Ph.D. Octopus

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More Debate on Birthright

with 2 comments

by Weiner

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

Blogger Phoebe alerted me to a 2007 article she wrote with a somewhat similar critique of Birthright. Unlike me, Phoebe thinks Birthright should be more Zionist and less about making Jewish babies. She provides an interesting exploration of early Zionist thought, including the well-known Theodor and the less well-known Jacob Klatzkin. She comes to what in my mind is a pessimistic conclusion: the Jewish future lies in either Israel or Judaism (that is, Jewish religion). Secular Jewishness in the Diaspora is on its way out. Here’s how she puts it:

The future of the Jewish people is in Israel and, to a certain extent, in religious observance. Guilt and vaguely familial pressure will not and, frankly, should not be what keeps people Jewish. Those who care about the continued existence of the Jews as a people must either become religiously observant and live in closed communities of other observant Jews, or they may move to Israel, the only country where, as Momo enthused, the hot girls on the beach are, more often than not, Jewish.

Critics will counter that cultural Judaism has existed throughout the modern era. True enough. Communities of Jews tied together not by religion, language or nationality are kept away from intermarriage and full assimilation when society around them is sufficiently antisemitic to keep them so. In a liberal, secular community, in which Jews blend in and are not systematically subject to discrimination, those who lack specific interest in things Jewish – or, to put it in less negative terms, whose interests lie elsewhere – will fall out of the Jewish people, and their descendents will not be Jews.

I fear Phoebe may be right, but I hope she is wrong, and will do my darndest to keep the secular Jewish faith alive (though not in my academic career, where I strive for objectivity). In any case, read Phoebe’s piece. It’s great.

More recently, Brian Schaefer, a Dorot fellow (that’s a 10 month fellowship for recent college graduates that I applied for in 2005 and was rejected from), offered his own critique of Birthright on the Jerusalem Post blog. Schafer thinks Birthright especially falls short in comparison to programs like Dorot. While he praises Dorot for the depth and nuance the fellowship offers, he calls Birthright a “free 10 day educational vacation” and concludes: “The main difference between the two programs is not their duration; rather it is how they conceive of and treat their participants: as consumers and cheerleaders, or as stakeholders and advocates.”

In response,  Gil Troy, an American historian at McGill and Hebrew University and a Zionist activist who heads Birthright Israel’s International Education Committee, wrote a defense of Birthright in the same Jerusalem Post blog. Troy writes:

Yes, it is true, Birthright is fun. This exuberance is part of the Birthright magic and its success — 90 percent of participants reach Birthright thanks to word of mouth.  When is the last time we read in the Jewish press a complaint about Jewish kids having too much fun at an organized Jewish community event?  If Diaspora communities offered more exciting, exhilarating, engaging, enriching, enlightening programs for Jews growing up, we would not need the last-minute intervention of programs like Birthright to encourage young, frequently alienated, Jews to restart and reorient their Jewish journeys.
A gateway program, Birthright welcomes many Jews who are on the way out.  The gift comes with “no strings attached,” meaning no ideological, theological, political, or institutional demands beyond participating constructively. And it is a populist program – although most participants attend or graduated from America’s top 50 universities.  But to assume therefore it is all “Goldstar and humous,” misses its multi-layered educational process, both formal and informal. Birthright succeeds in being pro-fun and profound.
The jury is still out on how effective the Birthright program is in bolstering Zionist attachment and/or renewed Jewish commitment and identity. But I urge interested commenters to offer their thoughts on any or all of these pieces. Would love to hear from Birthright alumni or alumni of other Israel programs or those generally interested in the topic.

Written by David Weinfeld

June 24, 2011 at 14:54

2 Responses

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  1. […] 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, […]

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

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