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Birthright Is Chasing Away Engaged Jews To Please Pro-Israel Hardliners

Picture the scene: A group of young American Jews, visiting Israel for the first time on Birthright, demand more education about the country and its politics, trying to realize an age-old Jewish ideal of sharp, open debate.

They form new organizations and movements around Jewish political activism, and they form links with groups of Israeli soldiers who have similar concerns.

Imagine you are a Birthright administrator, evaluating the program: Do these developments indicate success or failure?

This is, of course, not a hypothetical question.

On Sunday, it was reported that Birthright had kicked three participants off one of its trips for asking questions about the separation barrier between Jews and Palestinians. This is the latest in a sequence of events that started this summer, when activists from the anti-occupation group IfNotNow staged walkouts on Birthright trips, joining up with tours led by the Israeli NGO Breaking the Silence, which presents the testimonies of Israeli soldiers in the Occupied territories.

Meanwhile, in the United States, the campus wing of J Street organized a campaign pressuring Birthright to include Palestinian speakers. And this week, the organization responded, introducing draconian new language in the Code of Conduct it requires participants to sign: Efforts to coerce, force or suppress opinions, hijack a discussion or create an unwarranted provocation violate Taglit-Birthright Israel’s founding principles and will not be permitted.”

If Sunday’s events are as they seem, Birthright is not kidding around: Questions about the Occupation are now off-limits.

Birthright has clearly decided it views political protest and questioning as a threat to its core mission.

But it’s not that simple.

In fact, Birthright has two related but different missions, which sometimes work together but currently conflict.

On its website, Birthright lists its goals as “strengthening Jewish identity, Jewish communities and connection with Israel” in Diaspora communities, but then also mentions “support for Israel.”

The trouble is that the young Jews frustrated with Birthright are models of strongly identified Jews, forming community together, who are connected with and concerned about Israel. They just don’t support the country’s current regime or its policy of occupation.

By rejecting their critiques and pushing them away, Birthright is choosing that last, little phrase — “support for Israel” — over the rest of its mission.

Some history of the organization is useful here.

Birthright was founded in 1994 by a coalition of the Israeli government, American federations and mega-donors like Charles Bronfman and Michael Steinhardt.

They were responding to the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey, which had shocked Jewish leaders by showing very high rates of assimilation and intermarriage.

Rightly or wrongly, these leaders saw an existential threat to collective Jewish life in America. Birthright was thus conceived of as being about Israel only indirectly; it was really about America.

And, of course, in the early nineties, there largely was no crisis in American Jewish attitudes towards Israeli politics. The Oslo accords were still fresh and Rabin and Arafat had recently shaken hands for the first time: Liberal American Jews were largely hopeful about and proud of Israel.

That’s not to say “support for Israel” was ever alien to Birthright; the organization has always had politics.

But it is to identify another, more America-centered version of what the program was about — one in which Israel functioned primarily as a Jewish dreamland or an adult summer camp.

And it is to note how things have changed: Since the collapse of peace talks and the Second Intifada, a new generation of young American Jews has encountered a much bleaker, less hopeful version of the conflict.

Jewish funders stopped worrying about assimilation and they started worrying about alienation from Israel. Liberal critics like Peter Beinart pointed out that American Jewish liberals could hardly be counted upon long-term to support an illiberal occupation. And meanwhile, the right-wing casino magnate Sheldon Adelson pumped massive infusions of cash into Birthright, allowing it to expand but also certainly shifting its politics.

The contradiction Birthright faces today is simple: Its goals simply don’t go well together.

The striking, indeed moving, fact about these protests is that they reflect a deep interest in Israel as a place and Jewish problem.

These young Jews know something about Israel and they have connected with Israeli peers who share their values. Moreover, in IfNotNow, young Jews have created an entirely grassroots movement, one now present in every major American city — a movement that organizes actions, that creates new Jewish rituals, that studies and reflects on anti-Semitism and the problems of Jewish power.

If you want an engaged Jewry, and if you want to fight assimilation, then you want IfNotNow, and JStreetU and all the other funky products of the Jewish left.

Of course, there remains the pesky problem of the occupation.

IfNotNow does not “support Israel,” by which we mean, at this late date, that it will not cheerlead apartheid.

If you set out to foster a thoughtful, knowledgeable, engaged and creative Jewish youth, you must reckon with the fact that such people usually prefer not to pay obeisance to the band of right-wing thugs currently controlling Israel.

(Indeed, even more sharply, you must reckon with the fact that it is Israel education like Birthright that has created the new Jewish left: Young Jews like myself aren’t content with banal hasbara precisely because we have been to and know something about the State of Israel.)

In other words, though Birthright’s directors and staff may not realize it, there is a very real choice here: Are proud, boisterous, passionate Jews a failure or a success? You can try to revitalize American Jewry or you can secure political support for an ultra-nationalist regime.

Unfortunately, you cannot have both.

Raphael Magarik is a doctoral candidate at the University of California at Berkeley.


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