Congratulations to Kiera Feldman for her important article “The Romance of Birthright Israel” [July 4/11].
Arising out of concern about the decline in affiliation among young Jewish Americans, the Birthright Israel program is, as Feldman points out, an effort at “the selling of Jewishness to Jews.” This program has thus far sent more than 260,000 young Jews from throughout the world on free trips to Israel.
“Welcome Home” is a predominant message, a reference to Zionism’s view that all Jews outside Israel are in “exile” and that Israel is the “homeland” of all Jews, who should immigrate to that country.
Beyond concern over the propaganda aspects of the program, heavily influenced by advocates of the settler movement, the reason for a lack of involvement of many young Jewish Americans in organized Jewish life is precisely that Israel, not God or Jewish ethics or the traditional Jewish idea of tikkun olam (repairing the world), has become “central” to Jewish life. Israeli flags fly in many US synagogues; and many “religious” schools are teaching Israeli culture and Middle East politics, not religious concerns about what it means to lead an ethical life.
A study by social scientists Ari Kelman and Steven M. Cohen found that among American Jews, each new generation is more alienated from Israel than the one before. Among American Jews born after 1980, only 54 percent feel “comfortable with the idea of a Jewish state.” The reason, Cohen explained, is an aversion to “hard group boundaries” and the notion that “there is a distinction between Jews and everybody else.”
Israel claims millions of men and women who are citizens of other countries as being in “exile” from their real “homeland.” Why is it not content to be the homeland of its own citizens?
There is a silent majority of American Jews who are not represented by the national organizations that speak in their name. Kiera Feldman’s report indicates why so many idealistic young people—seeking a world of justice for all, as the Hebrew Prophets did—are alienated from the Jewish establishment. They deserve something better.
ALLAN C. BROWNFELD, publications editor
American Council for Judaism (acjna.org)
New York City
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 firsthand 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. While there are some valid criticisms of Birthright, the portrayal of its agenda as monolithic is incomplete.
While we disagree with Birthright’s decision to block a J Street trip, we have also seen it open itself to pluralistic content and politics on a broad range of views. Between 2006 and 2009, we partnered with Israel Experts to provide nearly a half-dozen trips titled “Peace, Pluralism & Social Justice.” These trips visited real Bedouin shanty towns in the Negev and Arab villages halved by the ‘67 line; they discussed Israel’s security measures and human rights extensively.