The Romance of Birthright Israel
A baptized child of intermarriage, I traveled on an Israel Experts Birthright trip in February 2010 that promised “serious programs for serious people who want to have fun!” It felt more like a Zionist summer camp for young professionals. We sang campfire songs, used nicknames that ended in “Dawg” and made lunchtime dares to eat unsavory concoctions. Lawyers, corporate strategists, a personal trainer—my Birthright tour mates were twentysomethings with grown-up jobs and responsibilities everyone seemed glad to leave behind. For ten days, we basked in a second adolescence.
As if according to some divine script, my crush was soon requited, and when the lights went down in the fake Bedouin tent, I got my mifgash on. “I love it,” Harold Grinspoon, a member of the Birthright Israel board, told me upon hearing of my romance. “You have a nice interaction with a Jewish person—that’s great.” An octogenarian philanthropist who made his money in real estate, Grinspoon rattled off high intermarriage numbers and low Jewish birthrates. “We’re really in trouble as Jews,” he said sadly.
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. If the former was kept nearly invisible on my Birthright trip, the latter was laid uncommonly bare.
Our guide was Shachar Peleg-Efroni, a second-generation secular kibbutznik. Several times a day he said things like, “Arabs are those who originated from Saudi Arabia.” Everything we saw out the tour bus window was “in the Bible,” reinforcing Zionist claims to the land. He used “Palestinian” interchangeably with “terrorist.” Driving through northern Israel, Shachar gave a lesson in “Judaization,” the government’s term for settlement policy. Passing through an Israeli-Arab town, he called our attention to a litter-strewn road (perhaps the result of inequities in municipal funding, which escaped mention) and then pointed to a neat ring of state-subsidized Jewish towns. “Judaization,” he explained, was necessary “to keep them from spreading.” My American crush and I exchanged a knowing look.
From my notes on Day 8: “Israel just went in and cleaned Gaza,” Shachar said of Operation Cast Lead, which had taken place a year earlier, as we drove south to an organic farm along the border. There, the Israeli proprietor explained that his low-hanging trellises were Thai worker–sized and invited us to nibble the dangling strawberries. “Thank you, Thai worker!” he instructed us to say when a laborer walked by. En route to the next stop on the itinerary, Shachar pointed to tin shacks—Bedouin villages—and jovially detailed the government’s Bedouin home-demolition campaign, saying the IDF needed to “kick them away.” We arrived at our far more picturesque “Bedouin Dessert [sic] Village Experience” and rode camels into the sunset. A man named Mohammed served coffee and played a familiar tune on the oud: “Hava Nagila.”
To varying degrees, Birthrighters from an array of other trips have recounted similar experiences. “Don’t go to the Arab Quarter, because they will throw acid on your face,” Max Geller recalls his Birthright guide saying in 2006. 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.”) Lazarus’s take-home was, according to Geller, “Arabs want to kill you.”
Jared Malsin went on a 2007 Birthright trip where IDF soldiers role-played a checkpoint. “The message was every single Palestinian is a threat until proven otherwise,” he recalls. EllaRose Chary recalls a Birthright activity in 2009 in which soldiers described sending neighbors to knock on the doors of suspected militants, an illegal use of civilians as human shields. “I might die if I go up there,” one soldier said to his new friends. “What should we do?”
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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. Or that’s the hope.
With the relentless siege of Gaza, the interminable occupation, the ever-expanding settlements, the onslaught of anti-Arab Knesset legislation, Israel has earned its new status as an international pariah. Meanwhile, the rise of J Street, the liberal pro-Israel lobby group, suggests that the American Jewish center is inching leftward along generational lines, and the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement is gaining traction among young activists. In the wake of Operation Cast Lead, Republican pollster Frank Luntz found that Jewish college students are “not standing up for Israel”; he calls the results “horrifying.” Enter Birthright.
In the words of CEO Gidi Mark, Birthright trains participants to “go back to anti-Zionists on their campuses and say to them, ‘Don’t tell me what you saw on CNN—I was there.’” In May 2010 Hillel president Wayne Firestone denounced campus divestment campaigns for seeking to “delegitimize and demonize Israel,” declaring Birthright alumni to be “the only way to combat these efforts.” In November, at an assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America, Bronfman shared the cheerful news that half of all pro-Israel activists on college campuses had been on Birthright. “Many of our Birthright alumni come back and are ready and eager to be advocates for Israel,” Susie Gelman, a Birthright board member and funder, told me. “In the current atmosphere, it takes on even more of a significant role than could’ve been anticipated when Birthright began.”
At a recent Birthright open bar night dubbed “Zionism Is Humanitarianism,” I approached Steinhardt and mentioned that I’d had a Birthright boyfriend throughout last spring. “Is he the man of your dreams?” Steinhardt asked. “Is he here in New York?” No and no, I answered. “Well, a few months of pleasure is wonderful!” he exclaimed. Later, from the stage, Steinhardt promised a free honeymoon to anyone who met that night and tied the knot within a year.
Alumni often assure me that Birthright is just a fun heritage trip. Funders and officials, too, reiterate Birthright’s “apolitical” nature. In January, J Street announced it would sponsor a Birthright trip. Shortly thereafter, Birthright said a miscommunication had occurred—as a “political” organization, J Street was ineligible. Yet a Birthright trip run by AIPAC, the far more conservative Israel lobby group, has been renewed for years.
Very few trip providers offer sessions with Palestinian citizens of Israel. My trip, advertised as “pluralist,” met an Israeli-Arab computer programmer who spoke briefly about legal discrimination against minorities, followed by an Israeli-Arab teenager who called herself “pro-Israel.” When I asked her thoughts on the Palestinian right of return, she giggled, consulted with a Birthright activity leader, and said, “I don’t think it’s the right time for them to come back.” My requests for a full list of Israeli-Arab groups on Birthright itineraries were declined.
Since its inception, Birthright has been funded by an illustrious and varied lot; most of them just happen to share hawkish Israel politics. In 1998, during his first term as prime minister, Netanyahu gave the initial guarantee of Israeli government funding. By 2000, when the first Birthright trips were under way, at least eight funders were trustees of AIPAC’s think-tank spinoff, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy—including Steinhardt and Bronfman. Casino magnate Adelson, Birthright’s largest donor, staunchly opposes a two-state solution. He once famously broke with AIPAC—for not being conservative enough. Other notables: oil billionaire Lynn Schusterman, a Birthright founding funder, thirty-five-year AIPAC veteran and the purse for many “pro-Israel” youth initiatives such as the Israel on Campus Coalition, which combats “the worrisome rise in anti-Israel activities”; diamond baron and settlement construction impresario Lev Leviev; Slim-Fast billionaire S. Daniel Abraham, a member of the AIPAC board; and neoconservative philanthropist Roger Hertog, emeritus chair of the Manhattan Institute. Then there’s donor Marc Rich, a founding Birthright board member, the billionaire oil trader controversially pardoned by President Clinton; throughout his business dealings, Rich gathered intelligence for the Mossad.
Several Birthright donors, including family foundations operated by the Gottesmans, Grinspoons, Steinhardts and Schustermans, have also financially supported illegal Jewish settlements; in 2008, for example, the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation gave $25,000 to Ein Prat, a school in the settlement of Kfar Adumim.
In a phone interview, Robert Aronson, president of the Birthright foundation, maintained that he simply wants the trip to be “the opening of a door” to Jewish communal life. But should that doorway lead to political engagement, Aronson hopes it will be through right-wing Zionist groups such as AIPAC and Stand With Us, whose members have been known to target Jewish anti-occupation activists with Nazi slurs and pepper spray. Students for Justice in Palestine? “No, that one I probably wouldn’t list,” Aronson laughed. Soon, his humor evaporated. He ended the interview when I asked why the organization encouraged Birthrighters to patronize settlement businesses, as was done on my trip. “Not my issue,” Aronson said. “I never answer to political questions.”
Birthright tour providers are allowed to take tourists anywhere between the Dead Sea and the Mediterranean. Mark, the CEO, explained that “as an apolitical organization,” Birthright does not concern itself with the Green Line, the internationally recognized border separating Israel proper from the illegally occupied West Bank. “If security allows it, we allow for our participants to see the beginnings of where the nation started.” Theoretically, a visit to a Palestinian town in the West Bank would be within the boundaries of acceptability—but Chazan said no trip provider has done it. Birthright funders and officials see Palestinians as best avoided, for “security” reasons. On my trip, we were given maps of Israel that referred to the West Bank as “Judea and Samaria”—biblical terminology typically favored by settlers and their sympathizers.
“I trust that they’re doing the right thing,” Jewish Federations president Jerry Silverman told me, when asked about Birthright’s support of settlements. Such was the predominant sentiment of the funders on this matter, and on the overt racism expressed on some trips: Birthright, like Israel itself, can do no wrong.