It’s not Birthright that’s in need of repair, it’s American Judaism

In recent days and weeks, much ink has been used and many electrons have been generated to bemoan the status of Taglit-Birthright Israel trips. The current kerfuffle is the result of the walkout from their Birthright trip of students affiliated with the group IfNotNow (a horrible play on the wise words of the rabbinical sage Hillel) who are opposed to the “occupation.” They left their group early to meet with Palestinians because Birthright doesn’t offer a better explanation or allow a discussion of the “Palestinian narrative.”

Concerned about the return of Jewish college students to their campuses, Martin Raffel, writing in the NJ Jewish News, wonders if participants in Birthright trips to Israel will be prepared to confront Israel’s detractors (“What’s the story with Birthright?” Aug. 16). While disagreeing with the methods employed by the IfNotNow students, Raffel believes they make a good point. I do not.

Conceived as a program to provide young Jewish adults the gift of an educational trip to Israel, Birthright has come under attack because it doesn’t “equip young Jews with a nuanced understanding of the complex Israel-Palestine conflict,” Raffel writes of his conversation with Rachel Zaurov of Cliffside Park, a member of the Israel Policy Forum. But Birthright trips are designed to introduce young adults to Israel as the home of the Jewish people, to instill a sense of pride in being part of the Jewish people, and to increase awareness of who they are in the mosaic of Jewish life. It was not designed to, in a period of 10 days, give an understanding of the “complex Israel-Palestine conflict,” which is something Israelis and those who care about Israel have been trying to comprehend for 70 years.

Reading all of the hand-wringing commentaries, you may be tempted to think that Birthright Israel is broken. It’s not. To the contrary, it is our American brand of Judaism that is broken. My baby boomer generation has sadly produced a generation of young Jewish adults (not your children, of course) who believe that all of Judaism can be summed up in “tikkun olam,” a phrase not found in traditional texts, and the idea that to be Jewish, all you have to do is be a nice person.

We have raised a generation of young adults and college-aged students who may, and I do mean “may,” know there are holidays called Purim and Chanukah, but they don’t know why there is a Purim or why there is a Chanukah. They have been raised not in the joys of Yiddishkeit — a meaningful Shabbat, celebrating the chagim, etc. — but in the oys of Yiddishkeit — dietary and work restrictions that “are not for us but for the folks who live in Lakewood.”

We have raised a generation of young adults who, along with their parents, left the synagogue immediately after their bar or bat mitzvahs. We have excused the intermarriage of our offspring on the basis of “as long as he’s happy.” Their generation is giving us children named Jennifer Cohen, who is not halachically Jewish, and Jennifer Napolitano, who is. Why are we surprised when our kishkes are tied into a knot when we are asked, “Who do you want to invite to the baptism?”

When it comes to the modern State of Israel, we have raised a generation that doesn’t know what led to the Balfour Declaration, of the whereabouts of the blue and white pushka (charity box) in our grandmothers’ kitchens, and the distinctions between the political philosophies of David Ben-Gurion and Menachem Begin (assuming they even know who these men were).

As for Birthright teaching about the so-called “Palestinian narrative,” a phrase I hate almost as much as the phrase “tikkun olam,” let me tell you what that narrative is:

“Our lands were taken from us by Jews sent to Palestine because of the murders committed in Europe. The Jews have no ties to the country. No such thing as a Jewish Temple ever existed on the Haram al-Sharif. Every inch of Palestine is ours.” And “it is desirable to die while killing Jews.”

Don’t believe me? For starters, look at the coat of arms of Fatah, the largest political party in the PLO and whose leader, Mahmoud Abbas, is in the 13th year of his four-year term as president of the Palestinian Authority. Crossed in front of a green representation of Israel are two automatic rifles and a grenade. Below it is the slogan, al-`Asifa (“the Storm”), a reference to Fatah’s armed wing. The message is clear: Liberate the stolen homeland. Want more? Visit the Palestinian Media Watch website to read and see what the Palestinians teach their children.

As for the 600-700,000 original Palestinian “refugees” whose descendants live in squalor in camps set up in Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan in 1947-1948, why did they refuse to return to their homes in the West Bank, or settle themselves there, between 1948 and 1967? Why were they not accepted into the societies in which they found themselves? Why are there refugee camps in the cities of Nablus and Jenin, both under the control of the Palestinian Authority for the past 20 years? It’s for the simple reason that Palestinian society worldwide, abetted by the United Nations, thrives on victimhood; it’s reinforced by all who refuse to accept the fact that 98 percent of the Palestinian population in the West Bank lives under the rule of the Palestinian Authority.

But there’s no mention of the same number of Jews from Iran, Iraq, and Yemen, who were booted out of their countries after a presence of 2,000 years. They are Jews who have been accepted and integrated, admittedly with many bumps along the way, into the State of Israel. That would not fit the Palestinian narrative, would it?

As for Israel’s Arab citizens, I don’t have to defend the rights they enjoy in Israel. While the country has now faced up to the fact that Arab communities do not necessarily share equally with Jewish communities in government and municipal programs, it’s being addressed. But how do you explain the recent rallies in Tel Aviv where Israeli Arabs protesting the nation-state law carried Palestinian flags?

From my perspective, Birthright Israel has been an overwhelming success. It has given thousands of young Jewish adults their first real look at Israel. Like all educational programs, it continually fine tunes its objectives, but it’s not broken. It has never been Birthright’s responsibility to give college-aged students and young adults the tools they need when they encounter Jew-hatred on campus and in society. We are their parents and it is first and foremost our responsibility to begin to do so when our children began to walk and talk by giving them a Jewish education, to show them the joys of Yiddishkeit. We have failed to date, but it’s never too late to turn back the tide of ignorance.

About the Author
Stephen M. Flatow is vice president of the Religious Zionists of America and an attorney living in New Jersey. He is the father of Alisa Flatow who was murdered by Iranian sponsored Palestinian terrorists in April 1995 and the author of the soon to be released book "A Father's Story: My Fight For Justice Against Iranian Terror."
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