Why is Birthright on the Decline?

According to a newspaper survey, the number of American Jews coming to Israel on Birthright programmes is in sharp decline. This in spite of the fact that this exciting project gives young people an opportunity to spend time in Israel in what Taglit Israel describes as “A Free Israel Adventure”.

Who in their right mind would want to to miss out on a 10-day free trip to Israel? It would appear that a not insignificant percentage of American millennials are prepared to do so and give Israel a miss. Why should that be?

Naftali Bennett, who heads Israel’s Education and Diaspora ministries, thinks that he has the answer. In a cabinet meeting held last Sunday he explained that “there is a problem of serious assimilation, and a growing apathy among Jews in the diaspora, both about their Jewish identity and their connection to Israel. That’s the key story and it’s a national challenge.”

There is a great deal of truth in what Bennett has to say, but it’s not the whole story.

You can’t continually punch people in the face and expect them to like you and keep grinning. Bennett may discount the damage caused by his prime minister reneging on the agreement to allow all Jews to worship in whatever way they chose at the Kotel (Western Wall), but that is but one example of the discrimination exercised against non-Orthodox Jews in Israel and of the venom publicly expressed against them.

It will be recalled that Israel’s minister for Tourism, Yarin Levin, slammed the Reform Movement claiming that it was unnecessary to grant them a prayer space at the Western Wall, because Reform Jewry would be all but gone in three generations.

However, contempt for the largest Jewish stream in North America is but one element in the attempt to denigrate those Jews who do not meet the criteria set by bigots such as Levin. Israel’s chief rabbinate has just published a list of Diaspora rabbis, whose conversions it is prepared to recognize. In recent years, it has even rejected the authority of leading American Orthodox rabbis, such as liberal Orthodox Rabbi Avi Weiss and Modern Orthodox Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, both of New York City.

Shmuel Shattach, executive director of Ne’emanei Torah Va’Avodah, a group that advocates for more freedom of religious choice in Israel, said that “the fact that the current list (of approved rabbis) does not include important rabbis and communities abroad is a source of profound concern.”

However, the disenchantment of many Diaspora millennial Jews with the State of Israel is no doubt primarily – and this is something that Naftali Bennett will find hard to stomach – because of its Right-wing religious orientation that claims that the land between the River Jordan and the Mediterranean is unilaterally ours by Divine right. The Palestinians are here under sufferance.

Gone are the days when our prime minister expressed the vision of “a Palestinian state alongside the Jewish state”.

Most American Jews are liberal by temperament. They vote for Democratic candidates for the Senate and Congress and are appalled that Donald Trump should be their president. Israel does not embody their ideals and values. Meantime, our prime minister’s support for Trump hardly endears both him and the State of Israel to them.

So that’s where we are at, however much Bennett may try to blame the crumbling relationship between most of American Jewry and the State of Israel on the effects of assimilation.

How do we repair the damage? Probably the answer is that we cannot until such time as Israel’s political and religious values are consistent with those of a pluralistic, liberal democracy. Such an expectation is unrealistic in the foreseeable future and, therefore, the gulf between Israel and most of Diaspora Jewry is unlikely to be bridged.

73 years after the Holocaust, whose memory united world Jewry for whom the establishment of a Jewish State was viewed by many as a miracle, Israel’s image has become tarnished and a wedge has been driven between us and much of the Diaspora to the detriment of us all.

About the Author
Made aliyah from the UK in 1985, am a former president of the Israel Council of Reform Rabbis and am currently rabbi of Kehilat Yonatan in Hod Hasharon, Israel.
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