Birthright Israel is about Birthing Babies, not Zionism (and That’s a Good Thing)
Birthright 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.
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.”
Anecdotally, 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.”
Despite 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.
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.
Yet 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.