Birthright co-founder Charles Bronfman says participants don’t have the right to criticize Israel while they are enjoying a free trip paid for by others.
“It’s not a fair game if you are going to take advantage of a gift,” the Birthright-Taglit co-founder told Haaretz by phone. “If people want to call Israel names and say bad things about the country, they certainly have the right to free speech. But they don’t have the right to do it on our nickel,” he said.
He was responding to recent high-profile walkouts by Birthright participants, sparked by a campaign by the American-Jewish anti-occupation group IfNotNow. They are protesting what they claim is the program’s failure to confront Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territory.
When young Jews come to Israel on their free 10-day heritage tour, they are free to extend their trip and visit wherever they want, Bronfman said. There are a number of extension programs, he added, where they can travel on their own and “if they want to go to the West Bank or Gaza, they are certainly free to go.”
However, “what is not fair is making a big tzimmes [mess] while the trip is on,” said the 87-year-old, Montreal-born billionaire-philanthropist. “Frankly, I just don’t think that is fair to their fellow participants.”
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Bronfman did express concern, though, when presented with one of the protesters’ main complaints – that in at least one case, maps distributed to a Birthright group did not delineate between the State of Israel proper and the West Bank. “They should complain” about the map, agreed Bronfman, who serves as chairman of the Israel Policy Forum’s Advisory Council, which works to mobilize support for the realization of a viable two-state solution among American-Jewish leaders and U.S. policymakers.
“I’ve never heard of it before and I don’t know how that happened,” he said, adding he hopes it was a one-time mistake.
But Bronfman defended Birthright’s controversial decision last year to instruct trip providers to stop including meetings with Israeli Arabs on their itineraries.
“It became a problem with some of the participants and some of the Israelis who were joining them,” he said. “We didn’t want to have those problems. We sought a better solution and the education committee came up with a better solution.”
That solution, he said, stood in the face of the complaints by those who said the conflict was not being addressed. On each trip, he said, “There are now four hours devoted to discussing the situation between Israelis and Palestinians, both in Israel and the West Bank and Gaza, trying to present that conflict as impartially as possible. I don’t see the issue not being addressed.”
Bronfman detailed what is included in those four hours: “We have two formal hours from a group of 75 trained speakers about Israel and the minorities in the country. It’s largely modeled after President [Reuven] Rivlin’s four tribes of Israel [speech in 2015]. We have not had one complaint from the right or the left. The second two hours [is] meetings with the various minorities, which is more recent but growing, and the participants seem satisfied.”
While Birthright’s philosophy is to “attempt to be totally apolitical,” he said there was no effort to prevent either the American or Israelis on the trips from expressing their individual opinions.
In fact, Bronfman sees a silver lining to the current controversy. “It’s the price of success,” he noted. “If we weren’t successful, we wouldn’t have the problem.”
For him, the fact that disrupting a Birthright trip paints young people “as the heroes and heroines of today’s youth” shows that the program is now a central and important part of Jewish life, as he and co-founder Michael Steinhardt always hoped it would be.
Bronfman dismissed the idea that the increased involvement of megadonors Sheldon and Miriam Adelson since 2007 had made the program appear more right-wing, thus sparking a backlash from left-wing American Jews. “Sheldon and Miri are amazingly generous,” he said. “They fell in love with the program and they have not attempted to change the program one iota.”
He did register subtle disapproval of their behavior at the Birthright Mega Events, though – when all of the tour participants in Israel assemble for an outdoor celebration, complete with live music and speeches. Bronfman noted that while he thought it was appropriate for Birthright donors like himself, Steinhardt and the Adelsons to “go on stage for a minute” to demonstrate “that there are real human beings” behind the gift, “we should stay quiet and enjoy the evening, and let one of the politicians for the government make the speeches.”
This April, Steinhardt was at the center of a small storm after he flashed his middle finger at protesters outside a gala dinner in honor of Birthright's 18th anniversary after more than 150 students from colleges in the New York and New England areas protested in front of the Ziegfeld Ballroom in New York.
'A difficult pill'
But while Bronfman praised Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for never giving a political speech at a mega event, he was less happy with some of the Israeli government’s current policies, calling the recently passed Jewish nation-state law “a difficult pill for World Jewry to swallow.”
In a recent speech, Bronfman said there was a dangerous “schism” between Israel’s government and Diaspora Jews. The new law, he said, “exacerbates the problem.”
“Israel was founded on a Zionism where there should be equality of opportunity and respect for all citizens of the country. You can’t be a light unto the nations and be prejudiced toward any group. It can’t happen,” he cautioned.
Bronfman added that he supported the Israel Policy Forum statement on the Basic Law, which warned that the “clause on Jewish settlement may give rise to discrimination against Israel’s non-Jewish citizens and will certainly lead to charges of unequal treatment.” And the “clause on the Jewish Diaspora appears designed to conform to ultra-Orthodox dictates about who is a Jew, which undermines the law’s purported mission of defining Israel as the homeland of the entire Jewish people,” it stated.
A new fellowship program for young Jewish professionals in his honor was recently inaugurated. The Charles Bronfman IPF Atid Conveners program, is aimed at developing the “next generation of leaders advancing vision of Jewish, democratic, secure Israel” whom it hopes will “elevate and shape the discourse in their communities in support of the two-state solution.”
In May, Bronfman delivered a speech at the Hebrew Union College in Manhattan, declaring his anger at how Israel is treating Diaspora Jews.
He castigated Netanyahu for reneging on the Western Wall agreement that was meant to provide an egalitarian prayer space in the southern section. “It shocks me to the marrow of my bones that Conservative, Reform, Liberal and Reconstructionist Judaism are legally unrecognized by the State of Israel,” he said in May.
Some three months on, he said that while it was difficult to maintain a centrist stance in today’s polarized political atmosphere, he was determined to do so – strongly supporting Israel, yet speaking out when he disagrees with its direction. And while critical of the current government’s direction, he stressed: “I am not a left-wing softy.”
A spokesperson for IfNotNow, the group that has organized the walkouts as part of their campaign "Not Just a Free Trip," which charges Birthright "hides the truth" about the occupation, responded to Bronfman's remarks.
"Bronfman says that our generation should check our critical thinking skills and progressive values at Birthright's door just because big donors like him and Sheldon Adelson paid for the trip. That’s not the gift Birthright claims to be — that’s a bribe."