Birthright and wrong

Go, ahead. Take the free trip under false pretenses. The elders are paying. When the tour guides explain the flora and fauna, you’re out of your league, but when they talk history and begin to show excessive pride in the country – stuff like growing grapevines in arid soil and building Tel Aviv from the sand up, you’re ready. At the compulsory geopolitical lecture about both sides of the conflict, but taught by Zionists, you’re ready. When your fellow-travelers are all emotional about the million and a half Jewish children slaughtered in the Holocaust, you strike with your poem about Palestinians suffering.

Other groups have tried to offer an alternative to Birthright Israel/Taglit, but someone had to pay for those. Other anti- Zionists have argued against the mission of Birthright, to give young Jews a chance to experience their Israel heritage, but your contemporaries ignore this advice and just keep signing up, 650,000 of them at last count. You know, because you’ve gone to Hebrew school or day schools, that 600,000 is a significant number. That’s the number considered a “public,” (the Torah need of an eruv on Shabbat), the number of able-bodied fighters who left Egypt in the Exodus and the number of Jews already living in Israel the day it was declared a state and attacked from all sides.

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You keep meeting Birthright Israel grads who won’t take part in the pro-Palestinian demonstrations on campus, even though college campuses are the ideal recruitment area for idealistic causes. So you have to do something. The easiest way to undercut the wildly successful program is to hitch a ride, exercise your “birthright” as a Jew.

Your deluded fellow-travelers are moved and impressed by Israel. They see the gathering of immigrants, virtual-reality 3-D maps and innovative outreach – like inventing solar powered water-from-air technology for those dying of thirst, but they don’t know that every Palestinian has a tale of personal suffering. That’s especially true for the classmates you’ve met at prestigious American universities, who have opened your eyes. You feel cheated. No one ever mentioned at day school, Jewish summer camp or hey, The New York Times, that there is also conflict in Israel. Jews may have been praying to get back for 2,000 years, but who said the land is theirs? (Okay, maybe your grandparents, but they are elders, too. All those glasses stomped at weddings for occupied Jerusalem…)

“Occupation” is a favorite word, even if you learned or didn’t in History 101 that it’s just about the only “disputed territory” that this World War II term is ever applied to. “Occupied” means Jews are a foreign power with no historical claims to this longed-for desert property. Occupation is the source of all the terrorism and aggression, before and after the 1967 war. Jordan and Egypt couldn’t have been occupiers, because they are more authentic.

Resisting the “occupation” is such a handy and powerful code name for justifying terrorism. You are erudite champions for justice, from a country where fewer than 60% of those eligible vote. Not like those benighted Israelis, who get out to vote, have hyper-independent courts and love civil rights demonstrations. They also earn more university degrees and books than folks in your country. But they fight for their homeland because they are avaricious, and like wearing uniforms, earning almost no salary for three or four years while their peers abroad are lolling on university greens and preaching justness. Can’t beat the thrill of checking cars for weapons and bombs on a dark night.

You offer hope. Your generation is going to end the injustice. The exhausted soldiers can leave their positions. You have youth and boldness, not like those stuffy elders who built your synagogues, community centers and summer camps. You are providing a new model of leadership, where you are going to change the way Diaspora Jews relate to big bad Israel. It’s not that you don’t love Israel, but yours is a different love: tough love. That’s the approach for rebellious teens and drug addicts. Okay, the experts say that doesn’t work, but your movement isn’t about solutions. Solutions are so divisive. The last “end of the occupation,” so conveniently forgotten, didn’t turn out well, but you can try again. The Jews should move out and let the Palestinians get on with state building the way they did in Gush Katif. Who needs all those techy greenhouses anyway? Never mind, this isn’t about solutions.

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So you come up with a plan to spoil a Birthright Israel trip. You apply and lie about why you want to come. It’s not really stealing. You’re a thorn in the side of the guides who want to facilitate intellectual and emotional ties to Israel. Some are elders, veterans of dangerous IDF service who love Israel, not guiding for the big bucks. Your pilot group waits until the last tour day for its grand statement at Yad Vashem. Then you stage a walkout. No more virtual reality. You’re going to join a group that will let you feel real suffering, live the occupation. It’s a media blitz. Next time, two groups are embedded in parallel groups. They strike earlier.

True, that’s 13 walkout participants so far compared to 650,000, but you’re getting a lot of attention, the way you did saying kaddish for terrorists.

I’m not the first to find repellent the actions of the group called “IfNotNow,” the newcomers on the block trying to undercut Birthright Israel, the brilliant program created by pro-Israel Jews who put their own money down to bring young Jews to Israel. I know, putting your hand in your own pocket is such an old-fashioned idea, something your grandmother might do. I guess she never heard of crowdfunding.

Most of the young persons who take part in Birthright Israel won’t recognize the expression “If not now.” Those of you who chose it must have had the privilege of a Jewish education and know the words of the talmudic sayings of our ancestors, Pirkei Avot. “If I am not for myself, who is for me? When I am for myself, what am I? If not now, when?” Few of the Birthright participants will know that Hillel was a person, not just an important campus organization, certainty not that he founded a philosophy of self-examination 2,100 years ago when he moved from Babylon to Jerusalem, not Berkeley. Hillel the Elder. His best known aphorism: “Don’t judge your friend until you have stood in his place.”

And here’s another quotation, straight from the Bible itself: “Justice, justice thou shalt pursue.” It’s repeated because the first justice means you have to be righteous yourself. That’s righteous, not self-righteous.

The writer is the Israel director of public relations at Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America. Her latest book is A Daughter of Many Mothers.

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