Birthright’s True Aim, and Is Its Aim True?
New ‘Nation’ article argues program has turned rightward
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.