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What Slate Got Wrong About Birthright and Max Steinberg’s Death

Placing blame for an IDF casualty on a free trip to Israel is irresponsible

Mark Oppenheimer
July 23, 2014
Birthright participants on Mount Hertzl in 2012. (Margarita Korol)
Birthright participants on Mount Hertzl in 2012. (Margarita Korol)

“There are many people to blame for [Max] Steinberg’s death,” Slate’s Allison Benedikt writes, about the 24-year-old American who died this week fighting in the Israeli army. “There is the Hamas fighter behind the weapon that actually killed him. There are the leaders, on both sides, who put him in Gaza, and the leaders behind all of the wars between Israel and the Palestinians. I can trace it back to 1948, or 1917, or whatever date suits you and still never find all the parties who are responsible. But I have no doubt in my mind that along with all of them, Birthright shares some measure of the blame.”

Her thinly argued piece, which one can imagine struck her editor as an ingenious, high-controversy bit of click-bait, goes on to hedge its bets a tad: “Maybe Max was especially lost, or especially susceptible, or maybe he was just looking to do some good …” But the gist is that the Bronfman-funded trip that has sent hundreds of thousands of young Jews on a Zionism tourist safari helped nudge a young man to his death.

And of course, in an Aristotelian sense of causation, it’s true that everything could be a cause. (If a butterfly had flapped its wings in Tuscany 500 years ago, maybe Max wouldn’t have …) But I think Benedikt’s argument is irresponsible. I say that as an alumnus of Birthright, brother to two alumni of Birthright, and husband of an alumna of Birthright.

It’s true, as Benedikt notes, that we met IDF soldiers on the trip. (I don’t remember saying a word to them. Their English was weak.) And it’s true that the trip’s ideological slant is center-right, with no attention paid to the settlements, to Gaza, to the nakba. But there’s little I feel confident that I know about Max’s particular trip. Every trip is led by different adults: some are rabbis, some Hillel educators, some Lubavitcher emissaries, some local Jewish educators. Birthright is a multifarious enterprise, which partners with many universities, outreach groups, and service groups, to lead trips. My trip’s leadership included an Israeli tour guide who, like many veterans, was modest and skeptical about his own time in the armed forces. Basically, he didn’t like to talk about it. Zvika could not have persuaded anybody to join the IDF.

According to Benedikt, Birthright itself estimates that 20,000 to 30,000 of its alumni have made aliyah to Israel. I have no idea how to check those numbers, which Birthright itself has every incentive to puff up. But it stands to reason that the kind of young person who goes already has a curiosity about the country (or just wants to hook up with fellow Jews, as Benedikt notes). It’s a biased sample. And many Jews who never go on Birthright make aliyah—Steinberg could have ended up one of them, even had Birthright not given him a free trip.

Look, I don’t think much of Birthright. If Jewish continuity is their goal, the philanthropists who fund Birthright should put their money toward Jewish day schools in the United States. (Please, do!) And I am hardly a Zionist shill (read this). But it’s a bit much to lay Steinberg’s death at Birthright’s feet. Having done no original reporting—she works from two news articles, one in the Washington Post and one in the Los Angeles Jewish Journal—and having failed to understand the nuances and variability of Birthright, Benedikt writes, “It turns out that it’s not that hard to persuade young people to see the world a certain way and that Birthright is very good at doing it.” She cites an essay in Gawker and a work of her own in The Awl, but appears not to have made a phone call or even sent an e-mail. So I ask Ms. Benedikt: do you really feel you did the reporting to earn your conclusion?

Mark Oppenheimer is a Senior Editor at Tablet. He hosts the podcast Unorthodox. He has contributed to Slate and Mother Jones, among many other publications. He is the author, most recently, of Squirrel Hill: The Tree of Life Synagogue Shooting and the Soul of a Neighborhood. He will be hosting a discussion forum about this article on his newsletter, where you can subscribe for free and submit comments.