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Birthright Israel Program Is Charged with Propagandizing Its Participants

Allan C. Brownfeld
Special Interest Report
December 2011

Since its founding in 1999, the Birthright Israel program has sent more than 260,000 young Jews from around the world to Israel at a cost of almost $600 million. The goal, in the words co-founder Charles Bronfman is “the selling of Jewishness to Jews.” His partner in founding Birthright, Michael Steinhardt, who describes himself as an atheist, says that the program is “a substitute for theology.”  
In fact, argues Keira Feldman, who participated in the program, it is largely a propaganda enterprise tied closely to Israel’s right-wing and to the settler movement.  
In an article, “The Romance of Birthright Israel,” in The Nation (July 4/11, 2011), she points out that far-right casino magnate Sheldon Adelson is the largest individual donor, having given Birthright $100 million over the past five years. The Israeli government provided Birthright $100 million during the program’s first decade and Prime Minister Netanyahu recently announced another $100 million in government funding.  
Barry Chazan, a Hebrew University professor emeritus and the architect of Birthright’s curriculum, explains in a 2008 book, Ten Days of Birthright Israel, that the trip is designed so travelers “are bombarded with information.” The goal is to produce “an emotionally overwhelming experience.”  
Kiera Feldman writes; “‘Welcome home is a predominant message, a reference to the promise of instant Israeli citizenship for diaspora Jews under the 1950 Law of Return. (About 17,000 Birthright alumni now live in Israel, according to the Jerusalem Post). It serves as a pointed riposte to the right of return claimed under international law by the 700,000 Palestinians expelled in 1948 upon the creation of the Jewish state, and their descendants.”  
The stimulus for the Birthright program, Feldman reports, were the findings of the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey, which found that 52 percent of Jews were marrying outside the faith. Yitz Greenberg, an Orthodox rabbi and educator, was named to direct the foundation that would incubate Birthright. He said, “I felt I’d been asleep at the switch as this disaster was coming.” Birthright trips, he hoped, would shore up a social order in decline.  
Feldman notes that, “Today, at a time of rising criticism of Israel, the program has taken on a different meaning. No longer is it simply a project to shore up Jewish identity. Birthright has joined the fight for the political loyalties of young Jews.”  
Beyond this, is an effort to promote what Feldman describes as “flings among participants, or between participants and soldiers. ‘No problem if there’s intimate encounters,’ an Israeli Outdoors employee told American staffers during training. ‘In fact, it’s encouraged.’ Birthright boasts that alumni are 5l percent more likely to marry other Jews than nonparticipants.”  
Birthright participants receive a one-sided view of the Israeli-Palestinian question, argues Feldman: “Birthright’s boosters seem strangely unaware of the ... more visible woes, the 44-year-old illegal occupation of Palestinian lands and the racism and legal discrimination that underpins Israel’s ethnocracy. If the former was kept nearly invisible on my Birthright trip, the latter was laid uncommonly bare. Our guide was Schachar Peleg-Efroni, a second-generation secular kibbutznik. Several times a day he said things like, ‘Arabs are those who originated from Saudi Arabia.’ ... He used ‘Palestinian’ interchangeably with “terrorist.’ ... A new era is dawning for Birthright. What began as an identity booster, has become an ideology machine, pumping out not only Jewish baby-makers but defenders of Israel. Or that’s the hope.”  
Feldman writes that, “In January, J Street announced it would sponsor a Birthright trip. Shortly thereafter, Birthright said a miscommunication had occurred — as a “political” organization, J Street was ineligible. Yet a Birthright trip run by AIPAC, the far more conservative Israel lobby group, has been renewed for years. ... Several Birthright donors, including family foundations operated by the Gottesmans, Grinspoons, Steinhardrts and Schustermanns, have financially supported illegal Jewish settlements. ...  
Birthright funders and officials see Palestinians best avoided, for ‘security reasons.’ On my trip we were given maps of Israel that referred to the West Bank as ‘Judea and Samaria’ — biblical terminology typically favored by settlers and their sympathizers.” •

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