“Help the State of Israel by contacting your congressman and senator and requesting that they reject this deal and override President Obama’s veto of their decision.”
That was a plea sent out on Tuesday to New York-area Birthright alumni by “The Alumni Community.” Is it right for this group to impose the political viewpoint of some onto an entire listserv that exists not for the sake of influencing American policy, but, as its name suggests, for the sake of community?
As a Birthright alumna living in New York, I have fond memories of my trip to Israel, which inspired a love for the country. But I would never feel comfortable being represented by a group that would send out this sort of letter. And I would never join this group thinking that they were going to impose their political agenda on me. Challah baking? Sure. Shabbat dinners? Of course. Hebrew classes? Why not. Influencing congressmen and senators to override a historic presidential decision? Nope, not so much.
Taglit-Birthright’s stated objective is to “ensure the future of the Jewish people by strengthening Jewish identity, Jewish communities and connection to Israel via an educational trip to Israel.” At face value, Birthright’s intention and the intention of many participants is not overtly political. The trip is open to Jews of all kinds, no matter what their beliefs. Birthright makes it possible for those who may otherwise never have the opportunity to experience Israel. So despite Birthright administrators’ and funders’ politics, for many participants, Birthright is merely an introduction to the Holy Land, from which they go on to form their own political opinions — right, left, center or undecided. That’s how it was for me, at least.
So when word gets out that a seemingly affiliated group is urging alumni to take a political stance on Obama’s Iran policy, those in the Birthright community — either alumni or potential trip participants — may feel alienated.
I say “seemingly affiliated” because “The Alumni Community,” spearheaded by Rebecca Sugar, is technically unrelated to Taglit-Birthright, though its chairman is Birthright cofounder Michael Steinhardt. Sugar said she sent the letter “because it is the right thing to do.”
“To learn more about the Iran Nuclear Program and the Negotiations, check out the great resources from AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee,” the letter reads. This isn’t about whether I agree with what AIPAC has to say about the Iran Deal; it’s about my discomfort with this letter using politics to undercut what could be a cohesive community.
A letter like this doesn’t promote community, but makes it seem as if fitting into this community hinges on whether or not you agree with what the group purportedly stands for politically. I haven’t yet developed a conclusive opinion on the Iran deal, but it’s not Rebecca Sugar’s place to influence where I stand.
Birthright alumni all share the experience of a 10-day trip to Israel, but that doesn’t mean they share opinions on Israeli, American, and global politics. So while Birthright’s agenda may be implicitly Zionist, Birthright itself is not an advocacy organization meant to influence the policies of the Obama administration. And its alumni community shouldn’t be either.