Why Birthright Israel can't work

Benjamin Netanyahu's plan to subsidize travel to Israel for American Jews can't work.

By Samuel G. Freedman
Published November 23, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

Each time Temple Neve Shalom in central New Jersey has celebrated a bar or bat mitzvah in the last dozen years, the worship service has included a ritual found nowhere in the official liturgy. Following the readings from the Torah and the prophets, the rabbi has presented a $500 voucher good for travel to Israel to the 13-year-old newly welcomed into the realm of Jewish adulthood. That money has been raised by the congregation itself through an annual concert.

But while Rabbi Gerald Zelizer has presided over this ceremony with perhaps 250 young men and women, only 50 or so have ever put the gift certificate to use. In his congregation and so many others across America, the day of bar or bat mitzvah often marks not a deepening of religious or communal commitments, but liberation from them. And Israel, far from being the unifying talisman for American Jews, contributes mightily to the tensions renting them.

For precisely such reasons, the new program to underwrite a free trip to Israel for every American Jew aged 15 to 26, announced last week by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, is destined to fail. Netanyahu talked about the program, dubbed "Birthright Israel," as he addressed the general assembly of the Council of Jewish Federations, the major annual gathering of North American Jewish leaders. The Israeli government has promised to commit a major share of the $300 million budget for Birthright's first five years, with the remainder being paid by individual philanthropists and the Council of Jewish Federations.

No observer of Jewish life can question the impulse to strengthen ties. American Jews, intermarrying and assimilating at an ever-faster pace, have grown increasingly, demonstrably distant from Israel as anything more than a symbolic homeland. Diaspora in America -- with its prosperity and pluralism -- has become preferable to the physical danger and political and religious infighting in Zion.

The Birthright venture, however, starts with a dubious premise: that lack of money is what stops American Jews from visiting Israel. In fact, American Jews are notably prosperous. The 1990 National Jewish Population Survey found that American Jewish households earned an average of $50,000 annually, compared to $38,000 for non-Jewish ones. More tellingly, Jewish households with children made an average of $80,000 -- equivalent to $100,000 in current dollars.

Even so, only one-third of American Jews have ever visited Israel. More of them, it has often been estimated, have been to Italy.

Money, then, plainly is not the decisive factor. The causes of the breach between American Jewry and Israel can be found in both nations and across the religious and ideological spectrum, and they resist a mere financial solution.

Zionism as an idea and Israel as a state drew largely from secular Judaism. The Orthodox believed only the Messiah could restore Zion; the Reform believed Zion already existed in America. For the Zionists, statehood itself was a religion, the force that would gather the scattered and mend the shattered. The Zionist idea informed a whole network of camps, clubs, youth organizations, cultural events and mass demonstrations in America during the first half of this century.
When Israel was founded in 1948, American Zionism paradoxically lost its reason for existing. The secular Judaism it embodied migrated to Israel and took the forms of the military, the kibbutzim, the Labor Party, the trade unions, the literary culture in Yiddish and Hebrew. American Zionists were left with only two real choices. They could make aliyah, settling in Israel, or they could stay here and watch secular Judaism wither.
Never was that clearer than one night last month in the Manhattan apartment of a theater producer named Emanuel Azenberg. He was hosting a reunion of about two dozen fellow veterans of Camp Kinderwelt, a Labor Zionist haven in the Catskills. There they had heard Abba Eban and Golda Meir speak; they had sung the anthem urging them to "arise and build"; they had played color war in teams of blue or white, the colors of a flag for a nascent nation.
The camp closed some 30 years ago, having lost its appeal in the face of competitors with water-skiing programs and Native American names. As the alumni chatted in Azenberg's apartment, lingering over yellowed snapshots and faded camp newsletters, they spoke of how difficult it had been for even such ardent believers as themselves to instill in their children a passion for Israel. Azenberg talked about how his three youngest children, born to his second wife, a Gentile, would not even be considered Jewish under Israeli laws written to placate the Orthodox establishment. Only one camper sounded certain of an ongoing familial bond to Israel: Judy Weisstein has a son who turned Orthodox and moved to a settlement in the occupied West Bank.
The difference between Azenberg and Weisstein -- or, more properly, between their children -- hints at a major shift in the relationship between American Jews and Israel. Increasingly, it is a relationship between Orthodox Jews and Israel. More than half of Orthodox Jews in America have made repeated visits to Israel, the sign of a connection deeper than a mere vacation, according to a recent survey by the American Jewish Committee. Less than one in 10 Reform Jews has done so.
The Orthodox need no largesse to make the trip. The rite of passage for an Orthodox teenager is to study for a year between high school and college in an Israeli yeshiva, often one led by the ultra-Orthodox known as the haredi, becoming imbued with a right-wing view of both Judaism and the peace process.
Israel's failure earlier this year to find a compromise on conversion standards -- on the so-called "Who is a Jew?" issue -- only added to the alienation that non-Orthodox American Jews feel from their putative homeland. The estrangement has been further compounded by the widespread coverage in America of ultra-Orthodox vandalism of a Reform day-care center and abuse of mixed-gender groups of worshippers at the Western Wall. Whether in Israel or America, a majority of Orthodox Jews oppose the peace process, which is at least warily endorsed by less-observant or non-religious Jews. And since 93 percent of American Jews are not Orthodox, that alienation has become not the exception but the norm.
Besides, America has given Jews the opposite of alienation. It has not merely accepted Jews; it has literally loved them. And nothing in the Jewish experience of persecution and oppression, of having one's identity defined by one's enemies, prepared Jews for love. The rate of interfaith marriage for Jews tops 50 percent.
By one definition, that phenomenon amounts to ethnic and religious suicide. By another, however, it represents the ultimate triumph of American pluralism. As novelist Bharati Mukherjee, born in India and naturalized as an American citizen, has observed, an immigrant must kill off a former self in order to become wholly American.
Every young person at Temple Neve Shalom who passes up the $500 voucher to visit Israel is, in a passive way, acting out Mukherjee's formulation. And every Jew eligible for Birthright Israel will face a similar choice, a choice made by inaction as much as action. Against the financial incentive of free travel stands the adversary that is America. Or as a Reform rabbi in South Carolina put it nearly 150 years ago, "This country is our Palestine."

Samuel G. Freedman

Samuel G. Freedman, a professor of journalism at Columbia University, has written for Salon since 1996. His new book, “Breaking The Line: The Season in Black College Football That Transformed the Sport and Changed the Course of Civil Rights,” will be published in August 2013.

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