Birthright Israel… on second thought

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Over the past year Jewish philanthropist Sheldon Adelson, ranked by Forbes as the fifth richest person in the world, has provided a series of major donations for worthy causes in Israel.

Last month he announced a contribution of $30 million toward this year’s Taglit-birthright israel program, which provides free package tours to Israel enabling 18-25-year-old Diaspora Jewish young adults to enjoy a 10-day Israel experience, meaning an intensive yet recreational educational exposure to the Jewish state.

Adelson’s contribution, which will probably be maintained as an annual donation, will lift the current birthright israel budget to over $76 million per annum. It will also motivate other philanthropists to make contributions, thus enabling virtually every Diaspora Jewish young adult so desiring to participate in the project.

Taglit-birthright was launched seven years ago. The concept had its genesis with Yossi Beilin, who at the time was engaging himself in Israel-Diaspora relations. He had made a series of recommendations, including bizarre suggestions about introducing secular conversions to balance the demographic impact of the burgeoning intermarriage levels. Yet the most constructive and innovative component of his program was a recommendation to raise sufficient funds to provide free trips to Israel for every Jewish youngster.

A number of prominent American Jewish philanthropists, led by Michael Steinhardt and Charles Bronfman, deeply concerned about escalating intermarriage and assimilation in their communities, adopted the concept. The project was subsequently endorsed by various Jewish communities.

AND HERE I wish to utter words of repentance. When birthright israel was initially launched in 1999, I wrote an op-ed in this paper (“Only in America!” November 8, 1999) arguing that “It is inconceivable that a 10-day trip can be the jump-off point for creating newly committed Jews.”
I suggested that allocating such huge funds for junkets was demeaning to Israel and would also convey the wrong message about what it means to be Jewish. I expressed concern that as the amount of funding available to promote projects for enhancing Jewish identity was finite, concentrating such a vast proportion of our fundraising toward providing holiday packages to Israel was not only unwarranted, but reflected an absence of strategic planning and prioritization in allocating budgets.

I suggested that at least half of the $2,000 per head for a 10-day freebie be diverted toward additional subsidies for olim, with a view to promoting further Western aliya.

TODAY, SIX YEARS later, I recant, at least to the extent that initial reviews indicate there is an added value return to the Jewish people. In other words, the money is well spent.
In saying this I dismiss the over-zealous enthusiasts who euphorically proclaim that birthright has brought about a Jewish renaissance.

It is absurd to envisage that a 10-day vacation could possibly overcome the fundamental problems of intermarriage and assimilation confronting Jews in the United States and other Western countries.
But now, with the benefit of hindsight, I feel impelled to concede that my initial criticisms were flawed because I had vastly underestimated the positive repercussions of birthright.
Since its inception in 2000, birthright has provided over 120,000 Jewish young people between the ages of 18-25 with an opportunity to visit Israel. Many of them would otherwise never have been here.

Birthright demonstrated that despite the scandals and unpalatable aspects of Israel society currently dominating the global media, even a brief first visit to the Jewish state remains a dazzling experience for a Diaspora Jewish youngster.

And while one should not exaggerate, it would appear that for most of the young adults participating, a visit to Israel as part of a group seems to have assumed the status of a rite of passage. The emotional sparks generating Jewish consciousness may indeed be transitory. But to many participants the visit has, at least temporarily, strengthened their relationship to the Jewish people and enhanced their Jewish identity.

It also undoubtedly reinforces the inclination of those subsequently attending universities and campuses dominated by pro-Arab forces to more effectively resist onslaughts against Israel and the Jewish people.

MY PREFERENCE is to encourage the expansion of projects of longer duration, like the one-year Jewish Agency-sponsored Masa programs, which are more heavily geared toward serious cultural and educational activity. However, birthright has undoubtedly proven successful as a stand-alone project.

As to funding, I suggest that we are still faced with a dilemma. Setting aside the $30 million provided by Adelson, $20 million comes from private donors, $7 million from the UJC and $20 million from the Israel government.
The benefit to Israel from tourist consumer spending by the presence of thousands of young people during off-season periods may well justify the investment. But there is something inherently wrong with an Israeli government that has insufficient funds to cope with the problem of poverty among its citizens providing $20 million from its coffers to pay for free trips to young people, most of who come from affluent communities, and in some individual cases even from wealthy families.

I know that the philanthropists look upon the Israeli financial commitment as a matter of principle. I disagree. This is the only aspect of birthright which rankles and could still be perceived as morally questionable. In my view, it reflects adversely on Diaspora Jews, on whose behalf the project has been created, not on the contributors or the program itself, both of whom should be unequivocally commended.

BIRTHRIGHT is no magic bullet against assimilation. But clearly even a fleeting exposure to the achievements of the Jewish state does create a window of opportunity for strengthening Jewish identity. The birthright experience also demonstrates that during a period of rapid assimilation and breakdown of Jewish values, in the absence of a genuine Jewish education, Israel today still remains by far the most important element maintaining Jewish identity.
The real impact of birthright will therefore largely be related to the effectiveness of the follow-up after the visits to Israel. That will determine whether an Israel experience will succeed in bringing about a long-term strengthening of Jewish identity and future involvement in Jewish life.

The writer chairs the Diaspora-Israel Relations Committee of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and is a veteran international Jewish leader.
ileibler@netvision.net.il



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