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"Birthright" Program Brings Thousands Of Young American Jews To Israel; Critics Debate Its Cost And Value

Allan Brownfeld, Editor
Special Interest Report
January-February 2000

Six thousand young Jewish college students from the U.S., Canada and a number of other countries were flown to Israel in January for a 10-day trip, which The Washington Post (Jan. 17, 2000) described in a front-page story as "intended to change their lives."  

Their arrival, the Post reports, marks the start of a program whose goals are astonishingly ambitious: Bring tens of thousands of secular Jewish teenagers and young adults to Israel in the next five years, free of charge, connect them to their history, culture and peers and thereby halt the high rates of intermarriage, assimilation and drift among American and other Diaspora Jews."  

The program, called Birthright Israel, is "nothing less than a $210 million marketing campaign to sell Jewishness to Jews," states the Post.  

Richard Joel, president of Hillel, the college campus Jewish organization, said: "This is the first Jewish generation where being a Jew is an option and not a condition. If we can get Jews to feel comfortable with their Jewishness and proud of it, they will make more of their lives Jewish-flavored."  

The rising rate of intermarriage is a symptom of Jewish success in America, analysts say. "Victimization is historical now," Joel declared. "The Holocaust is history, not memory. Anti-semitism is not a defining experience of every Jew."  

The driving idea behind the Birthright program, states the Post, "is that renewing a connection to the Jewish state will trigger other connections for secular and otherwise uninvolved Diaspora Jews..."  

Criticism of the program is widespread. "Providing vast sums of money to youngsters, including many from affluent homes, for 10-day junkets without requiring any form of commitment is demeaning to Israel," said Isi Leibler, the chairman of the board of the World Jewish Congress. "It is inconceivable that a 10-day trip can be the jump-off point for creating newly committed Jews."  

Naomi Blumenthal, a member of the opposition Likud Party, who chairs the Israeli parliament's committee on immigration and diaspora affairs, said the government was throwing money at the wrong people for the wrong purpose.  

"It bothers me that huge sums are being spent to bring young people here for free, while children in poor Israeli towns cannot afford a class trip," she said. `The main goal of the project is not immigration to Israel but strengthening Jewish communities abroad. That's not the thrust of the State of Israel." (New York Times, Jan. 8, 2000).  

Birthright Israel is the brainchild of Yossi Beilin, a former Israeli cabinet minister and parliament member, and two American philanthropists, Michael Steinhardt and Charles Bronfman. Steinhardt, a Wall Street money manager, said that Israel "is the cement that can bind the Jewish community together." Describing himself as an atheist, Steinhardt states, "Israel has frankly—throughout my life and for much of my life—been a substitute for theology."  

In a letter to The Washington Post (Jan. 23, 2000), Carol and E. James Lieberman of Potomac, Maryland write that the Birthright Israel program "hopes to stem the 50 percent intermarriage rate among Jewish young people in the U.S. by sending some of them to Israel for a visit. While that should be inspiring, American visitors may also be struck by the fact that most Israeli Jews are not religious and that Orthodox religious activists have far more influence politically than their members warrant in a democracy. Meanwhile, Jewish leaders might address the fact that it is very hard to find a rabbi who will officiate for an intermarriage, even when the non-Jewish partner is willing to have the children raised as Jews. The result is, often, alienation of both partners from the Jewish establishment, which deems intermarriage a failure rather than an opportunity to begin or to restore meaningful Jewish affiliation."

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