On June 15, Kiera Feldman wrote in The Nation that the Jewish Birthright trip is a hawkish, Zionist brainwashing trip. “What began as an identity booster has become an ideology machine.” Israel, it seems, is guilty of “forty-four-year[s] [of] illegal occupation of Palestinian lands and the racism and legal discrimination that underpins Israel’s ethnocracy.” The Birthright trip tries, but fails, to hide these supposed faults; the offered alternative is a Zionism that encourages “pumping out not only Jewish baby-makers but defenders of Israel.” Despite the name of her article – “The Romance of Birthright Israel” – Feldman falls in love with neither this type of Zionism nor the state of Israel, and her article is the ensuing product of her discontent.
The contention that Birthright is a hawkish-Zionist propaganda machine deserves scrutiny on two fronts. First, where is the proof that the trip is ideologically biased? And second, if Feldman is correct in her accusation, why is there not an alternative Birthright trip to advance what Feldman sees as a more accurate, and increasingly popular, view of Israel—that of an illegal occupier with questionable morals?
In addressing the question of proof, Feldman argues that Birthright is no longer “the selling of Jewishness to Jews,” as articulated by Birthright co-founder Charles Bronfman. Instead, the trip now promotes ardent, Israel-can-do-no-wrong Zionism. To substantiate this, Feldman tells her personal story involving an allegedly anti-Arab, anti-Palestinian, bigoted bus guide, and the stories of Birthrighters Max Geller, Jared Malsin, and EllaRose Chary. Four anecdotes. Over 260,000 Diaspora Jews (as I learned from Feldman) have gone on Birthright and four is hardly a statistical representation of Birthrighters. This, of course, does not disprove Feldman’s thesis, but it should shake the certainty of her claim.
Then there are the actual stories presented by the four Birthrighters. Take, for instance, Max Geller’s description:
“Geller’s trip also featured AwesomeSeminar.com’s Neil Lazarus, a pro-Israel advocacy trainer who says he’s delivered presentations since Birthright’s inception. (‘When the Palestinians kill Israeli men, women and children,’ Lazarus says in one online video, ‘they celebrate, and they give out sweets in the streets.’)”
Never mind that Lazarus did not actually say those words to the Birthright travelers (he said them in an online video for a different audience) the truth is that Palestinians have celebrated the death of Israelis on many occasions (see for example the Dalal Mughrabi Square). Pointing that out is not bias; it is fact. As for Lazarus’s other seeming offense—pro-Israel advocacy—this doesn’t qualify him as an extreme Zionist hawk.
Feldman next backs her claim by pointing to some of Birthright’s founders and donors. Charles Bronfman, Michael Steinhardt, Sheldon Adelson, Harold Grinspoon, Susie Gelman, Lynn Schusterman, S. Daniel Abraham, Roger Hertog, and Marc Rich—each has connections to groups like AIPAC, Israel on Campus Coalition, The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, or the Manhattan Institute. The assumed argument posits that: The groups named are definitely hawkish Zionist groups; it’s impossible to be connected to these groups without being a hawkish Zionist; Adelson, Grinspoon, Gelman, et al. outweigh the Birthright board members that Feldman does not mention; and any group that is dominated by Zionist hawks must have a hawkish Zionist agenda. This series of assumptions is a bit long to be highly probable. By the same logic, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (which benefits from a number of the same donors and donors with similar backgrounds) is also a hawkish Zionist outfit. It has a more historical, non-ideological focus.
But these concerns aside, assume that Feldman is correct: Birthright does favor a pro-Israel bias of an AIPAC nature. If true, then there should be an alternative trip for those who like Feldman think that the AIPAC-worldview is an inaccurate and harmful portrayal of Israel. Such a trip does not currently exist because there is neither a supply nor demand for it.
The current Birthright trip is funded by the State of Israel, individual donors (such as the ones listed above), and Jewish communities in the United States. A Feldman-friendly trip probably couldn’t marshal similar support. Start with the State of Israel. The State of Israel contributes to Birthright because Birthright yields future dividends for the Jewish state – economically, demographically, and geo-politically. A Feldman-friendly trip would not produce similar returns. At best, people of Feldman’s ilk (“Feldmanites” – people who think Israel is an illiberal, racist occupier), want to reduce U.S. military aid to Israel; they want to shrink Israel to its pre-1967 size; they question the terrorist status of Hamas; etc. Israel generally doesn’t see these views as salubrious – Israel even has questions about a group like J Street whose official policies are kinder to Israel than Feldmanites – and, accordingly, the State of Israel will not go out of its way to help setup such a trip.
Regarding private donors: Why haven’t people like George Soros and Alan Solomnt gone out of their way to finance a trip to rival the current Birthright? It certainly isn’t because of the cost – the $600 million that Birthright has spent since 1999 is only about 4.5 percent of Soros’s estimated $14.5 billion net worth. Rather, Soros, Solomnt, etc., are probably less inclined to send young Jews to a country they view as morally mediocre and a bit of a nuisance than are people like Schustermann and Adelson who love Israel and hold it as a top priority. Another likely reason that Feldmanites are hesitant to host a competing trip is that they might not be able to pitch the right message. Yes, the trip could undoubtedly roundup a number of Jewish Israelis, Arab Israelis, and Palestinians to decry Israel’s “war crimes,” “racism,” and “illiberal practices” – or whatever the usual tropes are – but what about when the participants wander off? What if they stay longer in Israel? The truth is that Israel is a thriving and free society that strongly resembles facets of the United States. Additionally, the majority of Israelis feel that the country is right to take strong measures to defend itself – that’s why the Likud party is currently in power. And the average voting Israeli is not a foaming-at-the-mouth war hawk, but a fellow Jew in a liberal country – a difficult person to casually dismiss.
The demand side of the equation would undoubtedly be less problematic. After all, a free trip is a free trip. But if forced to choose between the current Birthright trip and a Feldman-trip, the majority of young American Jews are still going to choose the former. Although Feldman will perhaps claim a bias in major American polling organizations as well, the majority of reputable polls have suggested that sentiment runs along the lines of this poll commissioned by the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting (CAMERA):
· 78 percent of American Jews regard it as being “very to 100 percent necessary” for Palestinians to recognize Israel as a Jewish state.
· 77 percent of American Jews believe that Palestinian incitement against Israel – its “culture of hatred” – is a major obstacle to peace.
· 85 percent of American Jews said that Israel is “right to take threats to existence seriously,” and that Israel’s concerns are not irrational or overstated.
Probably not the results one would expect from half a room of Feldmanites.
A friend who just read The Nation article commented: “[Feldman’s] article didn’t convince me that there’s a bias, but if there is one, I’d tell Feldman to go start her own trip, and in the meantime say thanks for the $2,000+ adventure that Birthright just paid for.”
I strongly agree, but maybe that just means that I’ve fallen for the Romance of Birthright Israel.