The Nonexistent Debate Over Birthright and Masa Israel

While the treasury’s threat to cut funding was never genuine, we must ask whether the state should be underwriting programs that bring Diaspora Jews to Israel.

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Birthright participants at Masada.
Birthright participants at Masada.Credit: 'Taglit’

Who said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is only good at making speeches and has no sense of priorities or is incapable of delegating authority? It seems that in some cases he is very adept at transmitting his wishes to his officials for them to execute even without his knowledge. That seems to have been the case in recent days with the proposed and then swiftly aborted cuts to the funding for the Taglit-Birthright Israel and the Masa Israel Journey programs. The story, which was reported Wednesday morning on Army Radio by the station’s economics correspondent, Yuna Leibzon, is a fascinating anecdote that sheds lights on how priorities are determined in the Israeli government these days.

Officials in the Finance Ministry’s budget department, widely regarded as the Israeli bureaucracy’s most powerful civil servants, have been scrambling to find some 1.5 billion shekels ($410 million) that can be cut from the 2015 state budget in order to balance the books while carrying out the provisions of last week’s agreement between Netanyahu and their boss, Finance Minister Yair Lapid, on its broad outlines. As is customary, the officials drew up a long list of various government programs from which the “fat” might be cut. Among the programs on the chopping block were Birthright, which brings tens of thousands of young Diaspora Jews to Israel each year for a 10-day tour of Israel and Masa Israel, a Jewish Agency program that offers grants and scholarships to a smaller number of Jewish young adults who spend between five and 12 months in Israel as students, interns or volunteers.

Was there ever a real intention to cut state funding for either program, which is around 100 million shekels a year? The general consensus seems to be no. As one official involved said, “There was no question of Netanyahu allowing it to go through.”

Indeed, it is highly likely that the prime minister never even knew about the proposed cuts. So how did they get onto the list? In the time-honored fashion of civil servants, the list that was sent to the Prime Minister’s Office for consideration included a number of red herrings that were sure to be discarded at the first opportunity but would give the “Treasury boys,” those 20-something economists in the Finance Ministry who deal with multibillion-shekel budgets and tell cabinet ministers how to spend their allocations, more negotiating leverage.

It is interesting to note, though, that while state spending on housing, health, education and social services is being slashed in order to increase the defense budget and compensate for the loss in revenue as a result of Lapid’s plan to exempt certain first-time home buyers from value-added tax, these two programs are regarded as sacrosanct. So much so that the officials knew in advance that there was no point even in bringing this to the prime minister’s attention. No serious cabinet debate has agreed upon this particular priority, let alone a public debate over whether financing programs for the Diaspora should have precedence over social welfare for Israeli citizens. If it wasn’t for the Army Radio report, no one would have even known about the proposal.

There are of course serious arguments on both sides which we are not hearing. The question mark over Netanyahu’s preference is especially noteworthy in regard to Birthright. While most of the Israeli political spectrum supports the program, which was the brainchild of the former chairman of the left-leaning Meretz party, Yossi Beilin, no one can ignore the fact that for the past seven years the program’s main benefactor has been Netanyahu’s patron, casino tycoon Sheldon Adelson.

The Jewish-American businessman has donated over 180 million dollars to Birthright. Adelson has been adamant that the Israeli government match his contributions. In April 2013, he even secretly met with Lapid, who sees himself as Netanyahu’s future rival to ensure that there were no plans to cut the state’s funding.

So no one is under any illusions that the proposal to cut Birthright, which is usually linked to Masa in any budget decision, was anything but a nonstarter, put on the cuts list simply to be crossed out immediately.

But putting aside the Byzantine rules of political patronage, which should but never will be investigated by the State Comptroller’s Office, the question remains: When a long list of government programs, including long-heralded plans to combat poverty and reduce classroom sizes, are being cut back or even put on hold, should these two programs for Diaspora Jews remain immune?

Both Birthright and Masa have been the subject of much controversy regarding their cost effectiveness. Many Israeli officials, including some who are well aware of the situation in Jewish communities around the world, have said that there is absolutely no justification for funding scholarships and tours of Israel for non-Israeli Jews, when there is so much socioeconomic inequality among Israeli citizens of all religions and backgrounds. Israel should cooperate with such initiatives but the funding must come from Jewish philanthropists and communities abroad.

The counterargument runs that the ties between Israel and the Diaspora are a strategic necessity and these programs are partnerships that ensure these ties remain strong into the next generation. Cutting their funding could not only jeopardize their existence but would also send out a message that Israel no longer cares for its Jewish brothers overseas.

This is an important debate for the viability not just of these two programs but for the future of Israel and the Jewish people. But neither Netanyahu and his patron, nor Lapid who promised “new politics,” are willing to hold it.