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Birthright’s True Aim, and Is Its Aim True?

New ‘Nation’ article argues program has turned rightward

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Jerusalem.(Pnina E/Flickr)

The big piece today is a Nation report on Birthright Israel, a comprehensive look at its origins, evolution, and funding. Fascinatingly, the organization commonly thought to be dedicated to encouraging aliyah and indoctrinating diaspora Jews with pro-Israel—even right-wing—sentiments was the brainchild of that old-line Laborite Yossi Beilin; his goal was the much less controversial one of discouraging intermarriage. However, “a new era is dawning for Birthright,” the article argues persuasively. “What began as an identity booster has become an ideology machine, pumping out not only Jewish baby-makers but defenders of Israel. Or that’s the hope.”

(Disclosure: I’ve met the author, Kiera Feldman, and she co-hosts a radio show with former Tablet Magazine staff writer Marissa Brostoff, who is also a friend of mine. Further disclosure: Birthright didn’t give me a spot this summer despite the fact that I’m 26 and therefore should have received one, and yeah, you’re damn right I’m pissed about that.)

Quibbles, I have a few. I sense Feldman cherrypicked her data and interviewees. While she talks to many Birthright alumni, the only one I recognized, Jared Malsin—identified only as someone who “went on a 2007 Birthright trip where IDF soldiers role-played a checkpoint,” and who tells Feldman, “The message was every single Palestinian is a threat until proven otherwise”—is a left-leaning journalist whose dealings with Israel’s government include Israel not permitting him to enter the country. Which doesn’t make his viewpoint illegitimate—he’d certainly be justified in being pissed at Israel, and Israel was extremely wrong in its treatment of him (I mean, I’d be pissed as hell)—but this background should be disclosed, and the fact that it wasn’t can’t help but raise the question of whether Feldman’s other alumni sources were similarly predisposed.

In order to make her case that young Americans are drifting left, Feldman cites the findings of Frank Luntz. It’s probably the first time the notorious right-wing pollster has been pointed to as an authority in the The Nation, and indeed it is telling that, on this issue, both the left and the right need the same thing: A steady trend of young American Jews turning away from Israel (in fact, this isn’t a new trend; as a Tablet article showed, American Jews have long tended to gain an attachment to Israel as they age).

“It is not unheard of,” she writes, “for progressives to ‘birth left’ in the West Bank afterward (as I did)—though Birthright policy is that anyone discovered to have a ‘hidden agenda’ of ‘exploiting’ the free trip ‘to get access to the territories’ to promote ‘non-Israeli’ causes can lose her spot.” But, of course, the fact that she did do it, and that it is very much a thing—and the fact that Birthright does permit you to extend your stay in Israel without losing your free airfare home—suggests that “birthing left” (it is unfair to suggest that only “progressives” would do such a thing) is very easy to do and, therefore, tacitly accepted by Birthright.

But the article (which also name-checks Nextbook Press’s What We Brought Back) is very much worth your time. At its best, which is when it is at its least polemical, it earnestly relays what Birthright is about, for its organizers as well as its participants (no look at Birthright would be complete without a mention of hook-ups, and the article does not disappoint). Birthright is a central aspect of Israeli-diaspora relations, and so attention must be paid.

The Romance of Birthright Israel [The Nation]
Related: Wrong Numbers [Tablet Magazine]
Earlier: Study: Birthright Does What It’s Supposed To Do
Israel Denies American Journalist Entry

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Interesting piece on The Nation’s historic ambivalence about dissidents:

http://www.rferl.org/content/the_nations_dissident_problem/24213437.html

H/Ramat-Gan/Israel says:

Why should the yids be concern about the direction of a program they hate in a country they disgust of? The obsession of the left with Israel is something

avodahnik says:

Why would Yossi Beilin object to aliyah, or to young people becoming advocates for Israel? This just illuminates the distance between the US (and euro) left, and the Zionist Left. Aliyah isnt right wing, and advocating for Israel against boycott/divestiture isnt right wing either.

Jackie says:

A ridiculous article by an anti zionist BDS advocate rehashing the same ridiculous anti zionist talking points against Birthright Israel

1) birthright promotes irreverent sex which leftists, love in the US but somehow offends them in israel, probably because they have a racist orientalist conception of a idylic “noble savage” palestine filled with religious muslims which israels sexual openness offends

2) when substantive criticism can’t be named, cherry picking select quotes from certain participants that they think are racist (although the same ppl think MEMRI is racist for not being balanced in what they show from Arab media)

3) Taking perfectly legitimate statements such as the arab girls contention that now is not the right time for 5million arab refugees to migrate to israel and adding things like “with a giggle” to provoke a negative emotional response when logical substantive criticism of the statement is nyt warranted.

4) nonsensical veiled criticism such as the trip is designed to turn you into an adolesence – a nonsensical statement.

5) conjuring up images designed to provoke disgust asking anti-zionists and self hating jews such as making sure to describe the vendor at the end of the essay as” Orthodox” – reverse orientalism

Bill Pearlman says:

Nation magazine is about has unbiased as Julius Streicher

H/Ramat-Gan/Israel says:

Bill P. : Its hard to me to say it but to the credit of Streicher he never disguised himself as Jews-Lover – regarding the Jews he was a wolf in wolf’s clothing and not a wolf in a sheep’s clothing like the Nation & ilk.

Naomi says:

The Scroll has been a great thing, but please never again mention your unsuccessful application to Birthright. That’s between you and them.

Bill Pearlman says:

Good point. I’m just a little tired of piss ant Jewish college kids who never had a tough day in their lives and go into holier then thou mode.

Jacob Arnon says:

To the Nation all supporters of Israel are right wing. This is because the Nation identifies the country with the party in power. By this logic anyone who supported the US in 2001 when Bush was Prez was right wing.

One reason why I don’t subscribe to the Nation.

Yisrael says:

This is a Marc Tracy “must read.” What a joke!

fred lapides says:

I have had a long-time love and hate relationship with the Nation. Like The New York Review of Books, a lefty organ that always gets a Jewish writer to badmouth Israel. Poor dears. In the good old days of Marxism, Israel was a good thing. Then, Russia having killed the leftist dream, what were lefties to do but give their allegiance to those deemed “the downtrodden.” And who is that ? Why of course the Palestinians. But yhou can’t have Good Guys without also having Bad Guys. And so they dump on Israel and feel they are marching in step to correct the evils of the world. Never mind what The Arab League says. Never mind Hamas. Dump on Israel, over and over.

Dani ben Leb says:

I sincerely doubt that most Americans on Birthright will be easily impressed by a right wing game. I think we must give the individual more credit for critical thinking. It is ten days, driving around Israel and going to mostly apolitical locations and getting stoned ( if you can find it ) and tanning.
lets be honest, who would not accept a free tide to a cool beautiful country with great food. Jew or not, I’d go.

Lawrence White MD says:

Why does Tablet so frequently quote left wing (or as with the Nation, far left) points of view? There are many views that are more mainstream or even slightly right, that are intellectually sound and of interest to your readers. The demonization of anything that is not “progressive” means that Tablet is not representative of “Jewish thought”. Perhaps a few quotes from Commentary’s contentions could be used for “balance”.

Bruce says:

I have more than a few “quibbles” with the Feldman article and with your article. Sorry you are so “pissed” about not getting a free trip to Israel paid for by the Jewish Community. I guess you believe it is coming to you because you are…well, you. If you do get to Israel, make sure you spend time with a family who has a kid in the army, around your age, whose free trips are to the territories and the check points to make sure the Birthright participants and others don’t meet up with a terrorist. Take some time from reading The Nation and read Danny Gordis. He’s got kids in the army protecting the Jewish State so you and your friends can have a great time on Ben Yehudah Street.

Liberty Knight says:

Is there a problem if Birthright turns out observant Jews who love Israel. Isn’t that the goal to have Jewish people who fall in love our religion live like Jews? I’d be glad to have my grandchildren turn into more observant Jews. My daughter has already mentioned Birthright and I hope her child can go when he’s older.

It’s not just that Feldman makes assertions that she then substantiates with “cherrypicked data”. The more insidious problem is hidden in the assertions she never bothers to support because, of course, her readership already knows them to be “true”: AIPAC is “right-wing”. J-Street is “pro-Israel”. The Green Line is an “internationally recognized border”. 700,000 Palestinians were “expelled” in 1948.

If support for Israel becomes a partisan issue in the years to come, it will not only be the fault of the Republican Jewish Coalition and its cynical campaign to make the GOP the home of pro-Israel American politics. No, it will also be the fault of writers like Ms. Feldman, whose casual and presumptive misrepresentations of history immediately become fodder for the next RJC appeal.

Jeffrey says:

I read the original article, and like most polemic pieces, it focused upon — and exaggerated — the faults of Birthright. I am a left-wing Jew whose daughter went through Birthright, and whose son played for the U.S in the Maccabbi Games in Israel. They both came back with both positive and negative views of their experiences, but were mostly impressed by the level of diversity, energy and openness in Israeli society. The biggest turn off for them was the ultra-religious factions that dominate so much of Israel’s political landscape. The biggest revelation for both of them was the broad racial and ethnic diversity among Israelis — especially its Jews. The idea that anti-Arab or anti-Palestinian prejudice is fueled by the same racism whites feel toward blacks in the U.S. was totally dispelled.

Tablet should do an article about the knee-jerk politics coming from both sides of the Middle East conflict (which aren’t helping). The shoddiness and lack of critical thinking of Feldman’s article would be risible had The Nation declined to print it, but print it they did — the article’s only qualifier seems to be its suggestion of nefarious, brainwashing forces at work. (My response is published on the website). Feldman reminds me of a young Yiddishist who was teaching Yiddish song at my daughter’s shule. The shule was organizing a Holocaust Remembrance Day, and she said we mustn’t sing the words to “Ani Maamin” (the anthem sung by the Jews as they marched into the ovens) because “The Hebrew might offend some of the parents.” In other words, wholesale rejection of anything associated with Israel was more important than commemoration of the victims of the Holocaust. This same kind of sheer stupidity, this same lack of insight as to context and history signals more than a question of who will win the propaganda battle – it indicates a laziness and lack of critical thinking that will be far more destructive in the long run -not to Israel, but to the future where the world is filled with dolts.

Robin Margolis says:

Dear Jeffrey:
You had stated that on your children’s trip to Israel: “The biggest revelation for both of them was the broad racial and ethnic diversity among Israelis — especially its Jews. The idea that anti-Arab or anti-Palestinian prejudice is fueled by the same racism whites feel toward blacks in the U.S. was totally dispelled.”

I respectfully suggest that your children may be wrong about racism in Israeli society. The Ethiopian Jewish leadership recently held a public press conference asking for affirmative action laws in Israel. They say that racial discrimination against them in Israel is pervasive:

http://www.jpost.com/NationalNews/Article.aspx?id=221924

Robin Margolis says:

Dear Jeffrey:

One more thought — if the Ethiopian Jews have had to request the protection of affirmative action laws — a story that was not apparently covered by most U.S. Jewish news media — imagine the prejud

ice Israel’s Arab citizens and the Palestinians from the West Bank face. Israeli newspapers — available free, online and in English translation — are full of such stories, in Israel’s right-wing, left-wing and centrist newspapers.

Lawrence says:

Sorry,Tablet but this won’t do. At one time your online magazine actually did some first-hand journalism and research , went out and interviewed people. Now the idea of a big story is: “did you read this article in the anti-Israel publication the Nation? Wow! Well, here’s the link.” What a story: the Nation actually did a story critical of Birthright and Israel. What a big deal. And Tablet is ready to tell you about it because it’s such amazing news. (Oh, and by the way the author is a friend of mine or a friend of a friend so I’m promoting her on Tablet.) The article in the Nation is, we are told, “very much worth your time”. No, it isn’t.

Birthright’s crime: Young people actually come away loving and admiring Israel and identifying with their Jewish roots. Shame, shame! When they should come away from the trip as guilt-wracked North American liberals moaning and crying about the injustices of Israel and as readers of the Nation. And they may actually leave the trip as defenders of Israel when Israel is not perfect. Oh, the humanity! And they actually have fun on the trip which is even a bigger crime.

Hadassah says:

Philip Getz wrote a response to Feldman’s article where he says Birthright was created to combat the attitude displayed by her. Birthright is upfront about its purpose, and if that purpose doesn’t align with your ideology, don’t go on the trip. No one is being forced to participate. The article is at http://www.jewishideasdaily.com/content/module/2011/7/6/main-feature/1/getting-birthright-wrong

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Birthright’s True Aim, and Is Its Aim True?

New ‘Nation’ article argues program has turned rightward

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