On Birthright

Posted on June 22, 2011

Kiera Feldman told me the idea for her excellent journalistic foray into Birthright was conceived in January 2009, which, oddly, is also the month when I recall first being troubled by the social implications of a program that grants thousands of American Jews free trips to Israel on the basis of their ethnicity.

I was staying with a friend in Washington D.C. for Barack Obama’s inauguration, and one night a group of us got to talking about Israel’s invasion of the Gaza strip, which had just concluded. More than 900 civilians were killed in the bombardment. I decided to express an unfavorable opinion of the Israeli government’s actions, suggesting that Operation Cast Lead was a strategic and moral blunder.

A young woman who was party to the conversation became so incensed at my remarks that she began to cry. Did I understand the psychological toll that the constant threat of rocket attacks had taken on the children of Ashkelon? What gave me (as a non-Jew) the right, she asked with escalating strain in her voice, to tell Israel how it should go about protecting Israeli citizens? Did I have even the slightest appreciation for the Jewish people’s long history of suffering? How dare I do this? And then came the kicker: I must be an antisemite.

Turned out that just weeks earlier, the woman had returned from a Birthright trip. During the run-up to the conflict, she bonded with IDF soldiers at checkpoints across the country. This was only days before Cast Lead commenced. As our discussion went on, the woman recounted how deep a connection her group had made with the military personnel. Her eyes welled.

Right then.

Now, I won’t say that you’d only be warped enough to support Israel’s incursion into Gaza if you’d been flitting around with the very combatants who were about to wage the war; I certainly remember lots of people arguing it was a justified act on a number of fronts. And I can’t necessarily say that this woman’s intense reaction to my mild rebuke was representative of everyone who takes the complimentary 10-day jaunt.

But the episode did seem symbolic of something, and I was left perplexed as to why Birthright — which is really a very strange phenomenon, once you think about it — hadn’t been subjected to any notable scrutiny in public fora. Prior to January 2009, for me, it was just one of those peripheral issues that I vaguely suspected had problematic sociopolitical consequences, but because so many people in my trusted social circle were participants or prospective participants, it somehow never fully activated my faculty of critical analysis.

So I began to suss out some thoughts, and eventually discovered what really irked me about the whole thing: A particular group of people, bound together by nothing aside from the accident of common lineage, are offered trips worth thousands of dollars for no real reason other than that… they managed to be born? Incidentally, the term Birthright itself is just creepy. But there’s a deeper objection here. Attendees are not required to demonstrate any commitment to Jewish culture, or interest in their ancestral roots, or concern for the modern state of Israel. No, all the relevant criteria for admittance were satisfied on the day of their birth.

I find something viscerally unsettling about that sort of mindset. The organizers must assume that because your parents exhibited Jewish ethnic traits, you are especially primed to harbor warm feelings toward a particular nation-state, and that your inborn qualities entitle you to special privileges. You are uniquely ordained to visit this land, for reasons over which you had no control; you were prenatally deemed a worthy recipient of these wealthy benefactors’ largess.

And that this should be the ambition of powerful Jews makes it even more depressing. Of all the ethnic minorities who have endured subjugation throughout history, Jews should be most indelibly aware of how tribalistic stratification — and there’s no other way to describe this — is one of the basest of human impulses. It leads to conflict and should be avoided whenever possible. Yet the central aim of Birthright is to stoke tribalistic sentiments, in part by encouraging procreation among Jews.

I have to infer that the organizers view procreation between Jews and non-Jews as somehow less than desirable. What other conclusion can one draw from the logic of this? And furthermore, what century are we living in? Why is that still some vaunted aspiration? And in what other instance would a quest to sustain ethnic purity be tolerated?

When I explain my opinion of this to people, I’m usually asked something like “But what about all these other ethnic minorities and their racially exclusionary organizations?” My answer is that I’m against them in theory. I don’t like the idea of racially exclusionary organizations. But I can recognize that for some minorities, the need to preserve cultural heritage through collective match-making is more understandable. Like, for minorities who are currently facing widespread persecution. But that would not describe American Jews in the New York Metropolitan area.

I guess I should add a disclaimer here: I know many people who have had moving and memorable experiences on Birthright. Unfortunately, because neither of my parents are Jewish, I’m barred from seeing why they feel that way.

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