Birthright. What’s in a name?

Birthright also known as Taglit-Birthright, a foundation which provides the gift of a trip to Israel to young Jewish adults is a wonderful and visionary idea initiated and endorsed by the philanthropists Charles Bronfman and Michael Steinhardt.  Their purpose was to strengthen the bond between Diaspora Jewry and the State of Israel.

According to Birthright’s website they “explore key landmarks of historical, national, archeological and natural significance that reflect Jewish history and the roots of the Jewish people.” Its founders believed that it was the birthright of every Jew to visit their land, as the land of Israel is indeed the Jewish people’s birthright.

By its name and its declaration one would think that Birthright’s tour buses would begin their journey where the roots of Jewish history in our land first sprouted.

But they don’t.

They do not visit Hevron, one of the first places our patriarch, Abraham lived, where the Cave of Machpelah is situated, the burial place of the Jewish people’s patriarchs and matriarchs, the world’s most ancient Jewish site, and one of the Jewish nation’s holiest sites, second only to Jerusalem. The cave and the adjoining field purchased at full market price by Abraham some 3,000 years ago, the city that was the capital of King David’s Israel for the first 7 years of his reign is not part of the itinerary.

A bit odd. Why then call the foundation “Birthright” if it sidesteps our historical beginnings in our ancestral land? On what do the founders and organizers base their claim of birthright? If Birthright intends to convey the “roots of the Jewish people” to young Jewish adults why not begin at the root of the matter?

What is Birthright trying to avoid? What is Birthright afraid of?

When it comes to the roots of the Jewish people, what don’t they “get” at Birthright?

A few days ago I accompanied Marc Prowisor, the head of security projects for One Israel Fund, which provides humanitarian and security assistance to the communities throughout Judea and Samaria, to the Mor Farm at Tene Omerim in the southern hills of Hevron. The purpose of the visit was to bring surveillance equipment to the farmers and shepherds because from time to time the Arabs like to steal their sheep, equipment, etc…

Coutersy Michael Ganoe
Coutersy Michael Ganoe

During the hour long ride to the Tene Omerim farm from Gush Etzion, one can enjoy looking out at the seemingly endless rolling hills of southern Hevron. They were empty, barren. As barren as it was the last time I trekked there, and all the times before that, save for a few pioneering Jewish communities sprinkled here and there.

Courtesy Michael Ganoe
Courtesy Michael Ganoe

These pioneers are referred to as “settlers,” inaccurately translated from the Hebrew word “mitnachalim.”  The correct translation for mitnachalim is “inheritors” (of the land) and these inheritors “get it.” They embrace their birthright and they embrace their inheritance by settling the barren southern hills of Hevron and developing the land with their bare hands.

They celebrate their birthright, they don’t shun it.

These inheritors have courageously and selflessly carved out life out of otherwise lifeless surroundings. “Little House on the Prairie” would be luxury compared to what I saw. While the State provides infrastructure for running water to the farm, as of yet there exists no such infrastructure for electricity and they get along on limited use of generators. Subsequently, they have little respite from the extreme heat in the summer and the extreme cold in the winter.

Shabtai, one of the farmers, told me that it may take years before they get through the bureaucracy of obtaining electricity from the State and he proudly went about showing me how he and his wife outwit their electricity handicap with imaginative innovations. They have no oven and yet they found a way to bake challah.

I also saw the manner in which the farmers utilize every drop of excess water from the showers to irrigate the land and grow vegetables. And although they live in very humble quarters, rather than seek to upgrade their meager living arrangements, they are in the midst of building a comfortable pina chama, literally translated as “warm corner” for the soldiers in the area to have a comfortable place to stop in for a cup of coffee, a smoke, and perhaps a quick game of snooker with a snooker table they anticipate receiving from a generous donor.

There are no Arab villages in the area. None. There never were. The empty land in the southern Hevron hills shows no sign of life, no wells, no remnants of any past infrastructure, no mark whatsoever of any previous inhabitants.  It brought to mind the impressions of Mark Twain when he travelled to “Palestine,” that it was a wasteland prior to the arrival of European Zionist pioneers. Twain’s observations had no ulterior motives.

Clearly, no one was forced off this land.

But, what often happens is that as soon as some Jews bring life to an uninhabited area, Bedouin camps pop up near-by and attempt to steal their property, sheep, etc…. As a result, the farmers and shepherds literally do not sleep, as they are on 24 hour watch. And that was the reason for the trip to the Mor Farm – to bring them surveillance equipment that would help alleviate the threat from the Bedouins.

The spirit of the Omerim farmers and shepherds is inspirational and their love of the land is evident in their selflessness, their sacrifice and in their tireless devotion.

The Jewish people were very much an agricultural people in our ancient land and many pioneers today have returned to those roots in the heartland of Israel.

Courtesy Michael Ganoe
Courtesy Michael Ganoe

What a loss it is for our youth not to witness our modern day pioneers in action. Why not show them the strength and conviction of our people today and all that they are willing to forgo in order to continue developing and revitalizing our land?

Give them a taste. Provide the non-abridged version – not just part of it, and don’t allow politics to get in the way of offering the entire landscape and the authentic story of our people’s roots, our struggle and our determination.

Our youth in the Diaspora thirst for knowledge in their desire to bond with their land and their people. I challenge you, Birthright, to quench their thirst and indulge their right to know the entire narrative of the Jewish people. The voice of our detractors and the policies of politicians should not deprive our youth of their history or of any integral part of their identity.

Birthright, you are an excellent resource for our young adults. But you’re selling yourself short. Share with them the complete picture – the whole story that encompasses our roots to our land. Let them see with their own eyes our true beginnings and allow them to feel the pulse of the pioneering spirit of our people that exists today.

Birthright, you’re a great thing. Live up to your name and dare to be greater.


About the Author
Author of THE GILBOA IRIS (Gefen Publishing House) and SETTLING FOR MORE: FROM JERSEY TO JUDEA (Urim Publications).