L.A. native Max Steinberg, killed in combat during fighting with Gaza / Courtesy of Steinberg Family
I’ve gone on the record about my ambivalence about Birthright, having argued that it actually discouraged a connection to Israel for Jews like me due to the clear bias of its agenda. Should I have been offered a more complex portrait of the country, I might have better understood what is really at stake and why I should care. Instead, like so many other Jews of my generation, I decided to let it be someone else’s problem.
Birthright is hardly perfect. It is absolutely one-sided and all too easy to see through for the more critically-minded, or maybe just less drunk, people on the bus. But let’s get one thing straight: it is not a cult.
In her Slate story on Los Angeles native Max Steinberg, who moved to Israel, joined the IDF and then sadly passed away in combat this past week at the age of 24, Allison Benedikt implies as much, suggesting that Birthright should take part of the blame for Steinberg’s death.
Benedikt says that joining the IDF “seems like the ultimate fulfillment of Birthright’s mission” and suspects that Steinberg fell into this trap. (As Haviv Rettig Gur points out at the Times of Israel, this hypothesis doesn’t hold water when we look at the actual numbers.) She recounts how Steinberg had initially resisted going on the trip, but ended up feeling deeply moved once he got to the country and experienced his life-changing epiphany that he wanted to make aliyah at the gravesite of an American soldier who died fighting for the country. Does this make him brainwashed? Benedikt seems to think so.
What makes an American kid with shaky Hebrew and no ties to the state of Israel suddenly decide he is ready to make this sacrifice? Maybe Max was especially lost, or especially susceptible, or maybe he was just looking to do some good and became convinced by his Birthright experience that putting on an IDF uniform and grabbing a gun was the way to do it. That serving and protecting the Jewish people was the moral thing to do, and that the best way to accomplish it was to go fight for the Jewish state. It turns out that it’s not that hard to persuade young people to see the world a certain way and that Birthright is very good at doing it. You spend hundreds of millions of dollars to convince young Jews that they are deeply connected to a country that desperately needs their support? This is what you get.
This scenario is possible, even a little plausible, but the fact is we don’t know. To assume we do is to degrade the life and untimely death of a young man by using his story to service our own arguments.
I have no idea why Steinberg fell in love with Israel. I didn’t have the same experience. What I do know is that I have seen many go through the same thing and none of them because they were brainwashed. Their shaky Hebrew? No big deal in a country where many speak English and Hebrew classes are ubiquitous. Their ties? Just being Jewish, which is, more often than not, absolutely enough. Some of my friends and family ended up fighting for the left and others followed Steinberg’s path and joined the army. Whatever they did, they ended up sacrificing part of themselves and their lives for a cause they believe in, eager to share the burden of uncertainty and conflict that is Zionism. And most of them never stepped a foot on a Birthright bus.