Ph.D. Octopus

Politics, media, music, capitalism, scholarship, and ephemera since 2010

Birthright Israel is about Birthing Babies, not Zionism (and That’s a Good Thing)

with 10 comments

by Weiner Israel is a program that provides Diaspora Jews ages 18 to 26 with free 10-day trips to Israel. Founded in 1999, and funded largely by American Jewish philanthropists, especially Charles Bronfman and Michael Steinhardt, along with some help from the Israeli government, Birthright has spent nearly 600 million dollars to send over 260,000 Jews on all-expense paid tours of Israel.

The program is not without its critics, especially from the left. “The Romance of Birthright Israel,” appeared in the pages of The Nation last week. Its author, Kiera Feldman, “a baptized child of intermarriage,” recently participated on a Birthright trip, and has lots of complaints about the large doses of Zionist propaganda she received.

A new era is dawning for Birthright. What began as an identity booster has become an ideology machine, pumping out not only Jewish baby-makers but defenders of Israel.

Feldman is right about Birthright’s origins, but wrong about its current incarnation. In fact, Birthright, like William James called Pragmatism, is “a new name for an old way of thinking.” Like the very pragmatic American Zionism of yore, it exists primarily to bolster the American Jewish community, not the Israeli one.

Feldman understands some of this. She correctly points to the 1990 National Jewish Popuplation Survey, which highlighted a 52% intermarriage rate among Jews in the United States. The report sett off alarm bells among the secular and the devout. Birthright emerged as a tool to stem the tide of assimilation and intermarriage. It subtly and not-so-subtly promotes Jewish romantic encounters. Feldman recalls a trip leader telling her group, on the first night of the trip, that Birthright “is not a vacation” before “shooing [them] to the hotel bar.” All trip participants are adults of legal drinking age in Israel (18), and drunken hookups are not uncommon.File:Yossi Beilin.jpg

Indeed, Feldman recounts what is an open secret: hookups, of the drunken and sober variety, are part of the program. To some, they practically are the program. Feldman points to numerous sources who will admit to this goal on the record. Yossi Beilin (right), a left-wing Israeli politician and a brainchild of Birthright, hoped “to create a situation where spouses are available.” A Birthright employee instructed staff members that “No problem if there’s intimate encounters. In fact, it’s encouraged!” Elissa Straus, who met her husband on a Birthright trip, referred to the tour bus as a “love incubator.” Bronfman (below), the Seagram’s liquor tycoon, and Elan Ezrachi, an Israeli Birthright leader, developed the mifgash, or encounter, between young Diaspora Jews and similarly aged Israeli soldiers as a central component of the trip. These meetings, according to Ezrachi, “move very fast to what we call ‘hormonal mifgashim.‘ Things happen.”, this rings true to me. In 2005, I participated on a several-month-long organized volunteer program Israel for recent college graduates. The program had about 60 participants, three quarters female. It seemed that many of those women had gone on Birthright, had sex with a soldier, and fallen in love with Israel. I distinctly remember talking to male soldiers who said the competition to be a guide or guard for a Birthright was fierce, because when swooning American Jewish women saw a Sabra in his IDF uniform, that soldier was virtually guaranteed to get laid.

This works in the other direction as well, as many American Jewish men are turned on by female soldiers. Most of those of both sexes who have these kind of romantic encounters don’t return to Israel for extended stays. But, according to the program’s data, Birthright participants are 51% more likely to marry within the Tribe. There are now LGBT-friendly trips, presumably encouraging gay and lesbian Jews to date members of their own religion.

Feldman, however, thinks things have changed, largely in response to Israel’s growing isolation in the international community.

Today, at a time of rising criticism of Israel, the program has taken on a different meaning. No longer is it simply a project to shore up Jewish identity; Birthright has joined the fight for the political loyalties of young Jews. It invites travelers to “explore Israel without being force-fed ideology,” but you don’t have to be Althusser to know that ideology almost always calls itself nonideological.

Here is where I respectfully disagree. I believe that Birthright remains dedicated to fighting intermarriage and assimilation, to making Jews fruitful and multiplying them through endogamy. The Zionist propaganda, no matter how heavy-handed, is incidental. And in that, it is nothing new.

Ok, so I’ve never been on a Birthright trip. I am not eligible, having been on three organized trips to Israel, all after my Bar Mitzvah. I’ve considered becoming a madrich, or leader of a trip, but haven’t gotten around to it. But I have many friends and relatives who have gone. My impression is that few participants who go as apolitical return as ardent Zionists. Ten days in Israel is usually not enough to turn a mild interest into a passion.

Sure, some “go native” and make aliyah, settling down in Israel. Others return home and join Zionist organizations, maybe send money to the Holy Land, follow the news from the Middle East more attentively. Still others have religious experiences, start keeping kosher and obeying the Sabbath. But most, I think, simply have a good time.

Feldman nears the mark when she calls Birthright “pleasure as a medium for Jewish nationalism.” I think a more appropriate description would be pleasure as a medium for Jewish continuity. In this way, it’s fairly similar to the Chabad Rabbi who hands out whiskey and vodka at Shabbat dinners in an effort to entice unaffiliated Jewish college students to renew their interest in Judaism. The goal is the same: fighting intermarriage and assimilation.

Feldman correctly notes that many early Zionists had similar concerns:

Early Zionism, too, was marked by alarm over intermarriage and demographic decline. Zionists saw the answer in the creation of a “new Jew,” a virile conqueror and tiller of the land who would channel sexual energy into nation-building.

In the late 19th and early 20th century, that was true enough for the mostly European and/or socialist Zionists who actually shlepped out to Palestine. But middle-class American Jews faced a different world. Feldman knows her Zionist history, but not her American Zionist history.

In 1915, future Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis (below) declared: “Every American Jew who aids in advancing the Jewish settlement in Palestine, though he feels that neither he nor his descendants will ever live there, will likewise be a better man and a better American for doing so.”

File:Brandeisl.jpgDespite the presence of real antisemitism in the United States at that time, from nativist opposition to immigration, to crude stereotyping, to the more genteel exclusion from private clubs and universities, Brandeis, like most American Jews, was rather comfortable in his New World homeland. The more pervasive antisemitism reared its head in Europe, through pogroms in Czarist Russia, the Dreyfus Affair in France, Lueger’s Vienna. The threat to Jews in America, then as now, was assimilation.

As Brandeis’ friend Horace Kallen, the father of cultural pluralism, argued, by maintaing their ethnic heritage, immigrants groups would become more, rather than less American. Yet in this secular age, adhering to a rigid and irrational Orthodox Judaism, or a lightweight and goyish Reform movement did not represent the most appealing options to enlightened Jewish intellectuals. Enter Zionism: a modern, cosmopolitan political and cultural movement that allowed Jews to maintain their identity and community while still integrating into modern American society.

Not much has changed. As Feldman notes, Steinhardt ( below right), a hedge-fund manager, admits that his Zionism is “a substitute for theology.” Bronfman believes that “in order to be a complete Jew, one must have an emotional and physical attachment to Israel.” That’s the leadership. For the rank and file participants, the concerns are more material: find a Jewish spouse. Get involved in your community at home. Keep the faith, in whatever way possible, secular or religious.

Szold, Henrietta 1 - still image [media]

This attitude is not that different than that of the women’s Zionist movement Hadassah, founded in 1912 by Henrietta Szold (left). While Szold was a true believer, she knew that many, maybe even most of the girls and women who joined her movement did it for the communal involvement, in the spirit of Progressive Era reform. More important, Szold didn’t care, as long as they donated money, showed up to the meetings, and volunteered their time and energy. Again, pleasure as a means to Jewish continuity.

Meanwhile, Israel Friedlaender and Judah Magnes, intellectual godfather and leader, respectively, of the Kehillah movement, had similar parallel commitments. Both ardent Zionists, they also attempted to unite New York’s Jewish community into a single organized Kehillah, or autonomous, almost self-governing community. The initiative, begun in 1908, failed about a decade later, but in its wake emerged the American Jewish Congress, a more democratic and Zionist alternative to the wealthier, stuffier, non-Zionist American Jewish Committee. Yet despite the American Jewish Congress’ favourable feelings towards Zionism, its programs were geared at least as much towards the United States as they were to Palestine.

To mainstream, secular, non-socialist American Zionists at the beginning of the 20th century, strengthening the existing Jewish community in the United States was just as important as building the new one in Palestine. Today’s Jewish community is financially and politically secure, but demographically unstable. American Zionism, then as now, is simply a secular medium for Jewish continuity. Birthright Israel is just one of its best-known tools, an Israel-oriented program with an American end.

Of course, not all Zionism is or was this way. Theodor Herzl, the father of modern political Zionism, saw the writing on the wall in the late 19th century: the Jews had no future in Europe. Faced with real, deadly antisemitism, his answer was to leave, to found an independent state. Looking back, we can call him prescient.

Simon Dubnow, a contemporary of Herzl’s who lived much longer, remained a non-Zionist throughout his life. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, the famed historian of Russian Jewry developed his own ideology of Jewish nationalism, which he called “Autonomism.” Unlike his friend and interlocutor Ahad Ha’am, who advanced Jewish cultural nationalism centered in Palestine, Dubnow hoped to build independent, autonomous Jewish centers through the Diaspora, in eastern and western Europe, in America. His cultural nationalism was a Diaspora nationalism. Through artistic, aesthetic, linguistic and communal strength, these autonomous Diaspora Jewish centers would advance a modern, dynamic Jewish culture which would shine as brightly anything that emerged from the Holy Land.

File:SimonDubnow.jpgYet in the late 1930s, living in Riga, Latvia, Dubnow (left) too saw the writing on the wall. He knew that his program of Autonomism, with its concern for the Jewish soul, had no place in a world where Jewish lives were being threatened en masse. In a 1939 letter to the editor of the Yiddish newspaper Oyfn Sheydveg titled “What Should One Do in Haman‘s Times?” he wrote:

After the storm of racism and Hitlerism… we will have to consider what spiritual measures we can take to salvage the bare souls of the new generation. Right now, however, we must save their bodies. First Jews, then Judaism.

Today, Kiera Feldman thinks that Jewish bodies are not really in jeopardy. She worries for Judaism, for the Jewish  soul. “Birthright’s boosters seem strangely unaware of the tribe’s more visible woes, the forty-four-year illegal occupation of Palestinian lands and the racism and legal discrimination that underpins Israel’s ethnocracy.”

Are Feldman’s criticisms of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip valid? Is she right in pointing to the state’s mistreatment of its non-Jewish population as a moral outrage? I probably wouldn’t phrase my complaints the way she does, but still the answer is yes, yes, a thousand times yes.

But how important is Birthright to all those things? My answer: not much. If Birthright disappeared tomorrow, those problems would not go away. And Birthright isn’t doing all that much to exacerbate them.

That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t criticize the program. I certainly think aspects of Birthright should be reformed. Should J-Street, America’s left-wing pro-Israel lobby (of which I am a proud supporter, despite being Canadian), be allowed its own trip, just as its larger, more conservative counterpart, AIPAC is? Of course. Should their be a more fair representation of the conflict with the Palestinians, of the plight of non-Jews within Israel proper? Most certainly. I suspect there’s much Feldman and I would agree on, in terms of a critique of Birthright, and in terms of broader Middle East politics. As a left-wing Zionist, I would prefer a peaceful, two-state solution to a binational nightmare, but I’m sure we could find common ground identifying what Israel is doing wrong.

And yet, in a way, that doesn’t matter. Feldman’s concern are important, but to me, in my gut, Jewish bodies are more important. Do I oppose the occupation? Strongly. Do I think Israel should treat its citizens equally? Definitely. But I am also genuinely concerned for the survival of the Jewish people. And that means not just Judaism, and Jewish culture, and Jewish languages and philosophy and humour and foods art and communities and everything that makes up the Jewish soul. It also means Jewish bodies and Jewish babies. That’s what the leaders of Birthright focus on. And in 100 years, perhaps people will look back and call Steinhardt and Bronfman prescient as well.


Written by David Weinfeld

June 21, 2011 at 17:48

10 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. I think you spot on… I love this line, and think it captures your concerns perfectly: “If Birthright disappeared tomorrow, those problems would not go away. And Birthright isn’t doing all that much to exacerbate them.”

    Judaica Jewelry

    June 22, 2011 at 12:56

    • BS”D
      (Discussion with Moishela (with his family
      A Handicapped child
      (Teves 13 ‘5774 (Dec 16 ’13

      “I Looked Out the Window…”

      I have for the last four days felt such a longing, such a longing to be close to Hashem. I felt not only longing, but the actual closeness to Hakodosh Boruch Hu. As I looked out the window, and saw the wind and the snow and the trees falling, I felt that this world of lies is coming apart, is falling apart, is disappearing in front of our very eyes.

      I felt that all the lies are coming to the surface, that this illusion called Olam Hazeh is becoming clearly nothingness. We are looking for truth. At least I am, but I don’t have to look for truth, because I see it, feel it. I feel close to Hashem, and that is truth, and I look out the window and watch a mini destruction. This mini destruction is brought to us in order to bring us to the truth.

      Here we are, all of Israel, the State of Israel, dependent on electricity. We are dependent on electricity, for all of our materialistic needs, for everything. Isn’t it strange that in such an advanced world people are so foolish to depend on one thing to keep them alive, and the more they depend on it the more they build what to depend on. Everything is based on electricity, and now so many people are without electricity, which is putting their very lives in danger, their lives and their children’s lives.

      There are many places without water or any kind of heating in this terrible cold, without the ability to get out to buy anything, and of course very few people are coming to the rescue to help them. This electricity that we live on is all an illusion. Whoever controls the electricity, controls humanity.

      I look out the window and I see that Hashem is sending us a message. This snow that appeared so suddenly on the Israeli scene with such devastation, is a terrible warning about the future.

      Hashem is trying to pull us close to Him in every way, and one of the ways is to show us that only He can save us. Only He can give us sustenance. Only He can bring us our Parnasa (livelihood). Only He can keep us alive.

      Rulers have always wanted to control the water and the food. Water and food keeps people alive, and once you’ve controlled that, their Cheshbon (intention) is you control people. But they forget one thing, the Ribbono Shel Olam is the one that controls everything. They can die of starvation even if they’re surrounded by every type of food, and they can die from thirst even in a swimming pool.

      Hakodosh Boruch Hu decides all, and those villains that are trying to be instead of Hakodosh Boruch Hu, Chas Vesholom, still haven’t learned their lesson from all these generations. Very soon however, they will learn their lesson, and whether they learn it or not, they will disappear from existence.

      I am longing for Moshiach, to be together with Hakodosh Boruch Hu without Mechitzas (barriers); to bask in the light of the Kedusha. I feel it coming. I feel it coming very soon, and with it the longing to see that day is becoming stronger and stronger, until I can almost not bear it. I feel the Geula so strongly coming closer to us that I cry. I cry out in pain and longing. In pain, in pain because it’s so distressing to me not to be there yet. I look out the window, see the trees fall, see people falling in the snow, and I cry. I cry for this world of illusions that so many believe in. I cry for what’s going to be when they realize their big mistake. I cry because we still have so much suffering to go through, and what has happened here in Eretz Yisroel with the snow is not by chance. It’s to bring all the true Jews to that realization.

      True that once the danger is over, many people will go back to their silliness, but we will have more trials very soon, whether weather, or fear of war, or whatever it will be. However Hashem will do it, it will be meant to bring us close to Him. It will be meant to take away the Mechitzas so we can be very close to our Creator. This winter is still going to be very eventful and very difficult. I beg every Yid when you get into big trouble, remember Hakodosh Boruch Hu is the only Hakol Yachol. He is everything. Hold on to Him, and He will save you in every situation. Just be close to Him, and do His will. It’s not enough to try to use Him for your own needs. No, you have to be one with Him. You have to do His Mitzvos, do His Ratzon. I look out the window and I see my own reflection, and I’m so glad that at least I know the truth, but I’m so sad that so many do not.

      I cry at night because I’m afraid for the suffering we still have to go through. If this snow storm was difficult, we are going to be tested and taught in even more difficult ways.

      Each Jew that has grasped the truth from stage one of our difficulties and our trials will suffer less from stages two, three, four, etc. For those that quickly understand and
      accept the truth, each stage will be progressively easier.

      However those who ignore the tests that Hashem is going to
      z give us, and refuse to learn the right attitude and the right direction, will only suffer more and more at every stage.

      I look out of the window into the cold snowy night and see clearly that what I am seeing is very depressing, but I can also visualize beyond this scene the light of Moshiach Tzidkeinu.

      Moishe'la has spoken.

      December 17, 2013 at 15:16

  2. no passport for Palestinians – “birth right” for American citizens- poor excuse for matchmaking

    H Rodrick

    June 23, 2011 at 07:12

  3. […] few more thoughts and links on my recent post on Birthright Israel, in response to Kiera Feldman’s critique of the program in The […]

  4. i went on a birthright trip in january 2001 and i have to say i felt like i was living in a zionist infomercial aimed at having american jews make aliyah. i wasn’t expecting that and it was pretty disturbing. in many ways it turned me off more than it piqued my interest in the country and its nationals.

    in other news, my roommate from those ten days in israel ended up marrying and having jewish babies with another participant from our trip, so i guess the program is doing something right if that’s really it’s agenda:)


    June 29, 2011 at 11:35

    • *its agenda!


      June 29, 2011 at 11:35

  5. […] does not threaten Jews in the Diaspora, at least certainly not in North America. I’ve written about this many times before on this very blog. The real threat is assimilation, intermarriage, low […]

  6. […] readers of this blog know my thoughts on Birthright Israel, the all-expense-paid 10-day trip to Israel. I’ll summarize […]

  7. […] the message is more subtle than Birthright’s almost explicit efforts at matchmaking and procreation, Jewish summer camps without question seek to facilitate romantic relationships among Jewish […]

  8. […] Let’s turn back to sexy Birthright. Now, it has been made very clear by Birthright’s very special bankrollers  and other promoters that one of the targets of Birthright is to have Jews, ahem, breed with other Jews. One narrator recalled that Sheldon Adelson himself made jokes about Jews “knowing” [biblically] other Jews on the trip. Beyond the right-wing worry about, you know, young Jewry’s impatience with the terror-laden, nationalism-driven, human rights-trampling Occupation, those like Birthright’s organizers are also concerned that Jews may be spreading their seed too often with scary Gentiles. Because, of course, the Jewish bloodline has always been pure. What could be better than mixing young, virile Jews – potential propagators of future tefillin-wrappers, Philip Roths, and cooking implement inventors – to this end? A magical trip to start magical romances. […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: