The Ten-Day Romance

A survey of non-Orthodox American Jews found that 18-35 year-olds are less supportive of Israel’s actions vis-à-vis the Palestinians than their parents’ generation is, but are nonetheless more attached to Israel. Steven Cohen, who conducted this survey, hypothesizes that this is largely attributable to Birthright, which has sent 300,000 Jews to Israel since 2000. If this correlation is indeed causation, those of us who have spent much of our adult Jewish lives the past few years hating on Birthright need to reevaluate our position.

Sandra Korn, a Harvard student who went on Birthright, eloquently states what had been my view on Birthright ever since I knew what it was:

Birthright’s idea of engaging with Israel means supporting an illegal and oppressive military occupation… and decrying all Arabs collectively for their hateful terrorist tactics… Birthright is firmly entrenched in right-wing rhetoric, from racism to militarism. If liberal American supporters of Israel truly hope for their children to engage with global Jewish politics in a meaningful way, they should stop sending them on a trip to Israel called “Birthright” and start teaching critical thinking about the role of Jews in promoting justice around the world.

But these new statistics indicate that this is not the case. Birthright participants are engaging with Israel “in a meaningful way.” Korn herself is an example of this—she has gone on Birthright, and after some critical thinking she chose to write an article critical of the racist and militarist aspects of the country. Hopefully, she will continue to think about Israel—in a thoughtful, critical way.

Perhaps we should have more faith in the ability of the youth who go on Birthright trips to learn about Israel and think about it after their trip. Nearly all of them have internet access; Birthright is not their only source of information on the region. Jews are politically active, with 80% under the age of 35 registered to vote and 25% defined as “politically active.” Jewish voting turnout in 2008 was 96%, compared with a national turnout of 62%. It is clear that American Jews do not suffer from a lack of political involvement, suggesting that they are aware of their political environment and are no strangers to news sources.

The American Jewish left (I hate this phrase—what does it mean?) should welcome Birthright’s existence because the program succeeds where it fails: it creates a bond between non-Orthodox Jewish youth and Israel. It succeeds because its organizers realize that we, as humans, can’t love something or someone if we are not, at first, blind to its faults. People eventually realize that their parents are flawed—after many years of believing they are perfect. The same is often true for relationships with lovers and friends; by the time we realize their faults, we are too emotionally involved to leave because of them. Birthright walks American Jews who are strangers to Israel through this initial stage of falling in love.

It doesn’t work for everyone. Ten days are hardly enough to build a deep, enduring connection. But they are also not long enough to replace the liberal values of most participants with the racism and militarism Korn noted. Birthright can and should be done without activities like “posing for a picture atop on old tank, shouting, ‘Israeli power!’” as Korn records. But in light of Cohen’s survey, I have resolved to be less hysterical about Birthright and more grateful for its existence—and I look forward to seeing what the fledgling Palestinian version entails.