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.”