Why Ha’aretz Hates Birthright


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.


Defending Sheldon Adelson’s Support for Mitt Romney


By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 8-7-12

In the myopic world of American partisan politics, Democrats are attacking Mitt Romney for daring to take money from Sheldon Adelson, the casino king who organized last week’s fifty-thousand-dollars-a-pop Jerusalem fundraiser and has pumped over ten million dollars from his own pocket into the presumptive Republican nominee’s campaign. But the Romney critics protest too much. “Everyone loves a witch hunt as long as it’s someone else’s witch being hunted,” says the contemporary novelist and prominent ex-Mormon Walter Kirn. These same Democrats are silent when big wigs pump big money into their own favorite candidates’ campaigns.

The attacks on the Romney-Adelson alliance emphasize three major objections. First, Columbia University’s Thomas Edsall wondered in the New York Times this week how Romney, a devout Mormon whose religion abhors gambling, could take money earned from gamblers. Romney should “tell us how he reconciles the values he says he stands for with the basis on which Adelson’s fortune is built,” Edsall preached. Next, Edsall and others have snickered that Romney should be embarrassed to take so much money from Adelson, considering that this billionaire first prolonged Romney’s primary agony by pumping so much money into Newt Gingrich’s campaign.  Finally, the huge amount of money Adelson is spending offends critics, as they scream about plutocrats distorting our politics.

True, in an ideal world, only virtuous endeavors would earn money and the only donors would be saints. In this paradise, alliances would never shift, politicians would always be consistent, and money would be irrelevant to American politics — rather than its lifeblood. But in the real world, donations to very honorable causes often flow in from the rough and tumble universe of business; realists support different candidates as a broad political field narrows; and the American political system has become exceedingly dependent on major fundraisers.

Of course, the dilemmas about money and politics are not new. Decades ago the New Deal humorist Will Rogers joked that “a fool and his money are soon elected,” while the often witty, too frequently twisted novelist and commentator Gore Vidal, who died this week, defined a democracy as “a place where numerous elections are held at great cost without issues and with interchangeable candidates.”

Since Andrew Jackson’s presidential campaign in 1828 — probably the first million-dollar-campaign in American history — so much money has been invested in elections because so much rides on them.  And in a freedom-oriented country like the United States, with ironclad constitutional guarantees protecting free speech, it has been – and will continue to be – difficult to keep money out of politics, just like it proved impossible to keep the Olympics pure from the taint of lucre or commercialism.

The hypocrisy in this debate has more levels than a seven-layer cake. Four years ago, as Republicans screamed about George Soros’s ill-gotten gains, as they protested that billionaire’s outsized impact on the 2008 campaign, few Democrats agreed – or spoke up. And even this year, as Barack Obama seeks to raise funds for what could be the first billion-dollar presidential re-election campaign, I have heard of no restrictions on money coming from casino owners, liquor barons, cigarette manufacturers, producers of Hollywood filth, hedge fund managers, overcharging lawyers, or Wall Street Bankers.

Let’s face it, to most of his critics, Sheldon Adelson’s great crime is supporting the wrong guy, Mitt Romney rather than Barack Obama. Billionaires who support your candidate are altruists doing their civic duty; billionaires who support your opponent are power-hungry bums throwing their financial weight around. The rules stink, but Soros and Adelson have the right to play by those rules, and we usually honor wealthy people who divert some of their resources from personal indulgence to public service.

I confess, I have a soft spot in my heart for Sheldon Adelson. We have never had a real conversation, but as chairman of the Taglit-Birthright Israel international education committee and as a Jewish citizen, I admire his extraordinary generosity in contributing tens of millions to Taglit, financing the first Israel trips of thousands of young Jews, aged 18 to 26 by now. I have heard him speak movingly about his own father’s inability to make it to Israel because he was too poor, and the thrill Adelson has in telling so many young people, “Welcome to Israel.” Other donations he and his wife Dr. Miriam Adelson have made, including to Yad Vashem and their local Las Vegas Jewish community, have impressed and inspired me and many others.

It is also clear to me that Mitt Romney did not support Israel, recognize Jerusalem as the country’s capital, endorse a strong, defiant stance against Iran, or question the economic impact of growing up in a sexist, repressive, authoritarian, anti-capitalist Palestinian culture, because he was following the money. In fact, it seems that Adelson’s money followed the politicians’ lead. The Adelson donation reflects a convergence of Romney’s and Adelson’s views, not any kind of deviation by Mitt Romney of any core principles.

The American democracy which gave the world the phrase “all men are created equal” should not be swayed by individuals who can give presidential candidates a bundle.  But democracies reflect the will of the people and the nature of the culture. The American people have not been sufficiently outraged by this perennial problem to tackle the constitutional or political restrictions. Moreover, the well-financed candidate does not always win, as Mitt Romney is currently learning when assessing public opinion polls.

It is unfair to caricature Sheldon Adelson as a nefarious figure seducing candidates and the American people. Just the opposite. We should praise him as a role model, re-investing some of the money he has made back in his community, his highest ideals, and his country.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Engaging Israel Research Fellow in Jerusalem. The author of “Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today,” his next book, “Moynihan’s Moment: America’s Fight Against Zionism as Racism,” will be published in the fall.

Academics examine Vitamin B10 – Birthright’s secret


By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 5-29-12

Last week, more than 100 academics gathered at Brandeis University to analyze Taglit-Birthright Israel.

Alexandra Wolkoff (left), Hannah Turner (center)

Photo: Ofer Shimoni

Last week, more than 100 academics gathered at Brandeis University’s Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies to analyze an unlikely research subject – Taglit-Birthright Israel.

The formal research confirmed what simple observation of this informal process reveals: This “Mega-Experiment in Jewish Education,” as Professor Len Saxe who convened the conference calls Birthright, has succeeded with more than 300,000 young Jews, thanks to the magic of Israel, an Israel they see through their eyes, not through the distorting lens of conflict-obsessed reporters or angry activists.

But Birthright’s success also stems from its humanistic, person-centered educational philosophy. This approach emphasizes “no strings attached” – meaning no ideological or practical demands in return for what Charles Bronfman calls a gift from one generation to the next. It respects all participants, inviting them to launch their own unique Jewish journeys without the traditional guilt trips, while acknowledging the centrality of Israel and of Jewish peoplehood in building modern Jewish identity.

Birthright’s origins were not just countercultural but counterintuitive. This is a program conceived in failure which easily could have failed. It emerged from the panic generated in the 1990s when the National Jewish Population Survey confirmed that intermarriage was becoming mainstreamed in America. The American Jewish future looked grim.

Birthright was the programmatic equivalent of a cardiac defibrillator, trying to give the ailing Jewish community an emergency healing shock as things turned critical. But thanks to its affirmative, open-ended approach, Birthright has gone from being palliative to preventative. Vitamin B10 – 10 days of a collective Birthright experience trip in Israel – is becoming a Jewish rite of passage, an elegant way to start or restart a Jewish journey, not a desperate, defensive measure against assimilation.

Now it looks easy, but it wasn’t. In the 1990s, philosophers like Francis Fukuyama were declaring “the end of history,” as Miles Trentell, the evil advertising executive on the late 1980s, early 1990s TV hit, Thirty-something scoffed that, to modern Americans, history is last week’s People magazine cover.

In 1995, the Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam published his article (which became a book), “Bowling Alone,” arguing that in a post-collective age, selfish Americans bowled, but not together in leagues as their parents did; this generation bowled alone.

In 1996, the historian David Hollinger’s Postethnic America concluded that Americans were abandoning their tribal connections.

Yet to ahistorical, hyperindividualistic, postethnic Americans – and moderns, because Jews in dozens of countries participate – Birthright offered a sense of the past through Israel’s layers of history, a sense of the group through the peer experience on the bus, and a sense of rootedness through the ethnic, tribal, national Jewish connection.

And participants loved it.

Similarly, Birthright, which the historian Jonathan Sarna notes reflected a new faith in “transformative” educational experiences rather than more normative, less ecstatic “formative” ones, revolutionized assumptions in the Jewish world.

Birthright proved that Judaism could be dynamic and welcoming. Not only has Birthright shown that bold ideas can be game-changers, but it introduced a new, more fluid, more inspiring, less formalistic, less alienating type of Judaism for young Jews to embrace, even without bar mitzvah goodies as bribes.

Birthright proved that Israel could be inspiring and even comforting, a far cry from the embattled, controversial country they see on TV, because not everything is political. And Birthright proved that Zionism, despite its many internal and external enemies, could be cool and relevant.

Birthright reintroduces Judaism to participants as what Rabbi Yitz Greenberg calls “an organizing filter,” a way of understanding the world and themselves. This intense “takeoff” experience “reconnects” young Jews with Jewish tradition, even while acting as what Jeffrey Solomon of the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies called a “disruptive technology,” meaning an innovative, unconventional, cutting-edge program.

Birthright Israel’s core educational principles, drafted by one of the greats of modern Jewish education, Professor Barry Chazan, offer a quilted theory – meaning an integrated platform – combining an experiential approach, a culture of values, a culture of ideas, person-centered education, social interactionism and the concept of fun – in a respectful, constructive context which measures outcomes.

It has created a process which respects every participant’s intelligence, independence and integrity – only asking them to participate constructively, then draw their own conclusions.

The central challenge facing modern American Jews is not anti-Semitism, nor is it defending Israel. It is answering such basic questions as “who am I,” “what are my values,” “how do I build a meaningful life” and “where does Judaism fit in”? As chairman of Birthright Israel’s International Education Committee, I confess that the bigger Birthright gets the harder we have to work to help participants answer those questions effectively by staying small, intimate and person-centered.

We never want to become the “educational McDonald’s” of the Jewish people, mass producing one-size-fits-all fast food-type experiences. Instead, we seek to cultivate a modern, open-air, experiential Beit Midrash (House of Study), wherein each individual may follow the same itinerary, but, in a true I-thou educational interaction, grows in a particular way that works for him or her.

Jeffrey Solomon asked: will Taglit be like Apple or HP – continuing to innovate or so addicted to past success we stagnate.

From the start, Birthright has invested in research, guaranteeing constant and accurate feedback, while yielding results – ably analyzed by Len Saxe and his Brandeis team – proving that the experience encourages Jews to marry each other, raises Israel awareness, deepens Jewish connectedness, and is lots of fun.

Conferences like this one, assembling educators, rabbis, historians, demographers, anthropologists, sociologists, even an economist, will keep Birthright sharp, keep it innovating, even as its essential fuel remains the delightfully combustible combination of Jewish tradition, an open-ended approach, passionate educators, and a generation seeking meaning in life and a more dynamic Judaism than the one their parents introduced to them.

Gil Troy is professor of history at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Engaging Israel Research Fellow in Jerusalem. The author of Why I Am a Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today, he is the chairman of the Taglit-Birthright Israel International Education Committee.

Gil Troy: JTA Letter to the Editor “On respecting Birthright participants”


By Gil Troy, JTA, 4-18-12

On respecting Birthright participants

To the Editor:

Birthright Israel has succeeded by allowing more than 300,000 young Jews to experience Israel’s magic directly, not through the distorting lens of conflict-obsessed reporters. But Birthright’s success also reflects its humanistic, person-centered educational philosophy.

This approach bears repeating to counter the false impression of the JTA article reporting on a debate between Peter Beinart and Barry Shrage, the president of Boston’s Combined Jewish Philanthropies. Describing the popular mifgash meeting program with Israeli soldiers, Shrage added that for Birthrighters, “Their next major decision may be what fraternity they’re going to join; the Israeli’s decision is whether they’re going to live or die in a special unit.” One student, Emily Unger responded,  “If that’s the attitude of people running Birthright, that the most important thing I’m thinking about is what fraternity to join, that explains why it wasn’t a program run as if I could think like an intelligent person.”

I understand Unger’s anger. No one wants to be dismissed as a mindless party animal. So let me be clear: We at Birthright respect all our participants and understand the serious dilemmas they face. The program invites 18- to 26-year-olds because we understand that it is the age of great decision-making, requiring clear values — and time to think.

Birthright Israel’s core educational principles provide a quilted theory — an integrated platform – combining an experiential approach, a culture of values, a culture of ideas, person-centered education, social interactionism and fun. We respect each participant’s intelligence, independence and integrity, only asking them to participate constructively and then draw their own conclusions.

Barry Shrage knows this. He has been one of the pioneers in the identity-building revolution sweeping the Jewish world. He was humbly acknowledging the life-and-death choices Israelis make – and American students’ good fortune in not having to make that choice.

Gil Troy
Professor, McGill University
Chairman, International Education Committee, Birthright Israel