Why Ha’aretz Hates Birthright

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 8-14-12

Taglit Birthright Israel remains “the most successful project in the Jewish world,” according to the chair of its steering committee, Minister Yuli Edelstein. The Birthright Bump has helped young American Jews grow “More attached to Israel” and “marry in.” Even “Young Israeli Jews get [a] Jewish identity boost” when they participate in the program. Birthright “covers all the bases” by bringing in Jewish baseball players for special trips, and has reaffirmed that one effective way to a Jew’s heart is through the stomach, with a special culinary trip for chefs. And, of course, again and again, the love bug bites and blossoms into a lasting Zionist charm as “American girl meets Israeli soldier and stays.”

I learned all this by reading articles published in the news section of Ha’aretz over the last two years. Unfortunately, the Ha’aretz opinion pages offer a different spin. There, readers learn that “Birthright Israel tours are insulting young Jew’s intelligence” with “sanitized infantile content spoon-fed” to them; that “the Birthright model is consumer-based,” peddling “Israel and Jewish peoplehood” to these willing dupes; that it serves as “a gateway drug of sorts – in which customers consume the environment and programming around them”; and that Birthright purports to be apolitical but in exposing these young innocents of “Taglitistan” to “Jewtopia” by “carefully avoid[ing]” the “Arab-Israeli conflict, socioeconomic divisions and the ethnic and religious rifts within Israel,” a manipulative right-wing agenda is being advanced, seductively, secretly.

This gap between the facts reported and the opinions offered is symptomatic of Ha’aretz’s worldview, reflecting a general problem afflicting the Israeli and Jewish left. They take the modern media compulsion to bash, to criticize, to mock, to a pathological, self-destructive extreme. Taglit has become such a juicy target because it so successful. It ruins the reigning self-critical leftist story lines. It proves that young Jews are not alienated from Israel. It proves that Israel has not become an embarrassment to modern Jews. It proves that Israel is not only not a failure, a disappointment, an oppressor but remains a source of fascination, pride and inspiration for most participants on these now iconic ten-day trips.

To make matters worse for our perpetual cynics, Birthright Israel succeeds by not propagandizing, by not being an advocacy trip, and by being rooted in a sophisticated educational model that is person-centered, non-partisan, substantive, sensitive, broad-ranging, and thought-provoking, with its famous guarantee: “no strings attached.” The program invites young Jews to launch their own, personal, Jewish journeys rather than imposing a one-size-fits-all worldview. In fact, neither the heavy-handed, ideological, hidden-agenda-driven, propagandistic program nor the round-the-clock sex-drugs-and-rock-n’-roll idiocy the cynics claim to see would work with this generation of smart, savvy, skeptical, and serious students.

This is not to say that Birthright Israel is a sober graduate seminar. It is a fun, experiential, ten-day trip for 18 to 26 year olds. It cannot undo the party culture that is a fact of university and twenty-something life. But it strives to offer alternatives to the failing, enervating, exasperating, guilt-ridden, hidebound, hierarchical, superficial, soporific and materialistic Jewish experiences that have turned off so many young Jews today.

Ultimately, Birthright Israel’s true secret to success remains Israel itself. The gap between the distorted version of the Israel story most visitors bring to Ben-Gurion airport, and the different country they experience transforms millions every year from Israel skeptics or agnostics to Israel enthusiasts. Even with all its challenges, Israel’s mix of surprisingly normal, familiar, orderly, safe Western-style life with its charmingly offbeat, old-new, Jewish yet cosmopolitan, Zionist but not doctrinaire character continues to entrance.

That is at the heart of the Ha’aretz beef with Birthright.

Birthright shows that Israel is not just a bundle of problems and that those who see Israel solely through the lens of the Palestinian conflict have myopic vision. Israel – and Birthright – are considered exceedingly political because a relentless, delegitimizing propagandistic campaign has tried to make everything about Israel political. When an organization educates about Israel with a minimum of partisan posturing, when it unites right-leaning funders like Sheldon Adelson with left-leaning funders like Charles Bronfman and Lynn Schusterman, when it creates a conversational space that acknowledges problems and sees some ugliness but also toasts successes and appreciates the enduring beauty, it repudiates the Is-crits’ Johnny-one-note approach, it normalizes Israel, and yes, it also celebrates Israel, unapologetically, not neurotically.

The Israeli and Jewish left has yet to learn the lesson that both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama mastered to get elected. In a proud, functioning democracy, valid political positions, important self-critiques, and valuable ideological challenges, can best be heard by dissenting optimistic patriots not seemingly self-hating sourpusses. As president, Obama has struggled to find the right balance. Candidate Obama spoke eloquently during his 2008 “Hope and Change” campaign about the failure of many 1960s radicals to convey their love of country while trying to reform it. Yet President Obama has sometimes foolishly, and self-destructively, made too many apologies for American foreign policy, going too far to validate the Blame America First crowd.

Especially since the hopes of Oslo degenerated into the horrors of Palestinian terrorism, the enduring animus of the Blame Israel First, Last, and Always crowd has sabotaged some important messages that the Israeli left should be broadcasting. Critics of Israel need to be heard, for example, raising moral issues about the cost of controlling millions of unwilling Palestinians. They would be heard better if they acknowledged the toxic impact of Palestinian negationism and violence on Israel’s peacemaking efforts. Broader critiques of Israel and Zionism would also resonate better if some Israeli and Zionist successes – like Birthright Israel – could also be respected, appreciated, cheered – and then criticized carefully, constructively and lovingly in those areas where improvements are still needed.

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