Commentary Magazine


Topic: Birthright Israel

A Disgraceful Smear: Blaming Judaism for Israel’s Fallen

I wasn’t planning on writing about Slate senior editor Allison Benedikt’s deeply ignorant screed against Israel this morning, both because of discomfort with rewarding click-trolling and because it was so obviously abhorrent that by the time I got around to it (the piece was posted last night) I would just be repeating others. But I think an important point is still being missed.

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I wasn’t planning on writing about Slate senior editor Allison Benedikt’s deeply ignorant screed against Israel this morning, both because of discomfort with rewarding click-trolling and because it was so obviously abhorrent that by the time I got around to it (the piece was posted last night) I would just be repeating others. But I think an important point is still being missed.

The piece centers on Max Steinberg, a “lone soldier” in the Israel Defense Forces who was killed by terrorists in Gaza this week. Steinberg is from Los Angeles, and after attending a Birthright Israel trip, felt connected enough to make aliyah. He joined the IDF. Benedikt strings these basic facts together and comes up with a creative, and thoroughly repugnant, theory: Birthright shares the blame in Steinberg’s death.

Here’s the crux of Benedikt’s case. You’ll notice two problems:

Though most trip alumni do not join the IDF (Birthright’s spokeswoman told me they don’t keep track), to do so seems like the ultimate fulfillment of Birthright’s mission—the ultimate expression of a Jew’s solidarity with Israel is to take up arms to defend it.

The first is that she leaps to quite a conclusion while admitting she has no data to back it up, as the Times of Israel’s Haviv Rettig Gur notes:

Let me help. The answer is “exceedingly few.” Fewer than 3,000 Americans make aliyah each year across all age groups — from a community of six million Jews. Only a few hundred are young adults, and only a fraction of these (excluding religious women, health problems, anyone over 26, among others) join the IDF.

Then there are those who join the IDF without becoming Israeli citizens via a program known as Mahal, a program that predates Birthright by decades. Hundreds of Mahal soldiers fought in Israel’s Independence War in 1948. Max was a Mahal soldier, one of an estimated 400 young people from English-speaking countries who join the IDF each year through Mahal to serve a shorter service of 1.5 years instead of 3. While Mahal fighters number in the hundreds, only a fraction could have been Birthright participants. At least one-third are classified by the army (based on their own self-identification) as “religious,” meaning that they had been raised in religious educational frameworks, and thus are unlikely to have gone on Birthright. Most Jewish religious schools take their students to Israel during high school, making them ineligible for free college-age Birthright trips.

But the focus on the data misses the other problem with Benedikt’s essay. Benedikt doesn’t have the data on Birthright alumni joining the IDF because she doesn’t need or want it. She’s making a more philosophical argument. She’s saying Birthright connects Jews to Israel, and the “ultimate expression” of this connection must be, in Benedikt’s mind, to pick up a gun and put on a uniform.

The real clue to why Benedikt’s piece is so repulsive is her closing. She writes:

You spend hundreds of millions of dollars to convince young Jews that they are deeply connected to a country that desperately needs their support? This is what you get.

Now we’re getting somewhere. It’s not about Birthright per se. It’s about connecting Jews to their ancient homeland–their historical identity, in other words. And that connection, if successful, leads–not always, but logically, in Benedikt’s mind–to Steinberg’s tragic end. “This is what you get,” she says. War, death–this is what happens when you help Jews connect to a crucial part of Jewish life, history, practice, and identity.

It’s not Birthright that killed Max Steinberg, in Benedikt’s telling. It’s Judaism. Compartmentalize your Judaism by separating yourself from the global Jewish community and from Eretz Yisrael–keep your people’s history hidden–and you should be OK. “Maybe Max was especially lost, or especially susceptible, or maybe he was just looking to do some good and became convinced by his Birthright experience that putting on an IDF uniform and grabbing a gun was the way to do it,” Benedikt offers, trying to explain Steinberg’s Zionism by ascribing it to mental weakness, to emotional instability, or to a moral naïveté that his fellow Jews took advantage of.

To teach a Jew about his people and his history, according to Benedikt, is to play a dangerous game. And this, she says, pointing to the death of a 24-year-old soldier, is what happens; “This is what you get.”

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An Absurd Attack on Birthright, Sheldon Adelson, and Jewish Identity

Several years ago, a spokesman for the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office visited U.S. chapters of the Jewish Federations of North America to talk to American Jews about their relationship to Israel. In a press avail, I had asked him what was Israel’s single greatest need from Diaspora Jewry. His response, which is always the response to that question, was: them. That is, what Israel wanted most from American Jews was for American Jews to move to Israel. Aliyah is the lifeblood of the Jewish state, as Israeli officials commonly and persistently phrase it.

Immigration has been a great economic and cultural blessing to the State of Israel. And so has tourism from abroad, which generates billions a year in revenue, much of which helps pay the salaries of workers at the lower end of the economic spectrum who work in industries that depend on tourism to survive. American Jews’ engagement with and connection to Israel is thus vital to maintain, not only for economic reasons but also to ensure international support for Israel and push back against the Jewish state’s isolation.

All of which makes this op-ed in Haaretz among the most asinine, self-defeating columns in recent memory–an impressive feat, since the competition for such distinction in Haaretz alone is vigorous.

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Several years ago, a spokesman for the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office visited U.S. chapters of the Jewish Federations of North America to talk to American Jews about their relationship to Israel. In a press avail, I had asked him what was Israel’s single greatest need from Diaspora Jewry. His response, which is always the response to that question, was: them. That is, what Israel wanted most from American Jews was for American Jews to move to Israel. Aliyah is the lifeblood of the Jewish state, as Israeli officials commonly and persistently phrase it.

Immigration has been a great economic and cultural blessing to the State of Israel. And so has tourism from abroad, which generates billions a year in revenue, much of which helps pay the salaries of workers at the lower end of the economic spectrum who work in industries that depend on tourism to survive. American Jews’ engagement with and connection to Israel is thus vital to maintain, not only for economic reasons but also to ensure international support for Israel and push back against the Jewish state’s isolation.

All of which makes this op-ed in Haaretz among the most asinine, self-defeating columns in recent memory–an impressive feat, since the competition for such distinction in Haaretz alone is vigorous.

There are few things that bother the Western press more than wealthy people and national or religious pride. So you can imagine the outrage when Sheldon Adelson, the wealthy Jewish philanthropist and funder of Birthright Israel, a program to provide trips to Israel for young Jews, met with Israeli Finance Minister Yair Lapid to request that Israel not slash funding for the program. Haaretz’s Itay Ziv fumes:

As the finance minister sees matters, there is nothing political about a decision to allocate NIS 150 million for a showcase project whose direct beneficiaries are citizens of a different country, most of them financially well-off. Even if the elderly had to pay a fee of NIS 35 per month for a caregiver to finance it — a measure that will bring millions of shekels into the state coffers — or cut back special aid to local authorities in the Druze and Circassian sectors by almost half, saving the state about NIS 30.6 million, or imposing any other cutback on the financially weak, minorities and others who cannot arrange a meeting with the finance minister any time they please to free up the tens of millions of shekels that the Birthright program needs so badly. For Lapid, it’s not political — even if it means giving a foreign billionaire who meddles in local politics on a daily basis anything he wants, no strings attached.

This is a pretty good example of how to get everything about a subject exactly wrong. As the Jewish Week reports, a recent survey of non-Orthodox Birthright alumni at least six years after the trip showed that participants are 42 percent more likely to feel “very much” connected to Israel and “Nearly 30 percent of participants have returned to Israel on subsequent trips, with 2 percent currently living there.” Birthright’s influence should not be oversold, but it’s pretty clear the program moves the needle in the right direction on virtually any issue of import to Israel’s relationship with the Diaspora.

Ziv’s opinion of the individual winners and losers on this issue also seems mistaken. Very often budgeting is viewed as a zero-sum game, but that’s a simplistic misunderstanding of the complex process of how each ministry and department’s allocations are earmarked each year. It also doesn’t take into account the fact that the employment benefits of Israeli immigration and tourism accrue to hotel workers, tour guides, food service workers, etc.

And Ziv may have access to information I don’t, but I’m not quite sure how he concludes that “most of” the program’s “direct beneficiaries” are “financially well-off.” I know many Birthright alumni (though I never went on the trip myself), none of whom is wealthy–nor did Birthright even inquire about such things when they applied. That does not appear to have changed; financial background is not included among the eligibility criteria. It also defies logic, since those who want to travel to Israel but cannot otherwise afford it would be naturally drawn to Birthright.

But it’s possible I’m giving too much credit to Ziv. At the end of his column, he declares Israel’s decision to continue funding Birthright to be “an act whose purpose is to take from the poor and give to a foreign billionaire”–something Ziv cannot possibly believe, since it is so obviously untrue. Lapid may be new to the Finance Ministry, but he clearly understands economics better than his loathsome critics in the leftist media.

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