Selling Israel With Sun, Fun and a Whiff of Sex …
“Make Jewish babies.”
Well, that’s one way to cure jetlag. Shlomo “Momo” Lifschitz, the hard-charging president of Oranim Educational Initiatives — today’s frontrunner in Jewish educational travel from Petach Tivah to Prague — assumed a despotic stance this past May before some 200 bleary-eyed Birthright Israel participants, gathered inside one air-conditioned Jerusalem conference room. The assembled — aged 18 to 26, each with at least one Jewish parent — signed up for the free trip with the understanding that Birthright’s goal is to draw Diaspora Jews closer to both their religious heritage and Israel. But they’re now realizing that there’s a catch: In exchange for 10 days of fun — floats in the Dead Sea, sand dunes in the Negev, drum circles in a Bedouin tent — participants are being asked to keep the planet populated with Jews.
“Oranim Birthright is a matchmaking factory,” Momo claimed. So sure of its matchmaking powers, Momo offered those who meet their intended, or beshert, during the Oranim experience an all-expense paid honeymoon to Israel. “Trust me,” he told the jittery crowd. “I am going to help you all find your Jewish love.”
As Momo advances ahava (Hebrew for love), an analogous movement is digging its heels into the Israel travel industry: Sexual Zionism. The snappy slogan, rooted in the belief that love leads to aliya, has been floating around for a few years now on the Jewish singles scene. But the term itself is nebulous, and not even the youth travel representatives who spin it can pin down its exact genesis. “Somewhere along the line, major Israel providers figured this was a good way to appeal to the youth market,” said Alex Sharone, the 24-year-old national director of Habonim Dror, a progressive Zionist youth movement sponsoring a wide array of summer and year-round programs. Habonim Dror doesn’t overtly promote Sexual Zionism through its itineraries, but given the target demographic the message is all but inescapable. “It’s about sexualizing a love for Israel,” Sharone continued. “You’re 15, going through puberty and visiting Israel for the first time. While you’re learning the history and culture of the land, you’re simultaneously scoping out potential mates. It’s about forging a positive association with Israel, and for teens and young adults that often means sex.”
Zionism always has had a sexualized aspect to it, Sharone said, evoking a beefcake image of Israel’s early years. “The strong, bare-chested men working the land. All that talk of ‘blooming’ and ‘bearing fruit’ is so Freudian. And today, all the soldiers protecting the motherland. It’s definitely sexy.”
Maya Zachodin — a spry 21-year-old who described herself as having been “made in Israel, born in America” — met her sexy soldier boyfriend, Elon, on one of Momo’s Birthright trips. “The whole idea of Sexual Zionism became a main point in my life,” remembered Zachodin, who prior to the trip had dated only non-Jewish boys. “I came to [Israel], and I felt that my heart was completed.” Cut to Zachodin now living in Israel, plugging away in the Oranim office, working as a “Momo Propagandist,” preaching the big man’s message of Jewish life, love and fraternity.
But what happens when young love fades? Rabbi Mitchell Cohen, director of the National Ramah Commission, which oversees Conservative Jewish travel and study opportunities in Israel, is pretty skeptical about puppy love’s lasting impact on a person’s long-term commitment to Israel. “Our mission is to focus on friendship,” he said. “Friendship is what fosters a strong relationship to Israel. That is what keeps the spirit of our people alive.”
Ironically, love’s grand master has never even heard of the term Sexual Zionism. Momo, who describes himself as an “old-fashioned Zionist,” said that to mistake his encouragement of the propagation of the Jewish people, culture and community for satiating carnal cravings is to miss the point entirely. “I love sex,” he said in his characteristically blunt fashion. “I love Zionism. Are the two combined with [each other]? Not necessarily. You can easily form a love of Israel without falling in love with a particular person.” In response to the concept of Sexual Zionism, Momo offers his own phrase: Emotional Zionism.
“You have to bring Zionism through emotions,” he pleaded, advocating Zionism not as a politicized JDate but as a poignant, powerful, impassioned call for scattered Jews everywhere to explore and discover their souls’ true landing strip. He’s delighted to hear the story of Oranim alumna Jessi, an infectiously vibrant 21-year-old bohemian type from Jersey who came to Israel seeking spiritual guidance following the tragic death of a friend. Bowled over by all the beautiful sites featured in Birthright’s neck-whipping itinerary, she found a sense of inner peace. “I’m moving here,” she proclaimed. “Israel is the greatest place on Earth.”
“Zionism opens up a mountain of emotions,” Momo explained. “Emotion is what makes someone feel at home when they come to Israel. Sex might sell, sure. It might land the girl. But an open heart is what is going to make that relationship, and one to Israel, last forever.”
Malina Sarah Saval is a writer living in Los Angeles. She met her husband not in Israel, but at a Jewish wedding.