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Birthright Israel: A Model Ethnic Charity

Trudie Pert

February 14, 2010 

Taglit-Birthright Israel, a Zionist charity that provides free 10 day trips for young Jewish adults to visit Israel, celebrated its tenth anniversary in January.  Shortly before the creation of the charity, American Jewish college students were asked to name the top 20 countries they would most like to visit.  Israel did not make the list at all and prominent American Jews became alarmed. Too few young Jews seemed to care much about Israel, and about religious observances, and too many of them married non-Jews.  Also of concern was the lack of growth in the Jewish population worldwide — stagnant between 1970 and 2000, at 13 million. 

Birthright was created to correct these problems. One of the co-founders of Birthright, Michael Steinhardt, stated at the initiation ceremony of the organization, “We are at a crucial juncture in the history of the Jewish people, a time when we must do everything possible to strengthen young people’s connection to their culture and religion.” 

In the 10 years since its creation, over 250,000 young Jews from 52 countries of the Jewish Diaspora have visited Israel through the Birthright program.  Seventy five percent of them have been American.  The organization hopes to bring 27,000 young people to Israel this year, a 20% increase from previous years.  It is estimated that at current rates 1/3 of American Jews born since 1995 will go on Birthright trips by their 27th birthdays.  The program is open to all young Jewish adults, ages 18 to 26, who have never traveled to Israel, or lived there past the age of 12.  Participants must have at least one Jewish parent and not be practicing another religion.  Its founders hope that the trips will inspire those who are non-observant and in danger of assimilation to strengthen their identification with Judaism, to discourage intermarriage, to create a stronger Jewish community worldwide, and to increase allegiance to Israel."Taglit” is Hebrew for discovery, and young Jews are supposed to discover their racial and religious essence through contact with the land of Israel.  “Birthright,” refers to the right of each Jew to belong to the tribe and the right to settle in the land of Israel.  

The deep concern about the ethnic basis of Judaism can be seen in this statement by Charles Bronfman, a main sponsor of Birthright Israel, on why encouraging Jewish identification and Jewish marriage is so important: "You can live a perfectly decent life not being Jewish, but I think you're losing a lot—losing the kind of feeling you have when you know [that] throughout the world there are people who somehow or other have the same kind of DNA that you have."(Washington Post, Jan. 17, 2000). 

The elite trips are organized by various private Israeli companies accredited by Taglit-Birthright, which sets the educational and security standards. Tours vary according to age, degree of religiosity, and interests of the participants. One of the required features of the trip is a 5–10 day encounter with Israeli peers, especially soldiers serving in the Israeli Defense Forces, who join the tours. Over 30,000 Israeli soldiers have taken part in the program, disseminating a strong Zionist message. 

The itineraries include visits to historical, religious and cultural sites around the country. The required sites are chosen for their emotional pull to Jewish historical memory as a long history of persecution: the Western Wall (the remnant of the Temple destroyed by the Romans), Yad Vashem (the Holocaust memorial), and Masada (the last stronghold of Jews battling against the Romans in 73 AD). There are five central themes: contemporary Israel, the narrative of the Jewish people, their values, their arts and culture, and the Jewish calendar (most importantly, the Sabbath).  Completion of the trips is celebrated by a huge “Mega event.” 

This year’s Mega event brought together young Jews from 52 countries, musicians, Israeli luminaries, and benefactors. (Mega event highlights can be viewed at:  www.BirthrightIsrael.com ) The music is hip, the attractive young soldiers are dancing, and the audience participation is loudly enthusiastic.  With great emotion, Israeli President Simon Perez tells the enormous crowd that they are in “a family reunion of Jewish youth. Each of you is so precious, and we don’t have enough of you!” He states that it is “difficult to be a Jew, but it’s great” and points out that “we are always struggling. He concludes by saying, “let’s be together forever.” Also speaking are the largest benefactors of the charity: Michael Steinhardt, Charles Bronfman, and Lynn Schusterman.  Forbes Magazine includes all three in its yearly listing of billionaires. 

An additional speaker at the most recent Mega event was Natan Sharansky, former world chess champion, who once served ten years in a Soviet Siberian labor camp for treason and spying for the US.  Because the Americans considered him a human rights spokesman, he was awarded the US Presidential Medal of Freedom by George W. Bush and the Ronald Reagan Freedom Award by the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation. (Present at that ceremony were Joe Lieberman, Dianne Feinstein, and Cindy McCain.)  Thereafter, Sharansky became a pillar of the political right in Israel, opposing plans to withdraw from the settlements in Gaza and taking a hard line on the Palestinians.  He has made Jewish Peoplehood a priority and is director of the Israeli Diaspora Museum, a required stop on the 10 day Birthright Israel trip. According to him, “Birthright is one of the brightest ideas in Jewish history.”  

Judging by the responses of some of the participants who were interviewed at the Mega event, Sharansky seems to be right.  Typical responses include: "It made me feel like I was taking part in something bigger than myself.” “Too many times during the trip, I found myself speechless, and by the end of the trip, I found myself connected to the State of Israel and even more a Jew.” “Coming to Israel and learning more about why being Jewish was special really changed my view of myself and my life. A year ago I would have never believed that I would be on a program like this — or be wanting to marry a Jewish girl — my whole perspective on life and on Judaism has changed because of Birthright”. 

A study released at the same time as the 10 year Birthright celebration is the first to describe the long range impact of the program.  The results are quite spectacular. The report by the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University is based on responses of interviews with 1,223 participants of the program between 2001 and 2004. The study found that of those who are now married 72% had a Jewish spouse, compared to 46% of married non-participants. 73% said that Birthright was a “life changing” experience.” Participants were 23% more likely to say that they felt “very” connected to world Jewry.  And those on campus were much more likely to come to Israel’s defense in student and class discussions. 

Steve Cohen, a sociologist who specializes in American Jewish life, described the current situation for Jews as “a race between intermarriage and Birthright.” The study found that 52% of intermarried Birthright participants said that raising their kids as Jews is “very important,” compared to 27% of inter-married non-participants. Birthright participants are 12% more likely than non-participants to have a special meal on the Sabbath (an important indicator of “Jewishness”).  

These figures are quite astonishing if one considers that they pertain mainly to secularized Jews.  Devout Jews from observant families who have traveled to Israel were not eligible for the trip because many have participated in post-high school year-in-Israel yeshiva programs and are not in need of assistance to prevent assimilation.  For the great majority of secular young Jews, however, Birthright Israel is an inspired idea which has been enormously successful in promoting Jewish identification.  

To encourage networking among its alumni Birthright Israel has begun an alumni outreach program called, “Birthright Israel Next.” According to the Executive Director of Birthright Israel Next, “behavior is only going to change through relationship building.  Young American Jews don’t feel comfortable in existing institutions like synagogues.” One of Birthright Israel Next’s ideas is to organize free Sabbath dinners. Birthright Israel Next will pay $18 per person for up to 16 people for Birthright Alumni to host a Sabbath dinner at their homes, thus encouraging young fellow Jews to continue to participate in Jewish life. Over 700 have now done so. 

Not only do many of the participants in Birthright Israel become more Jewish, some of them actually become American-Israelis. The State of Israel, one of the benefactors of the charity, generally encourages Diaspora Jews to immigrate to Israel.  When the Jewish Agency, which is in charge of Israel’s relationship with world Jewry, sends officials to speak to Birthright groups, many stress the possibility of living in Israel.  In addition, all of Birthright’s tour guides are Israeli and personally support immigration.  If an American Jew decides to live in Israel (full or part time), he will not lose his American citizenship and can easily add an Israel citizenship.  Under the Israeli ‘Law of Return” an American of Jewish origin going to Israel becomes an Israeli citizen automatically unless he declines the offer.  In the future, dual citizenship for a great many Jewish Americans, even for a majority, seems inevitable.  Also inevitable will be the growing problem of divided loyalties.

As stated above Birthright Israel was designed to raise $100 million per year from a small group of donors: the Israeli government, the American Jewish Federations, and private donors. (Additional funding also comes from the German government – Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany.)  In practice, the program has relied most heavily on its founders and principal donors, Michael Steinhardt and Charles Bronfman.  

One ought to give credit where credit is due, and obviously Birthright is an inspired Jewish idea and its philanthropic donors most generous for a Jewish cause. Although it’s easy to find wealthy Jews who contribute to Jewish causes that strengthen Jewish identification and prevent intermarriage, this is definitely not the case with non-Jews.  

Three non-Jew billionaires come to mind for their philanthropic contributions.  Ted Turner has donated huge amounts to the United Nations for environmental study and population limitation.  Turner is America’s largest private landowner, owning 2 million acres — greater than the areas of Delaware and Rhode Island combined.  Bill Gates has just donated a vast sum to be used to develop vaccines for AIDS and other African diseases.  In the past, he has also set aside millions for inner city education. However, the Millenium Scholarship financed by his foundation explicitly denies eligibility to White children. Warren Buffett has donated several billion to the Gates Foundation. 

Recipients of Bill Gates Millenium Scholarships 

Imagine for a moment that a program were created called “Birthright Europe,” in which every young adult of the Euro-White Diaspora had the opportunity to travel to Europe for 10 days in order to visit European sites of historical, religious, and artistic significance, to befriend White Europeans, to learn to appreciate the superiority of his European culture, and thus to decide to marry only Whites.   Would Turner or Gates or Buffett give the enormous amounts necessary for great numbers of vulnerable young Whites to travel to Europe to develop pride of race and heritage? 

The reason many may laugh at the improbability of this suggestion is because they cannot fathom a wealthy person of European heritage helping his own kind.  Jewish philanthropists come from the tradition of taking care of one’s own, and are very influenced by the strong religious imperative for individualized charitable giving called “tzedakah.” The highest form of charity in Judaism is to help sustain a fellow Jew by offering him a substantial gift in a dignified manner before he becomes impoverished.  

Birthright Israel, as its website states, is a gift to young Jews. It is a benevolence given to them before they become impoverished by assimilation. Or, as a Jewish campus organization states, “With only about 14 million Jews remaining in the world, the Jewish community has genuine fears of extinction, so there’s a certain urgency about keeping Jewish traditions alive and teaching them to the next generation.” According to a site describing the program, “the founders of Birthright felt it was their moral obligation to touch the lives of those people whom no one was touching.” 

For Jews, charity begins at home. For Whites, charity is misplaced everywhere else.       

Trudie Pert is a pen name.  Email her.

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