You can dislike Israel. You can oppose Zionism. You can feel no sadness or sympathy whatsoever for Max Steinberg - the American-Israeli soldier killed by Hamas fighters in Operation Protective Edge - and whose funeral drew 30,000 mourners on Wednesday.
But reacting to his death by blaming Birthright, the organization that funded and operates free 10-day trips to Israel for young Jewish adults is simply ridiculous.
That is, nevertheless, what Allison Benedikt, a senior editor at Slate, chose to do on the same day Steinberg was buried, in a piece entitled “Solidarity with Israel: A Birthright trip convinced an American with shaky Hebrew that he was ready to die for another country.”
How can one begin to grasp the utter bad taste involved in aiming snarky and condescending commentary about someone on the day of their funeral? Presumably, in the brave new age of the Internet and rapid-fire news cycles, all is fair on Facebook and Twitter - and Slate - if it is guaranteed to be provocative enough to inspire linking, disagreement and impassioned discussion (as I, am, admittedly doing right now). So it may be too much to expect in the modern era to ask that human beings actually be laid to rest before busying oneself with the righteous work of parceling out blame for their death.
In any case, the fact is: Benedikt wrote on the day of this 24-year-old LA native’s funeral that “There are many people to blame for Steinberg’s death. There is the Hamas fighter behind the weapon that actually killed him. There are the leaders, on both sides, who put him in Gaza, and the leaders behind all of the wars between Israel and the Palestinians. I can trace it back to 1948, or 1917, or whatever date suits you and still never find all the parties who are responsible. But I have no doubt in my mind that along with all of them, Birthright shares some measure of the blame.”
If I understand her correctly, Benedikt’s thinking goes as follows: if a fairly assimilated American Jew like Steinberg, who, according to his parents, was not very interested in Israel, had no family or friends there, goes on Birthright and then decides to move to Israel, volunteer in the IDF and in a combat unit, no less, it must be Birthright’s fault that he was killed. This begs the question: if Steinberg had been raised, say, in a religious Zionist home, spoke more fluent and less “unshaky” Hebrew and visited Israel on his own - who would Benedikt “blame” for his death? His parents? His rabbi? His school? But since his parents’ very first trip to Israel occurred, as she points out in the opening of her article, when they came to Jerusalem to bury their son, the culprit must of course be Birthright.
Birthright, as she paints it, is a diabolical scheme cooked up by a conspiratorial Zionist cabal of gauzy Jewish billionaires that takes hapless young mainstream American Jews like Steinberg, waves a magic wand and turns them into flag-waving, weapon-wielding IDF soldiers and then happily marches them into their graves.
Benedikt - who appears to know little about either Birthright or Steinberg - speculates that “Maybe Max was especially lost, or especially susceptible, or maybe he was just looking to do some good and became convinced by his Birthright experience that putting on an IDF uniform and grabbing a gun was the way to do it. That serving and protecting the Jewish people was the moral thing to do, and that the best way to accomplish it was to go fight for the Jewish state. It turns out that it’s not that hard to persuade young people to see the world a certain way and that Birthright is very good at doing it. You spend hundreds of millions of dollars to convince young Jews that they are deeply connected to a country that desperately needs their support? This is what you get.”
Like previous hit pieces by Benedikt, this new article was a nice bit of tasty clickbait. As such, it’s already a big success - the responses have come fast and furious: immediately following the Slate publication, writers who have done actual research on the topic have raced to point out some pesky tiny matters that she ignores in the piece - facts.
In the Times of Israel, Haviv Rettig Gur crunches the numbers, noting that of the tens of thousands of young American Jews have gone on Birthright trips, only a few hundred young adults immigrate to Israel from the US each year and “only a fraction” of these join the IDF.
Even fewer, it must be said, sign up for a combat unit like Golani and survive the rounds of training it takes to make the cut.
Mark Oppenheimer a Birthright alum, and frequent critic of Israel, writes in Tablet that “Birthright is a multifarious enterprise, which partners with many universities, outreach groups, and service groups, to lead trips. My trip’s leadership included an Israeli tour guide who, like many veterans, was modest and skeptical about his own time in the armed forces. Basically, he didn’t like to talk about it. Zvika could not have persuaded anybody to join the IDF.”
Oppenheimer also says he is proof that you don’t have to love Birthright in order to hate Benedikt’s assertion, noting that “I don’t think much of Birthright. If Jewish continuity is their goal, the philanthropists who fund Birthright should put their money toward Jewish day schools in the United States. (Please, do!) And I am hardly a Zionist shill … But it’s a bit much to lay Steinberg’s death at Birthright’s feet.”
More than a bit much, in fact.
As I see it, Birthright is a first date with Israel. Many who take the trip - probably most - see it as a free trip and a good time with a dollop of - yes, carefully programmed, Jewish identity. Birthright’s goal is, as Oppenheimer says, that hazy thing called “Jewish continuity.” Yes, the organizers actively encourage participants to sign on for a year-long study or volunteer program, yes, they would certainly be happy if those stays ended up in immigrating or enlistment in the army - but the bottom line is that they want their alumni to go back to the U.S. and be proud, self-identified Jews active in their communities and supportive of Israel. Marrying a Jew would be nice, too. Sometimes, it takes, sometimes it doesn’t. Politically, there are Birthright alumni across the spectrum, from the far right to the far left. The notion that Steinberg - or any other Birthright alum - is so pathetically malleable and vulnerable as to be a victim of brainwashing is an insult to every student who has participated.
And joining the IDF as a combat soldier doesn’t necessarily follow from Birthright, the converse is true. One must also note that it doesn’t take Birthright to get American Jews to join the IDF - many have managed to do it since 1948 without any billionaire funding. Or brainwashing. I studied in Israel for a year abroad at Tel Aviv University back in the pre-Birthright era. I ended up living in Israel. So if a rocket hits me next week, is the university to “blame?”
Using this young man’s death as ammunition against Birthright isn’t just a low blow. It is also convoluted and bizarre logic, and a tenuous connection to make. It’s like learning that a scuba diver died in an underwater accident and blaming the grandfather who funded his first trip to the Bahamas, where he fell in love with the sport. Benedikt comments too are freighted up with some extra-grotesque implications about the moral stupidity of young American Jews and the callow money-driven agendas of their elders.
There is clearly lots of personal baggage injected into this story - and it’s not even very well-disguised or very new. Benedikt has made something of a career of apologizing for the fact that she feels she was indoctrinated into rah-rah pro-Israel advocacy as a young girl, and showing the world how, in adulthood, she has triumphantly moved far past it. (note that she chose 1917 and 1948 as her starting points of Israel’s culpability - we’re not talking about challenging Israel’s occupation, we’re talking about its very existence.)
In the Steinberg piece, she reaches the conclusion that: “People say Birthright is “just like camp,” and it sure sounds like a very condensed version of the Jewish camp I attended as a kid, whose purpose was, at the very least, to foster a connection to Israel in young Jews—and at best, to get us to move to the country and fight for it. My camp, filled with the children of liberal American Jews, did this by presenting a very simplistic picture of the political situation in Israel and the threat to Jews worldwide, all within the context of helping to fix the world while having the time of your life. Birthright does a form of the same.”
Within this paragraph, she links to a now-infamous 2011 blog post she wrote called “Life After Zionist Summer Camp,” which sparked its own barrage of flames and retorts in its time, where Benedikt talks about how her left-wing husband rescued her from her naivete by persuading her that Israel is bad and Jews brainwash other Jews into denying this truism.
Anyone who read the summer camp piece can readily figure out where she’s coming from. With that, you can interpret Benedikt’s take on Steinberg as “I managed to escape the clutches of deadly Zionist indoctrination, but this poor soul didn’t” and it’s amply clear that she sees his death as a cautionary tale for American Jewish parents - don’t let this happen to your child. In 2011, she ended her piece with saying she would never send her kids to “Zionist summer camp.” Now we know she’s not planning to send them on Birthright either.
But a 22-year-old on Birthright is not the same as a 10-year-old in a Young Judea camp. What’s more, a 24-year-old man who dies in combat for a cause he believes in, has earned the basic respect and recognition of his beliefs and autonomous choices, whether or not one agrees with them. He does not deserve to be mockingly portrayed as an indoctrinated cult member by a writer using him as an outlet for her own issues with Israel and her childhood. Certainly not on the day of his funeral.
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