The Romance of Birthright Israel
This article was reported in partnership with The Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute.
The seekers are young, just beginning to face the disappointments of adulthood. Their journey is often marked by tears. They may weep while praying at the Western Wall, their heads pressed against the weathered stone, or at the Holocaust Museum, as they pass the piles of shoes of the dead. Others tear up in Jerusalem’s Mount Herzl military cemetery, while embracing a handsome IDF soldier in the late afternoon light. But at some point during their all-expenses-paid ten-day trip to a land where, as they are constantly reminded, every mountain and valley is inscribed with 5,000 years of their people’s history, the moment almost always comes.
When Julie Feldman (no relation), then 26 and a Reform Jew from New York City, arrived at Ben Gurion Airport in December 2008, she called herself “a blank slate.” She returned as the attack on Gaza was under way, armed with a new “pro-Israel” outlook. “Israel really changed me,” she said. “I truly felt when I came back that I was a different person.”
It was mission accomplished for Birthright Israel, the American Zionist organization that has, since its founding in 1999, spent almost $600 million to send more than 260,000 young diaspora Jews on free vacations to the Holy Land.
Birthright co-founder Charles Bronfman claims he just provides free airfare and lodging. “Then,” he says, “Israel does its magic.” Indeed, in 2009 Brandeis University researchers found that almost three-quarters of alumni describe their Birthright experience as “life changing.” “If you come here, and you connect to the origins of the Jewish people, the country that forged our existence, our faith, our values,” then–Likud Party leader Benjamin Netanyahu promised in a 2008 Birthright video, “it’ll change your life forever.”
Bronfman’s partner in founding Birthright, Michael Steinhardt, professes faith in Israel as “a substitute for theology.” Steinhardt understands that for a generation weaned on irony, Birthright could offer an opportunity for deep, wholehearted conviction. “My liberal arts education taught me that any distinct concept or ideal will crumble under the scrutiny of too many questions,” laments a recent college grad writing on her Birthright experience, which taught her “it was okay and even honorable to believe in the state of Israel, to adopt, so to speak, the settlers’ original dream.” Her Jewcy.com essay is hardly unique: Birthright has generated reams of effusive essays and blog posts over the years.
Barry Chazan, a Hebrew University professor emeritus and the architect of Birthright’s curriculum, explains in a celebratory 2008 book, Ten Days of Birthright Israel, that the trip is designed so travelers “are bombarded with information.” The goal is to produce “an emotionally overwhelming experience” that “helps participants open themselves to learning.” On my own Birthright trip last year, I experienced the Chazan Effect. Chronically underslept, hurled through a mind-numbing itinerary, I experienced, despite my best efforts to maintain a reportorial stance, a return to the intensity of feeling of childhood.
“This is not a vacation,” a Birthright employee pronounced the first evening, before shooing us to the hotel bar. “You are embarking on a journey.” Just four nights later, my steel trap of a heart was overcome by emotion upon seeing my new Birthright crush dancing with another girl. I fled to my room and cried.
Conceived as “the selling of Jewishness to Jews,” in Bronfman’s words, Birthright trips are offered in dozens of varieties, from secular to Orthodox, from outdoorsy to LGBT-friendly. Crisscrossing the country in rollicking tour buses, Birthright participants between 18 and 26 swim in the Dead Sea, ride camels, visit the occupied Golan Heights, listen to lectures on Zionism and spend their nights boozing and flirting with the IDF soldiers assigned to accompany them. Trips are conducted by a variety of contracted tour providers, each designing itineraries approved by Birthright’s central office in Jerusalem. Itineraries must include core sites (the Western Wall, Masada) and curricular themes (“The History of Zionism”), and Birthright maintains rigorous quality control. Currently, there are seventeen tour providers, with Hillel, the international Jewish campus group, among the largest. Each trip is overseen by two American camp counselor figures, an Israeli guide and a rifle-toting guard.
The free trip is framed as a “gift” from philanthropists, Jewish federations and the State of Israel. Far-right Casino magnate Sheldon Adelson is the largest individual donor, having given Birthright $100 million over the past five years. The Israeli government provided Birthright $100 million during the program’s first decade; Prime Minister Netanyahu recently announced another $100 million in government funding. Birthright’s budget for 2011 is $87 million, a number expected to reach $126 million by 2013, enough to bring 51,000 participants to Israel that year alone.
To apply for a Birthright trip, participants need just one Jewish grandparent—and to pass a screening interview. (Practicing a religion other than Judaism is an automatic disqualifier.) After their ten days on Birthright, participants may postpone their return by up to three months to travel in the region, and it is not unheard of for progressives to “birth left” in the West Bank afterward (as I did)—though Birthright policy is that anyone discovered to have a “hidden agenda” of “exploiting” the free trip “to get access to the territories” to promote “non-Israeli” causes can lose her spot. Birthrighters planning anti-occupation activism with the International Solidarity Movement have been dismissed.
“Welcome home” is a predominant message, a reference to the promise of instant Israeli citizenship for diaspora Jews under the 1950 Law of Return. (About 17,000 Birthright alumni now live in Israel, according to the Jerusalem Post.) It serves as a pointed riposte to the right of return claimed under international law by the 700,000 Palestinians expelled in 1948 upon the creation of the Jewish state, and their descendants.
The story of Birthright begins with the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey. The findings unleashed a panic within the halls of American Jewish institutions: 52 percent of Jews were marrying outside the faith. Steinhardt, a legendary hedge-fund manager, was among the Jewish community leaders who rallied to confront what soon became known as the “crisis of continuity,” characterized not only by intermarriage but by the weakening of Jewish communal ties such as synagogue membership and a waning attachment to Israel. A Goldwater Republican turned chair of the Democratic Leadership Council, Steinhardt wanted to make Jewish institutions more appealing to the young. He enlisted Yitz Greenberg, a well-known Orthodox rabbi and educator, as director of the foundation that would incubate Birthright. Reflecting on that 1990 survey some years later, Greenberg said, “I felt I’d been asleep at the switch as this disaster was coming.” Birthright trips, he hoped, would shore up a social order in decline.
“Everybody feels good about it,” J.J. Goldberg, then–editor in chief of the Jewish Forward, said in 2002, summing up the warm Birthright consensus within the American Jewish 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.
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Birthright co-founder Bronfman, the billionaire heir to the Canadian Seagram’s liquor empire, began directing his philanthropic dollars to teen Israel trips in the late 1980s. “To me, in order to be a complete Jew, one must have an emotional and physical attachment to Israel,” Bronfman says. But he was bothered that the kids on those early trips weren’t bonding with their Israeli peers. Bronfman’s answer: developing the mifgash—the encounter—between Jewish Israeli teens and their diaspora counterparts. This made the tour bus less of “an isolated bubble,” according to Elan Ezrachi, the Israeli educator who developed the mifgash on Bronfman’s dime. Birthright adapted the mifgash by way of IDF soldiers. These encounters between American youth and youthful Israeli soldiers “move very fast to what we call ‘hormonal mifgashim,’” Ezrachi told me. “Things happen.”
Soldiers meet Birthrighters in full uniform, spend the remainder of the mifgash in civilian clothing and then dress back in uniform for the encounter’s final day: the Holocaust Museum followed by a visit to the graves of Theodor Herzl and fallen soldiers. Lynn Schusterman, a Birthright funder and board member, told me the bonds formed during the mifgash help participants gain an understanding of soldiers’ “moral and ethical standards.” After the 2006 Lebanon war, Brandeis researchers found that Birthright alumni were more likely than other young American Jews to view Israel’s military conduct as justified.
The originator of the Birthright idea was Yossi Beilin, a Labor Party stalwart and an instrumental figure in the Oslo Accords. Widely considered an archliberal and reviled by Israel’s right, Beilin is an unlikely figure to boast the moniker “godfather of Birthright.” In a recent phone interview, Beilin compared his worries about intermarriage and Jewish identity to “the personal feeling of an old man who wants to see that his family is still around.” Among Beilin’s top goals for Birthright: “to create a situation whereby spouses are available.” An ardent Zionist and longtime friend of Bronfman, Beilin unsuccessfully pitched Birthright to him and Steinhardt in the mid-1990s.
Eventually, Chazan writes in his book, Steinhardt saw Birthright’s potential to “plug the dam of assimilation,” and Steinhardt got Bronfman on board. “The people we wanted were those who were not committed,” Bronfman says. “The only thing that would get them to Israel is a free trip.”
The common denominator of the Birthright experience is the promotion—by turns winking and overt—of flings among participants, or between participants and soldiers. “No problem if there’s intimate encounters,” an Israel Outdoors employee told American staffers during training. “In fact, it’s encouraged!” Birthright boasts that alumni are 51 percent more likely to marry other Jews than nonparticipants.
“The bus is a love incubator,” Elissa Strauss writes in What We Brought Back, a glowing essay collection from Birthright’s alumni program. “It works.” Strauss’s entry is written with her husband, whom she met, naturally, on Birthright. Many groups pass a night in a fake Bedouin tent, where participants sleep crowded together, a setup conducive to first kisses.
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. Today, the goal is a new diaspora Jew who channels that energy into Zionist activism.