants to overlook the fact that Israel is guilty of “forty-four-year[s] [of] illegal occupation of Palestinian lands and the racism and legal discrimination that underpins Israel’s enthocracy.”
But one thing that all authors agree on is the profound impact that Birthright Israel has had on the Jewish American experience. Since its inception in 1999, more than 260,000 non-Israeli Jews have gone on Birthright –Americans accounting for the vast majority of this number. Now it seems that one of the most often heard questions between two recently introduced young professional Jews is “Did you go on Birthright?” If both answer “yes,” then a discussion usually ensues, not about how to best deprive Palestinians of a livelihood as Feldman would have you think, but about a night in a Bedouin tent, climbing Masada, and floating in the Dead Sea. Jewish bonding at work.
It remains to be seen whether Birthright will save Jewish identity (as its founders intended). But we do know that – love it or hate it – Birthright Israel is now a major player in the Jewish world and a formative experience for many young Jews.
On June 15, Kiera Feldman wrote in The Nation that the Jewish Birthright trip is a hawkish, Zionist brainwashing trip. “What began as an identity booster has become an ideology machine.” Israel, it seems, is guilty of “forty-four-year[s] [of] illegal occupation of Palestinian lands and the racism and legal discrimination that underpins Israel’s ethnocracy.” The Birthright trip tries, but fails, to hide these supposed faults; the offered alternative is a Zionism that encourages “pumping out not only Jewish baby-makers but defenders of Israel.” Despite the name of her article – “The Romance of Birthright Israel” – Feldman falls in love with neither this type of Zionism nor the state of Israel, and her article is the ensuing product of her discontent.
The contention that Birthright is a hawkish-Zionist propaganda machine deserves scrutiny on two fronts. First, where is the proof that the trip is ideologically biased? And second, if Feldman is correct in her accusation, why is there not an alternative Birthright trip to advance what Feldman sees as a more accurate, and increasingly popular, view of Israel—that of an illegal occupier with questionable morals?
In addressing the question of proof, Feldman argues that Birthright is no longer “the selling of Jewishness to Jews,” as articulated by Birthright co-founder Charles Bronfman. Instead, the trip now promotes ardent, Israel-can-do-no-wrong Zionism. To substantiate this, Feldman tells her personal story involving an allegedly anti-Arab, anti-Palestinian, bigoted bus guide, and the stories of Birthrighters Max Geller, Jared Malsin, and EllaRose Chary. Four anecdotes. Over 260,000 Diaspora Jews (as I learned from Feldman) have gone on Birthright and four is hardly a statistical representation of Birthrighters. This, of course, does not disprove Feldman’s thesis, but it should shake the certainty of her claim.
Then there are the actual stories presented by the four Birthrighters. Take, for instance, Max Geller’s description:
“Geller’s trip also featured AwesomeSeminar.com’s Neil Lazarus, a pro-Israel advocacy trainer who says he’s delivered presentations since Birthright’s inception. (‘When the Palestinians kill Israeli men, women and children,’ Lazarus says in one online video, ‘they celebrate, and they give out sweets in the streets.’)”
Never mind that Lazarus did not actually say those words to the Birthright travelers (he said them in an online video for a different audience) the truth is that Palestinians have celebrated the death of Israelis on many occasions (see for example the Dalal Mughrabi Square). Pointing that out is not bias; it is fact. As for Lazarus’s other seeming offense—pro-Israel advocacy—this doesn’t qualify him as an extreme Zionist hawk.
Feldman next backs her claim by pointing to some of Birthright’s founders and donors. Charles Bronfman, Michael Steinhardt, Sheldon Adelson, Harold Grinspoon, Susie Gelman, Lynn Schusterman, S. Daniel Abraham, Roger Hertog, and Marc Rich—each has connections to groups like AIPAC, Israel on Campus Coalition, The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, or the Manhattan Institute. The assumed argument posits that: The groups named are definitely hawkish Zionist groups; it’s impossible to be connected to these groups without being a hawkish Zionist; Adelson, Grinspoon, Gelman, et al. outweigh the Birthright board members that Feldman does not mention; and any group that is dominated by Zionist hawks must have a hawkish Zionist agenda. This series of assumptions is a bit long to be highly probable. By the same logic, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (which benefits from a number of the same donors and donors with similar backgrounds) is also a hawkish Zionist outfit. It has a more historical, non-ideological focus.
But these concerns aside, assume that Feldman is correct: Birthright does favor a pro-Israel bias of an AIPAC nature. If true, then there should be an alternative trip for those who like Feldman think that the AIPAC-worldview is an inaccurate and harmful portrayal of Israel. … (continue reading)