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Did Birthright kill Max?

That time an American Jewish journalist found herself unable to imagine what could drive another American Jew to join their fate to Israel's

Birthright Israel killed Max Steinberg. That is the premise of an article by Slate senior editor Allison Benedikt.

Or at least Birthright, where Max first fell in love with the Jewish state, is as responsible as all the other factors and actors in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Benedikt explains in the second paragraph: “the leaders, on both sides, who put him in Gaza, and the leaders behind all of the wars between Israel and the Palestinians. I can trace it back to 1948, or 1917, or whatever date suits you and still never find all the parties who are responsible.”

The sub-headline argues that “a Birthright trip convinced an American with shaky Hebrew that he was ready to die for another country,” but by the second paragraph we learn that Birthright is simply part of the causal chain of Max’s death that can be traced back at least to a 1917 letter from British foreign secretary Lord Balfour. (Of course, the causal chain is equally dependent on the dinosaurs dying so that humans could emerge and start fighting each other, or perhaps on the quantum fluctuations in the Big Bang that allowed matter to clump together into human beings in the first place. But back to Birthright.)

From this auspicious start, Benedikt goes on to ask how many Birthright kids actually join the IDF. There had better be a lot, since her argument rather depends on being able to show that Birthright leads to IDF enlistment. Otherwise she’s pinning a dramatic claim about an experience shared by 400,000 young adults on the evidence of a single teenager’s decision.

“They don’t keep track,” she explains, quoting a Birthright spokeswoman, and leaves it at that.

Let me help. The answer is “exceedingly few.” Fewer than 3,000 Americans make aliyah each year across all age groups — from a community of six million Jews. Only a few hundred are young adults, and only a fraction of these (excluding religious women, health problems, anyone over 26, among others) join the IDF.

Then there are those who join the IDF without becoming Israeli citizens via a program known as Mahal, a program that predates Birthright by decades. Hundreds of Mahal soldiers fought in Israel’s Independence War in 1948. Max was a Mahal soldier, one of an estimated 400 young people from English-speaking countries who join the IDF each year through Mahal to serve a shorter service of 1.5 years instead of 3. While Mahal fighters number in the hundreds, only a fraction could have been Birthright participants. At least one-third are classified by the army (based on their own self-identification) as “religious,” meaning that they had been raised in religious educational frameworks, and thus are unlikely to have gone on Birthright. Most Jewish religious schools take their students to Israel during high school, making them ineligible for free college-age Birthright trips. (This restriction was lifted a few months ago.)

So, to recap from publicly available data, the total number of American Jews who might have been on Birthright and join the IDF each year amount to a few dozen olim and probably fewer than 200 Mahal soldiers (that’s 400 minus the religious and other day school grads, and minus English-speaking countries that are not America).

The fact that some of these had gone on a Birthright trip also has to be factored against a selection bias — the chicken-and-egg problem where those few who were going to join the IDF anyway are also likely to be over-represented among those who took the trouble to go on Birthright.

So while Benedikt sees Max’s story as proof that “it’s not that hard to persuade young people to see the world a certain way,” the data suggests the opposite. It is incredibly hard to fundamentally change the basic framework of an 18-year-old’s worldview. Judged by IDF service, the test suggested by Benedikt, Birthright only manages to do so for, at most, half of a percent of participants.

(We are assuming, of course, that Benedikt is correct in implying that this is Birthright’s purpose. As anyone who knows Birthright’s founders and curriculum will testify, it is not.)

And if, as she suggests, “it’s not that hard to persuade young people to see the world a certain way,” one might ask why Greece, Armenia, Norway, Ireland or any other country with a large ethnic diaspora in the US doesn’t try to emulate this Israeli success? In this age of unprecedented global migration, efforts to connect to diasporas and attract them back are what passes for the cutting edge of international diplomacy. And no diaspora is as desirable as one that has spent a few generations gaining wealth and education in the United States. These countries don’t try it not because it isn’t desirable, but because convincing Americans to leave America is a nearly impossible feat — even for Israel.

The deepest failing of Benedikt’s piece lies not in the strange refusal to check her assumptions against data, but in the casual disrespect she pays to the deceased by assuming his life choices are a sign of psychological or moral failure.

“Maybe Max was especially lost, or especially susceptible, or maybe he was just looking to do some good and became convinced by his Birthright experience that putting on an IDF uniform and grabbing a gun was the way to do it.”

This argument is based essentially on Benedikt’s own failure of imagination. Max, you see, must have been an idiot. Who falls in love with a country in ten days? Who joins the army of a foreign nation without first making sure his mother can articulate adequately to journalists his emotional and intellectual journey? Not someone like Benedikt, she implies.

I didn’t know Max. But I know many who made the same choice (as does Benedikt, she says) — and more often than not went back and rejoined the American Jewish community after their service. From them I have learned that one does not have to be an idiot to do what Max did, that Max was not hoodwinked by a clever public-relations machine.

Max was drawn to the experience of collective belonging offered by a Jewish-majority political community, and likely saw the enemies of Israel, like Hamas, as endangering that community. He felt the twinges of patriotic devotion calling him to partake in Israel’s sense of rooted nationhood. It may seem embarrassingly parochial to some, but there it is.

And he probably wanted to join the IDF because, like all young men, he yearned for the dignity of having done something hard and a little dangerous.

Benedikt tries to write about Max Steinberg, but without data or serious thought about the motives and context of Max’s decision. Even so, the result of her attempt is fascinating, because it isn’t really about Max.

Death often serves as a canvas for formulating narratives of identity. In the wake of Max’s death, Benedikt has written an unintended but heartfelt self-portrait of an American Jew profoundly discomfited by another American Jew’s decision to join their fate to Israel’s, that strange other side of the Jewish world.

Max’s death leaves behind the shockwave of his sudden disappearance. It is felt most acutely among his family and friends, but also by Israelis generally and Jews around the world whose identities are in various ways bound up with Israel. It even left its mark on the vexed imagination of Slate senior editor Allison Benedikt.

About the Author
Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.