Web Letters | The Nation

The Romance of Birthright Israel

Secular messianism and its blind spot

What’s this romance all about, eh? Well, it’s about soi-disant idealistic young people of Jewish origin, largely secular, from middle-class suburban America, steeped in a spiritually arid, materialistic, hedonistic and nihilistic civilization, who have latched on, in desperation, to a form of secular messianism in order to hold their lives together. We have seen this before—among secularized shetl youth in cities such as Kiev and Odessa, in the Russia of Alexander III and Nicholas II. The irony is that, in this state of nirvana, they are utterly blind to the ugly reality of the majority of the population of the Holy Land—the Arab Palestinians. At least, the first crowd could see the trees and the forest.

Dr. Michael Zurowski

Montreal, Quebec

Jul 19 2011 - 12:55pm

The Romance of Birthright Israel

No cause for alarm

I attended far lengthier Jewish summer camps for young adults in the ’70s. A six-month or a two-year experience working for a small stipend provides enough experience to solidify opinions about the culture and the politics. A ten-day travel carnival, as this is described, is only long enough to reinforce the preconceptions already in a participant’s mind. To believe that this is an effective tool for Likud or the Israeli right is nonsense. Feldman thinks about causal effect, but I read it as many correlations.

Steven Schrage

Austin, TX

Jun 26 2011 - 11:41pm

The Romance of Birthright Israel

Feldman's critics dodge the facts

So far, none of the BI defenders have laid a glove on the author, much less proved her wrong.

Hint to hasbara practitioners: It would help your cause if, rather than engaging in handwaving, you actually attempted to address specifics in the article. But then again, the specifics aren't exactly your friends, especially if your task is to somehow prove that a group founded and run by Charles Bronfman and whose biggest funder is Sheldon Adelman isn't a Likud/Kadima indoctrination fest, despite the best efforts of people like Yossi Beilin. For instance, I'd like to see someone try to explain away this passage:

"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."



Dina Ruthsberg

St. Paul, MN

Jun 25 2011 - 12:13am

The Romance of Birthright Israel

Why I sent my children on a Birthright trip

After reading the article about and the comments, I am exasperated. I consider myself to be “liberal,” “progressive,” “humanistic,”“secularly Jewish,” well-educated, and left of center in my values and politics. In the mess that is most of this world (and, I suppose, always was and will be part of this world,) why is it that Israel is such a bone of contention revliberal causes? There are so many atrocities, intentionally, being perpetrated in the world. There are so many messes to be cleaned up. I am not invalidating the issues that exist within the so-called “occupied ” territories. However, I knew, before I read the article that the presentation of the “birthright trip” would be shadowed by negativity ….that the proverbial glass would be considered to be “half empty”. My assumption was confirmed. Why else would an article be printed in The Nation if it going to support the “half full,” positive elements of this trip and Israel itself?

The implied motivation about “Birthright” and the real intention (or at least the result) of the article, is to expose more items to be added to the never-ending list of what is wrong with this little democracy in the Middle East. I just don’t get it. There is not one other real democracy in this part of the world. And democracies are messy! Feminists should be outraged at how women in zealous Arab societies are treated. Liberals, who pride themselves on seeing and understanding the bigger picture, ought to be religiously (no pun intended) explaining in context how the mess and the myths that are being perpetuated by both sides came to be. The conflict defined, that seems to have captured almost every liberal heart, is that it is all Israel’s fault.

Justification always seems to be needed when the topic of Israel comes up. The necessary “justification” seems so simple to me. Israel, is a democracy. It has some crap to deal with from their right-wing corporate and corrupt politicians and religious nuts. And we don’t here in the US? That being said, do I denigrate my country or feel apologetic about being an American? Did I vote for Dubbya? Would I have voted for Bibi had I been an Israeli citizen? Hell, no! Is the Knesset a tangled web of ideologues, religious slaves, ethnic (including Arab) agendas and principled people? Is that any different than our own frightening Congress? Do I condemn the US for that? Is my house not sitting on what was once Mexican territory and before that the property of an indigenous people?

The “Arab Spring” was sprung through the use of technology, however, instant tweets do not provide a foundation for real democracies. That is an evolutionary, not a revolutionary process. Israel has had to rely on (like any other society ) its past experiences with governments, legitimate or otherwise, who do not recognize its right to exist! How would we react in the same circumstances ? Would we over-react? Would we cower? Would we retaliate if Mexico decided that the American war winnings were not legitimate, so Arizona and much of the southwest US is now rightfully theirs? The only thing that is an indisputable fact is that no one’s going anywhere. Arabs and Jews and Christians and Hindus and you name it need to find a way to live together in peace in this shrinking world.

By sending my two children on “Birthright” trips, this grateful, secular, liberal Jewish mother was motivated by a proud heritage that I feel I could not adequately covey to them through their sheltered life in America, by a humanizing memory of the dehumanized past so we are not “condemned to repeat it” (The Holocaust,of course), and by a sense of hope for a decent future. Are there no other ethnic groups, religious or otherwise that would be thrilled to have “pilgrimages” to lands that define their roots?

The truth is we are all alike. The only race that matters is the human race. Our differences should be the icing on the cake and not the cause of conflict. Liberals need to take a look at what astoundingly positive things Israel has accomplished and what it can offer its neighbors if there was a real peace and a sense of community. That kind of framework might help me and others like me to feel more respectful of the so-called liberal stance on Israel and the “crimes” that are committed in its name today. At one time it was quite fashionable to be supportive of this little underdog nation. Now that they have established a first world country in a third world environment, I guess they have lost status with those progressives who say they want to elevate people from poverty and ignorance into that very same state of existence. How confusing.

Roberta Lewis

Tucson, AZ

Jun 22 2011 - 5:36pm

The Romance of Birthright Israel


I expect to see as sarcastic and one-sided a review of Hamas-led and -sponsored summer camps that teach Palestinian Arab kids to hate Israel and Jews, and to want to grow up to be Shaheeds, martyring themselves via suicide bomb vests designed to cause as much loss of Israeli life as possible. And, yes, when the Palestinian Arabs kill Israeli men, women and children, they do indeed celebrate, including giving out sweets in the streets.

Daniel Katzen

La Canada, CA

Jun 22 2011 - 1:43am

The Romance of Birthright Israel

What did she expect?

I was a little surprised by the level of what can only be described as shoddy journalism in this article. Of course Birthright Israel isn’t an opportunity for a free vacation, and it would be patently absurd to assume that an all-expenses-paid Birthright trip to Israel wouldn’t present only the most positive aspects of the country. I have a problem with Kiera Feldman’s assertions—as a journalist—that there is something disreputable or misleading about this practice.

There were a few other assertions in her article that seemed almost reckless in their rush to summation. For example, she implies that the whirlwind schedule and its participants in a state of seemingly constant exhaustion is carefully designed to create… what exactly, a state of gullibility? Being primed for some top-drawer brainwashing? A tightly-packed schedule and constant state of exhaustion (dare I say it? jet lag) are the hallmarks of any overseas trip of short duration. The students have myriad opportunities to meet Israeli soldiers… perhaps as Feldman suggests, this is a cynically orchestrated ploy to “humanize” these aggressors… but isn’t it even more likely that this is because the soldiers are the same age as the participants? How many of these soldiers are careerists and how many are merely fulfilling their two years of service? (And shouldn’t our kids here likewise participate in any kind of civil service to their country?). From her own description, the American kids flirt and party with the Israeli kids (who happen to be soldiers)…what is that supposed to be, the fastest and most efficient Stockholm Syndrome effect?

Israel is far from perfect, but compared to most other countries in the region, which criminalize homosexuals, have no democracy, certainly don’t have non-Muslims serving in a democratically elected government or give women equal rights, I find this attack on Birthright questionable. Was she coerced somehow into availing herself of a free trip to the Middle East? Isn’t it possible that Birthright’s aim is not to indoctrinate the next rabidly right-wing expat settlers but to present evidence that perhaps not everything is always black and white, and perhaps not every issue is as one-sided and unnuanced as the left’s anti-Israel rhetoric? It’s a lesson and a vision that comes with maturity. If Feldman doesn’t yet have it, the editors should have.

Elizabeth Schwartz

San Diego, CA

Jun 19 2011 - 10:46pm

The Romance of Birthright Israel

More nuance, please

As the largest funder of Israeli civil and human rights organizations, we at the New Israel Fund have a vested interest in young progressive Jews embracing a critical, fully informed and first-hand experience of Israel. The relationship between the American Jewish community and Israel is complex and ever-changing. Birthright is one of a number of organizations attempting to address this relationship. And while there are valid criticisms of Birthright, the portrayal of its agenda as monolithic is incomplete and un-nuanced.

While we disagree with their decision to block a J Street trip, we have also seen them open themselves to pluralistic content and politics of a broad range of political views. Between 2006–09, we partnered with Israel Experts to provide a half-dozen trips titled “Peace, Pluralism & Social Justice.” These trips visited real Bedouin shanty towns in the Negev, Arab villages halved by the ’67 line, and discussed Israel’s security measures and human rights extensively.

These visits were accompanied with social change grantees of the New Israel Fund. Without Birthright, we could not have inspired these young Jews to grapple with Israel’s complicated reality. The full picture of Birthright, its funders and the Jewish community, like the Middle East itself, is more nuanced than presented in this article.

I am the director of the New Generations benefits of the New Israel Fund.

Ben Murane

New York, NY

Jun 17 2011 - 4:26pm

The Romance of Birthright Israel

Kiera’s crappy trip

I’m sorry to hear that Kiera Feldman got bombarded with Likudist ideology during her Birthright trip. The real question, however, is, Did she even check what provider she was going with? There are many different ones, ranging between Jewish religious denominations (including the famously left-wing Reform movement) and activities (for example, nature hiking, as mentioned in the article).

Sadly, though, this article is no less propaganda than Kiera’s Birthright trip, and on The Nation’s unfortunately typical ideological line: Zionism is “right-wing,” while Palestinism is “left-wing”; Jews bad conquerors, Arabs pitiful victims. I question Kiera’s experiences because when I went on Birthright, I got a social-democratic, Meretz-Yachad-going peacenik for my tour guide who insisted that peace would be along any day now. I was never sold any of those damned “Ahavah” products. Any and all stupid purchases made on shopping streets were my own damn fault.

Also, I never for a second pretended that I was getting an authentic view of Israel, its Jewish parts or its Arab parts. What does a Birthright tripper get? A free vacation in a warm, sunny land to which the tripper could never afford to travel normally, while probably surrounded by supposedly eligible members of the appropriate sex, age, and ethnoreligious group. Anyone pretending it’s more or less than that is fooling themselves, and this includes rich philanthropists.

Anyone aiming to build a Zionist had better start by appealing to what young people really believe. Of course, anyone looking to make anti-Zionism the default position of all liberal and well-meaning people had better start with some basic honesty, which was lacking in this piece! I expect better of The Nation!

On the other hand, Birthright does do a wonderfully good job of convincing large numbers of young people that, shock and horror and God forbid, Israel is a real country with a life of its own, richer and more varied than CNN reports of war and terrorism. That’s worth something, because it’s indeed harder to demonize a country one has visited than Yet Another Warmongering Barbarian Foreign Country. Good on Birthright for that!

Also, the Zionist Left lives, no matter what The Nation or Arutz Sheva might say!

Eli Gottlieb

Amherst, MA

Jun 17 2011 - 10:29am

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