By Adam Horowitz
Last week the Nation ran a wonderful piece by Kiera Feldman taking a critical look at Birthright Israel. She also recorded a fascinating (although somewhat cringe inducing) podcast to accompany the piece which is definitely worth listening to as well. Over the past few days I’ve interviewed Feldman over email about the piece and some of the broader implications of her reporting on the state of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the American Jewish community.
Adam Horowitz: Something that you don’t delve into in the article, but I found myself thinking about, is the demographic hysteria in Israel today and how that’s connected to the overarching concern behind Birthright – “continuity” in the American Jewish community (i.e. Jews marrying Jews and having Jewish babies). You say in your piece that “early Zionism, too, was marked by alarm over intermarriage and demographic decline,” but I think I would take out “early.” My gut feeling is that this has been a focus since the beginning and is most likely a hallmark of all early 20th century nationalisms. I think it’s an interesting connection to think about – the obsession with demography whether in the context of a state building project, or communal longevity in the US. It feels all connected, but I’m not exactly seeing it.
Kiera Feldman: It is easy to laugh off the American Jewish community’s obsession with “continuity” as mere titillation: Jewish babymaking as punch line. But in Israel, Jewish demographic fear achieves its full expression.
In Eros and the Jews, historian David Biale notes early Zionism’s demographic obsession was no different than other late 19th century European nationalisms. As for today, I also struggle to properly connect the dots between diaspora Jewish demographic fear and the “demographic threat” in the Jewish state, where the very bodies of non-Jews are seen as endangering the national Jewish body. The “Judaization” of East Jerusalem, the Galilee, and the Negev—that’s “continuity” in action. Looking eastward helps remind us that blood purity drives “continuity” concerns. The logical extension of this tribal fear is a policy of separation, containment and state violence against minority populations.
Take the Bedouin village of Al Araqib: In March, the Israeli military destroyed the village for the 21st time. Al Araquib was slated to be “Judaized” with a Jewish National Fund forest; official Israeli land settlement policy in the Negev is to concentrate Bedouins in state-constructed Bedouin ghettos.
AH: I came away from your piece thinking the Birthright is very successful for what it seeks to do. How do you think this squares with Peter Beinart’s thesis about the alienation young people are feeling from Israel and the community? Does the “Birthright effect” wear off after 6 months, or does Bronfman just need to get more young people on Birthright to turn the tide?
KF: Over the last week, much of the Jewish Internet’s collective shitstorm energies were devoted to “Life After Zionist Summer Camp,” a piece in The Awl by Allison Benedikt. Her non-Zionist conversion narrative so enraged Jeffrey Goldberg that he declared her “anti-Israel” and “un-Jewish.” Nothing riles up True Believers like an apostate. The anger is magnified, I think, by the knowledge that Benedikt’s story is increasingly common among American Jews. A great sea change is underway, but I fear Birthright is a force to be reckoned with.
Thinking specifically about my trip, my busmates seemed united in feeling “more Jewish,” along with possessing a newfound connection to Israel. Our unusually candid guide’s explanations of the legal inequalities in a Jewish state, of the brutality of its military policy, did not induce alienation. Much to my surprise, young Jews on my trip quite readily “checked their liberalism at Zionism’s door” for ten days. Fun bound us together—and to the land where it all went down.
As for the long-term impact of Birthright, that’s the million-dollar question to ask of the demi-billion-dollar program. The sociological data out of Brandeis’ Steinhardt Social Research Institute suggests Birthright “works” over the long haul in shoring up Jewish identity and connection to Israel. But I’m a bit skeptical given that (the eponymous) Michael Steinhardt is the co-founder of Birthright, and such studies conveniently help assure funders and potential funders that their investment in “Jewish continuity” passes the kind of effectiveness evaluations they expect from the corporate world.
I am not sure if it’s a gut feeling or a hope that Israel’s Amy Winehouse-style out of control downward spiral will help bring about alienation in Birthright alumni; I don’t see anything wrong in a bit of alienated “what the fuck.” On Facebook, a non-Jewish friend of afriend recently noted that she’d known Jews who returned from Birthright “with very different ideas than when they left (some which are a bit scary), but it seems to fade over time.”
Then again, for many Birthrighters the “magic” of Israel (to use co-founder Charles Bronfman’s terminology) is real and lasting. One liberal twenty-something half-Jewish Manhattanite from my February 2010 trip still has Theodor Herlz’s famous Zionist slogan on her Facebook profile: “If you will it, it is no dream.” We have to account for the fact that Jewish nationalism is profoundly appealing for the young and adrift. It says, “You’re part of something bigger than yourself. Your life has meaning and purpose. There’s this land where experience is richer than the tedium of daily life. You have been persecuted for all of eternity, and here you can be safe. Except: waitpaniccrisis!! It’s all under threat and must be protected at any cost.”
To be less of a bummer, I’ll note that the trip can work in unexpected ways: one source in the piece, Max Geller, was really radicalized by the anti-Arab virulence of his Birthright experience and became a tireless justice in Palestine activist. For me, going on Birthright as a reporter gave me the opportunity to “birth left” in the West Bank post-trip. (My impression is that most Birthright buses have a couple travelers who go on to do heterodox tourism afterward.) Staying ten days in Bil’in, going to the Nil’in demo, coming to see Palestinian and Israeli anti-wall activists as “my people”—Birthright shored up my identity as a Jewish morally engaged journalist.
AH: You make the point several times in the article and the podcast that most the trip participants viewed themselves as liberal. You also point out that the trip guide was unusually explicit about the meaning of the Jewish state. One example:
Driving through northern Israel, Shachar gave a lesson in “Judaization,” the government’s term for settlement policy. Passing through an Israeli-Arab town, he called our attention to a litter-strewn road (perhaps the result of inequities in municipal funding, which escaped mention) and then pointed to a neat ring of state-subsidized Jewish towns. “Judaization,” he explained, was necessary “to keep them from spreading.”
How would you say the trip participants rationalized “checking their liberalism at Zionism’s door?” Would you say this effected their view of Israel, prompted them to reconsider their liberalism, or left them willing to live with the contradiction?
KF: Responses were necessarily myriad, but the latter seemed to be the predominant sentiment among my busmates. To be sure, two Birthrighters and I bonded over a shared horror and rejection of the realities of the so-called “Jewish and democratic” state (one of whom, naturally, I went on to date). There were a number of people who were deeply troubled by the Israel they saw on Birthright and did not hesitate to use words like “apartheid” and “segregation”—including two political conservatives–but no one began clamoring for a multinational state. One woman told me she’d never considered what “Jewish and democratic” meant, but the trip helped crystallize that “it’s just not happening here.”
I am unsure whether Birthrighters’ reactions illustrate the failings and limitations of Jewish American youth culture—or of liberalism. Unlike in Israel, Americans are generally weaned on an anti-racist discourse, and so Birthrighters were able to know racism when they saw it. But what happens after recognition? The funbus drove on.
AH: Finally, in the podcast was struck by the “domesticated house cat Jews” (American Jews) vs “wild feral Jews” (Israeli Jews) dichotomy that one trip participant makes. It does seem that that is one of the goals of the trip is to get the North American house cat Jews to understand, if not, emulate their feral co-religionists. Part of this seems to be enjoying the empowered triumphalism that I’ve frequently seen from Israeli Jews when I’ve been in Israel. I cringed listening to the podcast in several parts, especially on the kibbutz. Has anyone from the trip responded to the article? Do you think any of them would be embarrassed or ashamed to listen to this?
KF: The Birthright Boyfriend loved it! Otherwise, I’m not sure anyone else has read it yet.
While I was reporting the remainder of the story this past winter, I tried (unsuccessfully) to follow-up with a few of the participants who were most transformed on the trip. I didn’t hear back from them but I should have been more persistent. My guess now is that many of my tour mates would challenge my “cherry picking” of quotes and want to focus on their happy memories of the trip. Everyone seemed to agree the guide was “badass” and “hella funny,” and I doubt anyone would revise that assessment. The men on my trip were especially impressed by the “New Jew” in Israel—the hyper-masculine creation that bills itself as the answer to Jewish victimhood in the Holocaust and weakness in the diaspora. Glorification of Israeli militarism runs deep in American Jewish culture, which continues to harbor a deep self-deprecating shame of the figure of the sniveling nebbish. This week, Sarah Silverman joined Shakira in Jerusalem for the Israeli Presidential Conference. Silverman tweeted—with an RT from Jeffrey Goldberg, naturally—“Israel is this bizarro world where Jews r gorgeous & kick-assy instead of sneezy & shirt-stainy.”
On the final night of my Birthright trip, we all sat drinking on Tel Aviv’s banana beach. A high school year book-style vote took place. Everyone had nicknames on the trip, and mine was “Dear Diary” thanks to the constant notebook scribbling. I was voted “Most Likely to Take Down Birthright.”
Now, a year later, this seems unlikely–and wasn’t my goal anyway. But here’s to hoping for critical engagement. For a program that operates on the emotional level, in a country where policy is determined by gut fear and hysteria, cutting through the “magic” of ethnonationalism is the cerebral task at hand. Much to my dismay, after reading Alison Benedikt’s piece in conjunction with mine, Haaretz’s Bradley Burston wrote in the emotional register, of a renewed “ache” about how “people need a home” (aligning Jewish nationalism with Palestinian national liberation). Burston continued, “Zionist summer camps and, for that matter, Birthright, were created specifically to address that ache.” What followed was the classic liberal Zionist’s lament: good idea, bad implementation.
If anything, my Birthright reporting should help illustrate Zionism’s bankrupt core. What’s more, even the most dovish members of Birthright’s brain trust would not imagine it differently. “It is not a trip to Palestine and to Israel,” said Yossi Beilin, the elder statesman of liberal Zionism and the originator of the Birthright idea, when asked his thoughts on Birthright buses patronizing the West Bank settlement-based Ahava factory. “You hear one narrative, not two.” I wondered if perhaps a settlement might be complemented with a stop at a Palestinian village. Beilin reiterated, “It is not a visit to the Israeli-Arab conflict. It’s a visit to Israel.”
Zionists tend to lament the ethnic cleansing of 1948: if only things had been done differently—as if a Jewish majority state could have been produced any other way. But why the urge to rehabilitate ethnonationalism? There are other things to believe in besides Jewish peoplehood and its attendant blood-soil claims that resist intellectualization, inducing a singular feeling: “home.” Going forward, perhaps to a certain extent Jews need to check our emotions at Israel’s door. For me, a baptized daughter of intermarriage, it comes easily.