Can You Go on Birthright Just for the Free Airfare?

‘The Ethicist’ weighs in!


For those unfamiliar, The Ethicist is a column in The New York Times Magazine in which Randy Cohen plays nondenominational rabbi to a flock of Times readers facing ethical dilemmas. This week, it took on an especially Jewish, and very au courant, cast. “Eddy” from Berkeley, California, told Cohen that his daughter had applied to go on a free trip to Israel through an unnamed organization that is clearly Birthright. The problem? “She has no interest in Israel but is eager to study Arabic in Egypt and is using the generosity of this organization to bankroll her round-trip airfare to the Middle East.” Eddy thought his daughter had “crossed an ethical line.”

The Ethicist disagreed. His reasoning: The point of Birthright is that kids who are indifferent to Israel will come along. “Think of this as the Zionist equivalent of those free Poconos weekends whose sponsors hope to sell you a time-share,” Cohen argued. “Apparently enough people, even those not merely uninterested but passionately anti-Poconos, come around to make this marketing technique worth continuing.”

As an analysis of Birthright’s strategy, Cohen’s response seems spot on: Charles Bronfman and Michael Steinhardt have not shelled out hundreds of millions of dollars to preach exclusively to the choir.

I wonder, though, whether it’s in fact accurate that anyone who’s truly “passionately anti-Poconos” has ever “come around” and bought a time-share in Jerusalem “the Poconos”. Birthright takes a deliberately superficial approach to Israeli politics—if you’re trying to sell a time share in the Poconos, you don’t talk about anything deeply upsetting that’s going on there. That’s a strategy that works well for bringing the indifferent around, but the already-critical—not so much. And, though I don’t know Eddy or his daughter, I would guess that, as a young American who wants to study Arabic in Egypt, she may be less indifferent and more critical than he realizes.

The Scroll asked Birthright how they would have responded to Eddy’s letter. If they get back to us, we’ll let you know.

UPDATE: Here’s Birthright’s response—from Gil Troy, chairman of the Taglit-Birthright Israel International Education Committee:

“Birthright Israel is an organization that views a trip to Israel with a group of peers as an essential rite of passage for young Jews. It is a free gift of a ten day trip for Jews aged 18 to 26 who have not been on an organized tour to Israel before, from one, older, generation, to the next. One of Birthright Israel’s core values and defining slogans is “No strings attached.” The gift truly is free. No one is required to arrive at any particular conclusion, embrace any political or religious position, or take any action in return for the gift. All we ask is that each Birthrighter participate in all activities constructively and with an open mind.

“Many participants extend their stays, choosing to explore and enjoy Israel or its environs at the conclusion of the ten day trip. Birthright would welcome this participant, encouraging her – as the Ethicist did – to be candid about her motivations. As long as she was a willing and active participant during the ten days, and as long as she was not a negative force seeking to sabotage the program’s goals, Birthright would wish her well in her language studies – and on her Jewish journey, wherever that might take her.”

Should I Help Out the Ex? [NYT]

Rubashkin Cleared of Child Labor Charges

Kosher meat-packer acquitted

The Pottsville, Iowa, Agriprocessors plant.(Wikipedia)

Convicted of 86 charges of financial fraud in the fall, Sholom Rubashkin, the ultra-Orthodox owner of the Agriprocessors Glatt kosher meat-packing plant in Postville, Iowa, was acquitted of an additional 67 counts of child labor violations yesterday afternoon by an Iowa state jury.

Rubashkin stood accused of hiring 26 teenagers from Guatemala and Mexico at the plant. Not only were the underage laborers knowingly on the payroll, prosecutors argued, but they were forced to work excessive hours around dangerous machinery and chemicals. While earlier trials against Rubashkin were held in neighboring South Dakota, the child labor hearings unfolded in Waterloo, Iowa—a short hour and a half drive from Postville.

The trial, which dragged on for nearly a month, revealed a company beset by divisive management and a vigilant anti-union streak. But the defense successfully cast Rubashkin as an unfortunate victim, uninvolved in day-to-day hiring practices that included workers’ falsifying documents. (more…)

Today on Tablet

Our anniversary, Kirsch on Hitch, and more


Today, Tablet Magazine turns 1, and we celebrate with a list of our and your favorite articles from the past year. Elsewhere in Tablet Magazine, senior writer Allison Hoffman has the lowdown on Helen Thomas’s retirement. Books critic Adam Kirsch reviews contributor Christopher Hitchens’s new memoir, Hitch-22. Ryann Liebenthal offers a panoramic report on French Jews, and especially their relation to Israel. And it’s that time of the month—crossword time! The Scroll wishes you a happy Tamuz, and itself a happy birthday.

Israel Hits the West Coast

California’s primaries and the Jews

Rep. Jane Harman (D-California).(Wikipedia)

Today is Primary Day in California—which, among other things, marks the beginning of the end of the Arnold Schwarzenegger Era. (The state’s term limits mean he won’t be baaahck, at least not as governor.) The marquee gubernatorial race features former eBay head Meg Whitman duking it out with technology entrepreneur Steve Poizner for the chance to face Jerry “Governor Moonbeam” Brown in November. But Tablet Magazine’s readers should pay attention to a few other contests, too.

First, the Senate race. On the Democratic side, Slate blogger Mickey Kaus—who proudly traces his California heritage back to Jews who moved West with the Gold Rush—is mounting a longshot (to say the least) challenge against seasoned incumbent Barbara Boxer (née Barbara Levy, of Brooklyn), mainly because he can. “Democrats deserve a choice, too,” Kaus writes on his campaign Website. Fair enough!

Over on the Republican side, former Hewlett-Packard chief and McCain-Palin adviser Carly Fiorina is fighting for the party’s nomination against Tom Campbell, a former congressman and Stanford Law professor, and Chuck DeVore, a state assemblyman. The race has largely followed the now-standard California pattern: Tea Party-favorite DeVore threatens to siphon conservative votes from Fiorina’s base, creating a window of opportunity for Campbell, the social moderate.

Israel came into play early in the race, when both Fiorina and DeVore pounced on Campbell for voting against increasing foreign aid to Israel, in 1990, and for taking campaign funds from a University of South Florida professor who subsequently pleaded guilty to helping the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. (more…)

Daybreak: Sanctions Vote Tomorrow?

Plus reverse flotillas, and more in the news

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad today.(Bulent Kilic/AFP/Getty Images)

• Tomorrow will likely see the postponed U.N. Security Council vote on the additional Iran sanctions, which at least before the flotilla received support from all five permanent members. [Laura Rozen]

• While opposing the blockade, the Palestinian Authority wishes Turkey would cease propping Hamas up and wants to be involved in the opening of Gaza’s border with Egypt. [JPost]

• At least two Israel groups are planning “reverse flotillas,” in which members would sail to Turkey to bring humanitarian aid to Turkish Kurds and Turkish Armenians. [JPost]

• Israel requested increased weapons purchases from the United States, including a boosting of its emergency stores. [Haaretz]

• A special report reveals just how Iran uses shell companies and the like to ship cargo in violation of sanctions. [NYT]

• Richard Cohen explains what the big deal over Helen Thomas’s comments was all about. [WP]

Sundown: Helen Thomas Retires

Plus internal flotilla probe on the way, and more

Helen Thomas, 1976.(Wikipedia)

• Helen Thomas, 89, the White House press corps legend who recently said the Jews should “get the hell out of Palestine,” has retired, effective immediately. [Tablet Magazine]

• Prime Minister Netanyahu will soon announce an internal panel to probe the flotilla raid. Respected international and martime law jurists, including two observers not from Israel—one, likely, from the United States—will be asked to participate. [Haaretz]

• Iran’s Red Crescent announced plans to send aid ships to Gaza, starting by the end of the week. Uh-oh. [JTA]

• An Israeli human rights organization has requested that the U.S. Justice Department investigate American backers of the Gaza Flotilla, including the Free Gaza movement. [Arutz Sheva]

• Miguel Cotto, who soundly defeated Jewish boxer Yuri Foreman Saturday night, is himself kosher, at least according to his Orthodox Union tattoo. Wha? Read on. [Fanhouse]

• The Big Jewcy begins today. This is, as its name suggests, a big deal. [Jewcy]

The Pixies cancelled an Israeli appearance due to “events beyond all our control.” Say what you want about the comparative political earnestness of a band like U2: Bono et al would never say events were beyond all their control.

Tablet Magazine Celebrates One Year

These are a few of our favorite things, part 4


Tuesday marks Tablet Magazine’s one-year anniversary, and in the run-up, we’re remembering our ten favorite articles from the past 12 months. Herewith, your fourth of four installments. In no particular order …

“Blessed Bluegrass” by Jon Kalish, December 7, 2009. In this Vox Tablet podcast—one of those that won Tablet Magazine a National Magazine Award—Jon Kalish profiles Jerry Wicentowski, the Orthodox bluegrass player who won’t play on Shabbat.

“Song Cycle” by Liel Leibovitz, May 10, 2010.. On another Vox Tablet, Leibovitz takes a look at the many versions and meanings of “Yerushalayim Shel Zahav.”

“It Oughta Be Kosher” by Marc Tracy, April 1, 2010.. A bonus! In our favorite Scroll post, Tracy considers whether cookie dough oughtn’t be considered pesadik.

Do you have other favorites? List ‘em in the comments …

The Centrality of Jewish Chosenness

Contra Chabon, authors see use for Jewish exceptionalism


Michael Chabon contributes a rollicking, sinuous, but, in the end, unsatisfying op-ed piece to the June 6 New York Times arguing that the world does a disservice to the Jews—the Israeli government’s segment of the Jews, in particular—by holding us to a high moral and intellectual standard. We’re not especially smart and we’re not especially wise.

“Our history,” he writes, “is littered as thickly with the individual and collective acts of blockheads as that of any other nation or people or tribe.” The Jews survived not by virtue of virtue, or wisdom, or moral—or any other kind of—intelligence, he argues, but by dumb luck. In fact, we had better beware of those who rank us high for excellence, since they may soon be sharpening their guillotines when we fall short of the presumptuous standard we ourselves claim.

Chabon works his way to the conclusion that we Jews have been hoist by our own petard. What’s at fault are our exalted standards: “Let us not, henceforward, judge Israel or seek to have it judged for its intelligence, for its prowess, for its righteousness or for its moral authority,” he says, “by any standard other than the pathetic, debased and rickety one that we apply, so inconsistently and self-servingly, to ourselves and to everybody else.”

The idea of the Jews as a chosen people, Chabon maintains, is the fruit of a poisoned tree. Yet what to do with the tree, he doesn’t say. Should it be uprooted? Without it, what remains of Judaism? We think the estimable author of The Yiddish Policemen’s Union underestimates the bizarre idea of chosenness—peculiar, even incredible as it may be. The idea is stranger and richer than he grants, and might indeed, if properly understood, offer a way out of the trap that the present government of Israel has burrowed its way into.

Two years ago, when the two of us first set out to think our way into a book about the concept of chosenness, we felt much as he feels now. (more…)

So Many Opinions, So Little Time

Your post-weekend flotilla round-up

An Israeli boat flying flags in support.(Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images)

• A much buzzed-about article discussed the aura of uncertainty and “soul-searching” in establishment Washington, D.C., over how to solve a problem like Israel. (Such talk even invaded a Seder in Bethesda, Maryland, although really, that happens every year.) [NYT]

• Israel released its official account of “Operation Sea Breeze”: It agreed on a commando boarding after four hours of trying to persuade the Mavi Marmara to divert itself. [WP]

• Analysts (as well as residents) agree: The Gaza blockade has failed to substantially weaken Hamas’s grip on power there. [WP]

• Top novelist Michael Chabon urges Jews to abandon their sense of their own exceptionalism. [NYT]

• Christopher Hitchens on the Turkey-Israel dust-up. [Slate]

• While many Israelis disagreed with the flotilla raid, many supported it, and many, many more support their military generally. [WSJ]

• How Israel’s foreign policy frequently clashes with the Obama administration’s general emphasis on multilateralism and the importance of international rules. [WP]

• Palestinian journalist Daoud Kuttab calls on the Obama administration to engage with Hamas. [WP]

• Tom Friedman notes that the flotilla brouhaha is a distracting sideshow; the main event is the successful, Salam Fayyad-led Palestinian state-building in the West Bank. [NYT]

• Ross Douthat notes that extrication from some land for demographic reasons presents a tough option for Israel, but is probably the only way for it to give itself a chance to survive. [NYT]

• Nahum Barnea really disapproves of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s leadership. [Ynet]

Turkey Turns From the West

Flotilla incident part of broader shift

Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan today. He is flanked by Syrian President Assad.(Bulent Kilic/AFP/Getty Images)

One wonders whether we are seeing more than just the inevitable post-flotilla fraying of Turkish-Israeli ties. By the way, those are significant: Turkey’s ambassador to the United States is demanding an Israeli apology for last week’s raid that will surely not be forthcoming; it is newly revealed that Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan “did not work very hard to stop” the flotilla, which was on an obvious collision course with Israeli authorities; and overall ties between Israel what has long been its strongest ally in the Muslim world are in real jeopardy.

But are we seeing a more general Turkish reorientation eastward? This NATO member, recall, was already positioning itself as an alternative to the West in crafting a separate nuclear fuel swap agreement with Iran. Now, Turkey is increasing its economic eastern integration, as symbolized by the Trans Asian Railroad, which by summer’s end will be regularly running cargo between Turkey and Pakistan.

On top of all that, the rhetoric of some Turkish officials—I am thinking of that same ambassador, who twice referred to Hamas as needing to pay an essential role in the “final solution” to the Palestinian conflict (unfortunate wording of a principle the West currently does not find tenable)—is likely to alienate the West.

Maybe the most interesting symbolism came in the funeral of Furkan Dogan, the U.S. citizen who was one of nine civilians killed in last week’s raid. Dogan was born in Troy, New York, and though he had since lived in Turkey, he had been planning to return stateside. But his funeral was in Turkey.

Turkey Threatens To Cut Ties With Israel [WSJ]
Israel Owes Turkey an Apology for Flotilla Attack [WP]
Days of Planning Led to Flotilla’s Hour of Chaos [NYT]
Turkey Expands Economics Ties With East [JPost]
Turkish Ambassador Calls for Engaging Hamas [Foreign Policy]
Turkey Buries Flotilla’s U.S. Teen [WSJ]
Earlier: Reining in Iran

Tablet Magazine Celebrates One Year

These are a few of our favorite things, part 3


Tuesday marks Tablet Magazine’s one-year anniversary, and in the run-up, we’re remembering our ten favorite articles from the past 12 months. Herewith, your third of four installments. In no particular order …

“My Generation” by Vanessa Davis, November 6, 2009. In this installment of her graphic memoir, Davis grapples with the complicated legacy of R. Crumb.

“Private Booth” by Charles and Julian Boxenbaum, October 1, 2009.. The father-and-son architect team devise the one-person, portable SukkahSeat.

Do you have other favorites? List ‘em in the comments …

Today on Tablet

Idol worship, and more


Today in Tablet Magazine, art historian Eliane Strosberg explains (in this week’s Vox Tablet) why Jews—traditionally barred from making graven images—supplied some of the 20th centuries great figurative painters. Poop: It’s funny. Parenting columnist Marjorie Ingall explores why. Josh Lambert provides his weekly look at forthcoming books of interest. And The Scroll finds things far grosser than poop far funnier than poop.

Cotto Beats Foreman in Nine

But fighting rabbi earns world’s respect

Yuri Foreman (L) vs. Miguel Cotto (R).(All photos by Matthew Fishbane for Tablet Magazine)

Yuri Foreman was always unlikely to defeat Miguel Cotto in their 154-pound bout Saturday night in front of more than 20,000 spectators at Yankee Stadium. But he was even more unlikely to lose the way he actually did: With class and with heart and with a bad limp.

Foreman, the Belarus-born Orthodox Jew who is training to be a rabbi, was stopped in the ninth round by Cotto, who could well rank as one of the world’s ten best fighters. Foreman spent the first half of the fight relying almost entirely on crafty footwork, and even then he was more likely than not on his way to a loss-by-decision. But in the seventh round, unforced by the uncharacteristically timid Cotto, he slipped, forcing a limp that negated his only advantage and left him vulnerable to Cotto’s powerful, precise punching.

It got so bad that in the eighth round, someone in Foreman’s corner—according to both the New York Times and Tablet Magazine’s Matthew Fishbane, who was ringside, it was Foreman’s wife, who is herself a boxer, who was the catalyst—threw in the towel (yup, that’s where the phrase comes from). The only problem was, Foreman did not want the fight the stop then, and so the referee cleared the ring and allowed the bout to continue until a little bit into the following round, when Foreman’s bleeding nose and clear fate caused the ref (wisely, in my opinion) to step in and hand the fight to the challenging favorite, Cotto. At some point, heroism bleeds into foolishness, even as the hero remains.

The scene in The Bronx.

“I’m a world champion,” Foreman said afterward. (more…)

Daybreak: Tension High as Gaza Terrorists Killed

Plus seventh ship peacefully boarded, and more in the news

The Rachel Corrie entering Ashdod, Israel, Saturday.(David Buimovitch/AFP/Getty Images)

• At least four men the IDF identified as “terrorists” were killed off the Gaza coast Monday morning wearing naval suits and apparently planning an attack. [NYT]

• The navy peacefully intercepted and boarded the Rachel Corrie, the Irish-owned boat that attempted to run the blockade, on Saturday. The passengers are being deported. [ABC News]

• Israel is rejecting U.N. calls for an international commission, to include both Turkey and the United States, to investigate the flotilla raid, instead insisting on an internal probe that may involve international experts. [LAT]

• In Western capitals, the new fear is that Turkey is reorienting itself away from their alliances. [WP]

• The U.S. embassy is demanding a full investigation into the circumstances under which U.S. citizen Emily Henochowicz, 21, lost an eye at a demonstration last week. [Haaretz]

• Helen Thomas, 89, the so-called grand dame of the White House press corps, apologized for saying that Jews should “get the hell out of Palestine” and “go back home to Poland, Germany, America and everywhere else.” Expect further repercussions; apparently the White House Correspondents Association Board is currently meeting on the topic. [Ynet]

Sundown: Turkey Threatens Full Break

Plus PR amateur hour, and more

Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan last week.(Evaristo Sa/AFP/Getty Images)

• “I do not think Hamas is a terrorist organization,” said Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan. [JPost] Turkey is threatening to totally cut ties. [Laura Rozen]

• Yair Lapid, a top Israeli TV journalist (and likely future politician), slams the government’s PR performance since the flotilla raid. [Ynet]

• The Flotilla Choir. Not … sure if this one works so much. [YouTube]

• Cross-Currents, a top Orthodox blog, responds to Peter Beinart’s essay. [Cross-Currents]

The New Yorker’s Lawrence Wright talks Gaza. [News Desk]

• A new discovery off the coast of Haifa could turn Israel into one of the world’s main natural gas exporters. [JPost]

• Tablet Magazine contributor Diana Bletter writes wistfully of taking Arabic lessons in Haifa the week of the Gaza flotilla. [NYT]

The Wailing Wall plays Manhattan’s Mercury Lounge tonight.

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