The “pro-Israel, pro-peace” lobby group J Street recently announced with much fanfare that it would be leading its first Taglit-Birthright trip to Israel. Birthright provides young Jews with a free 10-day trip meant to permanently cement their connection to Israel and even more importantly, their commitment to having babies with other Jews (hence the now popular nickname, Birthrate.)
J Street promised that their trip would go to the standard Birthright favorites like Masada or [Holocaust museum] Yad Vashem, but would also interface with human rights advocates and explore progressive Zionism. In other words, it might provide a broader view than most trips, but it wouldn’t rock the boat by taking participants to, say, Bil’in to protest against the wall.
And yet, Ha’aretz reports, right-wing bloggers didn’t like that idea and they organized a successful effort to get Birthright to cancel the tour with J Street. The excuse? How is this for sheer comedy? Birthright told Haaretz’s Natasha Mozgovaya that it was about politics:
…trips of political orientation are not accepted. When it happened in the past, we discontinued working with them. The idea of a “Political trip” is out of question…
Oh yes, that’s right.
J Street rightly pointed to AIPAC’s “Capital to Capital” Birthright trip for Jewish political activists. (One featured stop on that trip is the Reut Institute which we have written about extensively.) But of course, it goes deeper than that.The essence of Birthright is political. It was never funded to be strictly religious or cultural, even if that was its original intent. It is a program to preserve Jewish unconditional support for Israel – including its occupation and ongoing violations of human rights- in part by nourishing a kind of Jewish entitlement to all of the land, even if Palestinians or Bedouin happen to have been living on parts of it for generations. The program is thought of as the last best hope to save the young Jewish generation from assimilation and decreased support for Israel.
In fact, as I write this on February 1, hundreds of Birthright alum are gathering for an event in NYC called “Take Back Zionism.” An event, which K. Feldman notes in Mondoweiss, doesn’t include David Grossman, for example, as a headliner. Many of them have written here what Zionism means to them.
Here is an example of a Birthright-approved reading list:
The Case for Israel & The Case for Peace, Alan Dershowitz
Still Life with Bombers: Israel in the Age of Terrorism,David Horovitz
Coming Together, Coming Apart, Daniel Gordis
Exodus, Leon Uris
O Jerusalem!, Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre
The Source, James Michener
My Life, Golda Meir In The Name Of Sorrow And Hope, Noa Ben Artzi Pelosoff Warrior, Ariel Sharon
Walking The Bible, Bruce Feiler
Nimrod Flip-Out, Etgar Keret
What Israel Means To Me, edited by Alan Dershowitz
J Street U Student Board President Morial Rothman:
“Those of us engaged on this issue on campus know that there is a deep hunger among our peers to connect with Israel in a way that reflects our Jewish and democratic values of justice and equality”, Rothman wrote in response to the criticism. “In light of this tremendous enthusiasm, we are deeply troubled by Birthright’s abrupt decision to cancel our trip. Revoking this previously-approved opportunity, planned in concert with accredited Birthright trip organizer Israel Experience, sends exactly the wrong message to our community and to our students – and it is a painful message to receive”.
Moving sentiments. But it can be argued that there is an intrinsic contradiction between the values of justice and equality, and the purpose and certainly methodology of Birthright.
The further irony is that thousands of members of this younger generation of Jews are ready to be fully and passionately engaged with Israel and Judaism. Not the Israel of Avigdor Lieberman or Operation Cast Lead, but the Israel of Anarchists Against the Wall or The Coalition of Women for Peace or Breaking the Silence. They are ready to truly engage with building a just and equal future for all people in the region, and to do so as Jews working side by side with Palestinians— but clearly those young Jews are not invited to go with Birthright. Unless, of course, they sneak in.