Unorthodox, the world’s leading Jewish podcast, takes questions from its listeners about all aspects of Jewish life, from the religiously profound to the utterly inconsequential. Every week, we discuss one of these questions in “Ask Unorthodox.” If you have a question, please send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.
“I have never been to Israel and have very mixed feelings about Birthright,” writes Unorthodox listener Sam. “I certainly appreciate the importance of Israel to Jews around the world. At the same time, I am concerned about participating in something that erases the complexity of the region, its peoples, cultures, etc., reducing it to riding camels and taking pictures with (hot) Israeli soldiers. Also, I am deeply unsettled [by] some of the policies and practices of the Israeli government … What do you think of Birthright? Should all American Jews participate? How can I reconcile my complicated feelings towards Israel? Does Birthright whitewash the realities of Israel and Palestine?”
First off, Sam, we commend you for asking these insightful questions, for not being just another American blindly seeking Instagram fodder in exotic locations around the world, and for having splendid taste in Jewish podcasts. You are a pretty shrewd cat. And your basic assumptions about Birthright are correct: It’s a trip funded by Zionists with an agenda of making you love Israel.
That said—and before we tell you whether or not to go, which we will, so hold your horses!—Birthright trips are not all the same. Birthright is like a franchise, giving money to lots of different groups running “Birthright” trips. Some of these trips have offbeat themes: You can take a “mindfulness”-themed Birthright trip, an environmentalist Birthright trip, a food-oriented Birthright trip, or an LGBTQ Birthright trip. All of them get funding from big philanthropists (including orange-haired republican mega-donor Sheldon Adelson), and none of them will take you to the West Bank to talk to Palestinian activists. But your peers on Birthright Mindfulness or Birthright LGBTQ may have more unexpected, complicated, and diverse views on Israel than the travelers on some of the Birthright party buses. (All of these trips, of course, are guarded by the ride-along hot Israeli soldiers.) It’s not impossible that you’ll end up meeting future J Street or even IfNotNow organizing comrades on your Birthright trip.
But still, you ask, is there something ethically icky about traveling on Uncle Sheldon’s dime? (He’s actually our uncle, which is why we call him that.) Truly, that’s up to you to decide. No one who doesn’t live self-sufficiently in a desert is totally pure when it comes to money. Some of us put dimes in the Salvation Army collection bucket at Christmastime, despite the organization’s anti-gay theology. In the olden days (the 1980s), it was common for liberals to fret about ordering Domino’s pizza because the owner, Tom Monaghan, was a major donor to pro-life activists—yet one of your favorite three podcast hosts gorged on Domino’s often, as did his parents, despite their perfect Democratic voting history.
So can you take Birthright money and still be a good person? As surely as you can order peppers and onions on your ’za. And look: Getting to Israel ain’t cheap. You sound like the kind of bloke who will gain from the experience. You can resolve not to let your picture be used in any Birthright promotional materials. You can needle your tour guide by constantly saying how much you miss Uri Avnery. And if not now, when?