There are few things that most Jews agree upon. We even pride ourselves on the old adage that for every two Jews, there are three opinions.
But there are a few things about which almost all affiliated Jews agree. In fact, the agreement is so strong that it doesn’t need to be said. For example, when a petition by Jews for Jesus to join a local (New Jersey) Jewish umbrella organization was raised at a meeting I attended, it was not even considered. Rather, the discussion was how to set policy such that a rationale could be given for keeping them out. The people at the meeting represented a broad spectrum, religiously as well as politically, yet it was clear to all that such a group had no claim to a seat at the table. And if this seems obvious to many readers, I should point out that from a strictly Orthodox theological perspective, the difference between such a group and the Reform movement is not at all a given. And yet theology or not, the difference was a given.
The same is true of the Neturei Karta. When we see members of this ultra-Orthodox group arm-in-arm with Iranian leaders or others who call for the destruction of the State of Israel, it is clear to us that they have relinquished their seat at the table as well. Opposition to Israeli policy is acceptable, but aligning oneself with Israel’s enemies in calling for its destruction is simply not. As with Jews for Jesus, no explanation is needed.
Though not as blatant, another item that nonetheless unifies almost all organized Jewish groups is the promotion of Jewish identity. And central to this is the reinforcement of positive feelings toward Israel. Capitalizing on this wall-to-wall consensus, the founders of Birthright built and implemented an effective Israel visitation program for young American Jews. While various quarters might have had issues with particulars, up until now, serious criticism of Birthright per se was unheard of. To Jews, it was the equivalent of apple pie to Americans. How could you be against it?
Of course, as with belief in Jesus and as in actively seeking the destruction of Israel, it was inevitable that a Jew would eventually attack Birthright. It was inevitable that someone would characterize it as a brainwashing organization that uses vast sums of money to convince young Americans to “die for another country.” Allison Benedikt (as in Spinoza), senior editor of Slate, just earned this dubious distinction.
On the eve of Max Steinberg’s funeral, Benedikt, showing all the sensitivity of a bull in a china shop, wondered whether the Birthright graduate and recent Operation Protective Edge casualty was not a lost soul, or simply susceptible to, in her words, allowing Birthright to convince him that service in the Israeli army was the ultimate fulfillment of its mission. (“Solidarity with Israel,” Slate, July 22, 2014.)
It is not surprising for Benedikt or Slate to criticize Israel and American Jewry. But yesterday they crossed a line. For the American Jewish community, helping Israel has always been a source of pride. It has been an important part of what it means to be Jewish. And it is clear from their eulogy, in which they expressed pride with regard to their son’s choice to serve in the Israeli army, as well as their delight in his participation on Birthright, that Max’s parents are no exception. Were they also brainwashed by Birthright, a program that they clearly never participated in?
Hardly. With the very first words of their eulogy yesterday, Max’s parents made sure everyone understood that they unequivocally had no regrets. Instead, they proclaimed their son’s memory to be a tribute to Israel and, not unimportantly, to the United States as well. Presumably, what they meant was that in the United States, citizens are free to explore their heritage. Accordingly, for some American kids, serving in the Israeli army will be an option, and they don’t need Birthright to tell them that.
Perhaps Benedikt is too far from her roots to understand why a mourning American father who had never been on Birthright (or even to Israel) would resolvedly proclaim “Am Yisrael Chai” at the end of the eulogy for his son. It did not make him any less American, but it did place him at the center of a table at which Benedikt has sadly given up her chair.