Tomorrow, Taglit-Birthright Israel will dedicate the partially restored ruins of an 1,800-year-old synagogue in Arbel National Park in memory of Max Steinberg. There, overlooking the Galilee and the Golan, future Birthright participants who wish to get bar or bat mitzvahed or celebrate a Hebrew naming will have meaningful experiences, reviving this magnificent old new space while honoring someone just like them.
In 2012, Max was a 22-year-old Californian who first tasted Israel’s excitement and Judaism’s depth on a 10-day Birthright trip. Inspired, he volunteered for the Israeli army. Last summer, Max’s renewed Jewish journey was ended abruptly, tragically, when Hamas terrorists killed him and 12 other Golani soldiers.
Those who drink the far Left’s anti-Zionist Kool-Aid love to bash Birthright – whose success among young, hip Jews threatens their false narrative claiming that young Westerners are abandoning Israel. This summer, while celebrating a half-million overwhelmingly happy Birthright Israel graduates, I regret that I feel compelled not only to hail Birthright but to defend it.
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Last week, yet another Ha’aretz hit job falsely claimed Birthright was “associated with the American political right” because Sheldon Adelson sponsors the program.
How silly. Does having male donors make Hillary Clinton a man? What about Birthright sponsors like Lynn Schusterman and Charles Bronfman, who are “associated” with the Israeli Left, or Michael Steinhardt, who chaired the centrist Democratic Leadership Council? Admittedly, too much Israel education these days is reactive, defensive, directive, trying to recruit, convince, enlist.
Birthright works because of the Zen of Birthright, the authentic, educational insight that less is more. Birthright invites young Jewish adults to launch their own Jewish journeys with a peer trip to Israel. A defining principle is “no strings attached.” True to its name, Birthright is about ownership.
Respecting each participant’s integrity, Taglit says: follow your own muse, evaluate these 10 days in the context of the 8,000 or so other days you have lived, then trailblaze your own identities. Birthright’s most transformational moments come from within, not without, when participants have that “aha” moment realizing there’s more to Israel than the militarized garrison presented on the news and more to Judaism than the flaccid faith often presented by their families.
TRUST THE process. The more Israel speaks for itself, the more Judaism speaks for itself, the more young idealistic, meaning-seeking Jews will shape their own Jewish identities, often using Israel as an anchor. This open-ended welcoming Jewish journey works better than traditional Jewish guilt trips. Birthright alumni are more likely to build Jewish families, support Israel enthusiastically and join in developing a new, exciting, modern Jewish identity that works for them – and their friends.
As an introductory trip, Israel 101, Birthright avoids partisanship without ignoring politics. It is educationally unsound and unfair to plunge into partisanship before establishing some foundations about Israel, Zionism and Judaism. Dr. Zohar Raviv, Taglit’s international vice president of education, explains that “it is vital to demonstrate to our participants that the equation ‘Jew + Arab’ doesn’t always equal ‘Conflict.’ There are myriad examples in Israel wherein Jews and Arabs join hands to promote mutual initiatives whose goal is to promote coexistence and partnership! These human landscapes unfortunately don’t make it to the foreign media.”
Birthright teaches about the conflict and, not the conflict only, defying the hyper-politicization critics from the far Left and Right demand.
Birthright creates a safe, comfortable, open space for participants with diverse religious and political opinions to share a common experience – and have fun together.
Birthright’s educational platform emphasizes active experiential learning, fostering an integrated culture of values and ideas rooted in a communal encounter that is emotionally engaging, intellectually challenging, and enjoyable.
These are the keywords in Birthright’s education documents, that no critic has ever bothered interviewing me about in all my years voluntarily chairing the Birthright Israel Education Committee.
Nevertheless, critics caricature Birthright as this master manipulator offering idiotic young Jews a Zionist line they are too stupid to resist. Critics impute near-magical powers to one 10-day trip, treating half a million hip, savvy, skeptical 18-to-26-year-old participants as suckers. The logical explanation for Birthright’s popularity – including Max Steinberg’s own personal process – stems from deep ties young Jews feel to the Jewish people and the notion that Israel, when experienced directly, remains appealing.
Alas, totalitarian leftists have become so deeply anti-Israel, so obsessively anti-Zionist, they cannot see any subtlety in Zionist education, or acknowledge anything good in the Jewish state. When anti-Israel zealots confronted Israelis’ progressive support for gay rights, contrary to Palestinian and Islamist homophobia, they concocted the “pinkwashing” libel. Better to imagine that Israel deceitfully respects LGBTQ rights only to perfume attacks on Palestinians than to struggle with the tensions of a liberal democratic country forced to fight fascistic, homophobic, sexist, religious totalitarians seeking its destruction. Similarly, when anti-Zionist fanatics confront Israel’s appeal to many of their peers, they decide their friends have been brainwashed rather than being introduced to the real country, which young Jews embrace enthusiastically, autonomously.
On campuses today, gays embrace homosexuality, women embrace feminism, Hispanics embrace Latino identity, blacks embrace African-American identity, yet when Jews embrace their Jewish or Zionist identities, they are called provincial, tribal, xenophobic, or racist. Why are other identity processes legitimate while parallel Zionist and Jewish processes are mocked? Birthright has thrived by introducing young Jews to fresh, rich, open and inviting Jewish and Israeli experiences which help address many Millennials’ search for meaning individually and quest to contribute communally.
Gidi Mark, Taglit-Birthright Israel’s CEO, says that “what we most honor about Max Steinberg is how he lived – accepting Birthright’s challenging invitation to join a half million other alumni in making their own choices, launching their own Jewish journeys, finding their own paths to meaning and fulfillment.”
May his and his fallen comrades’ memories be blessed.The writer is the author of The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s, to be published by Thomas Dunne Books/St.
Martin’s Press in October 2015. A professor of history at McGill University, he will be a Visiting Scholar at the Brookings Institution in the fall. His previous book was the award-winning Moynihan’s Moment: America’s Fight Against Zionism as Racism. Follow on Twitter @GilTroy. The views expressed here are the writer’s alone.