The Romance of Birthright Israel

The Romance of Birthright Israel

By providing all-expenses paid trips to Israel for Jewish young adults, US funders and Israeli politicians are creating the next generations of American Zionists.


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 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.

* * *

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.

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’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?”

* * *

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.

One night on Birthright we had a cookout at Gvulot, the first kibbutz cum military outpost in the Negev, in southern Israel. We learned the story of Gvulot’s founding—conquest over Palestinians—in the manner of all summer camp lessons: skits with gratuitous cross-dressing. The part of the man who prances onstage with makeshift breasts was played by Yossi Mizrahi, then a goofy 21-year-old Israeli soldier, adored by the entire Birthright group. He’d fought in Operation Cast Lead, and he liked to show us the “terrorist headbands” he claimed to have collected from the bodies of Palestinians he’d killed. The activity came to a close with a round of sweet Bedouin tea. “L’chaim!“—“To life!”—we cheered, raising our glasses, five miles away from the largest open-air prison in the world. We were directed to the kibbutz’s bar, a place so popular with the locals, our Israeli guide joked, that “even people in Gaza are coming to the checkpoint.” Everyone laughed.

My traveling companions were not monsters. Birthright’s overstimulation brings about a deadening of feeling. It’s hard to imagine the suffering of others when you’re having the time of your life. In Tours That Bind, sociologist Shaul Kelner contends that Birthright activities revolve around “fun and good feeling,” meaning “the group’s hedonism is thus one of the most effective checks against a determinedly critical politics.”

It’s pleasure as a medium for Jewish nationalism. In Birthright, dissent is for fun-suckers. “Just enjoy the experience,” a tour mate told me when I denounced the remarks of one Birthright employee, Gia Arnstein, who had said, apropos Palestinian suicide bombers, “If I impose a holocaust on them, what can I do?” In American discourse, the logic of Jewish victimhood and Israeli militarism is rarely articulated so clearly. A California native with a lone Jewish grandparent, this tour mate, like almost everyone in my group, was a self-described liberal. “Don’t focus on disagreeing,” she said.

To be sure, several tour mates told me that the Israel they saw on Birthright troubled them, even using words like “segregation” and “apartheid.” One fellow critic, Kelsey Alford-Jones, toured East Jerusalem with me afterward, through the Israeli Committee Against Housing Demolitions. But most of my tour mates experienced what Kelner calls “guide worship.” Voting on the design for our commemorative Birthright T-shirt, one faction favored a massive portrait of Shachar.

A few of my fellow travelers started out supporting a binational state but became convinced on the trip of the necessity of a Jewish state “to protect Judaism.” “Haven’t Jews been through enough that we can just have this sliver of the world?” Josh Schlesinger, then 26, asked me after visiting the Holocaust Museum. “Don’t we deserve it?” By the final night’s sharing circle, nearly everyone said they felt “more Jewish” and vowed to raise their offspring within the tribe.

After the trip, we all became Facebook friends. I was soon tagged in a photo album titled “Thank you, Thai Worker!” Many of my tour mates joined groups in support of Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier captured by Palestinian militants in 2006 and held prisoner in Gaza ever since, and “Israel’s defensive actions against the flotilla” (the IDF assault a year ago against the aid ship Mavi Marmara, in which nine civilians on board were killed).

* * *

“Buy Ahava products,” Megan McLean, an American Birthright support staffer, instructed over the PA. “They’re lovely.” Our Birthright bus was approaching the Ahava factory in the West Bank settlement of Mitzpe Shalem, which our Israeli guide led us to believe was a “kibbutz.” Mitzpe Shalem collectively owns
37 percent of Ahava, which enjoys annual profits of $150 million by illegally exploiting Palestinian Dead Sea resources.

“We have checked it a lot of times. It’s not against the international rules,” Ahava board chairman Arie Kohen assured me over the phone. These days, having up to 10,000 Birthrighters patronizing Ahava each year is no small thing. “When they visit the factory they feel and they take with them the benefits of the Dead Sea,” Kohen said. “Of course it will also make money.”

In the factory gift shop, my tour mates bought armloads of Ahava (“love” in Hebrew) products from the Orthodox settler sales force. Leaving, I bumped into the Birthright guard and banged my shin on her rifle.

We spent the afternoon on the Ahava factory’s private beach, laughing and floating in the Dead Sea, the waters warm and crystalline. Couples slathered each other with mud; women painted smiley faces on their chests. As the Birthright bus pulled out of the Ahava parking lot and onto settler-only roads, the sound of steel drums drifted out over the PA. It was Bob Marley’s “One Love.” We swayed to the music, bound for Jerusalem.

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