Last week, Israel, sadly and disgustingly, deported Rose Perez, no doubt a devoted caregiver, and her 13-year-old Israeli-born son, Rohan, to the Philippines. Occurring during the summer, when buses of the Birthright program are often seen, this expulsion begs for comparison between these two types of “visitors” to Israel.
First, let’s compare people who want to live in Israel to those who view the country as a theme park to stoke their Jewish “identity” (a rather ambiguous concept used to justify tens, if not hundreds, of well-endowed educational programs). Rose and her son were clearly dying to live in Israel. Birthright participants are happy to get a free touristic joy ride in Israel.
Rose worked with devotion, competence and naive innocence to provide services that most Israelis are happy to consume but not supply. (That the Population and Immigration Authority accused her of making last-minute sensational scenes to avoid deportation instead of obediently showing up for the proceedings shows who is dissembling naivete and innocence here.) Rose and her son will return to the Philippines and their reports on Israel will no doubt be colored by their last days here.
Birthright participants soak up various fun activities in Israel and are then supposed to become good ambassadors for Israel back home. Evaluations of the Birthright program, by and large, demonstrate that some participants develop a connection to Israel and even manage to avoid intermarriage.
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But overall, the program hasn’t made a dent in the disappearing-from-assimilation American Jewish community. Perhaps a few dozens or even hundreds of Birthrighters, maximum, have actually considered or even made aliyah. The foreign workers and asylum seekers, if offered the possibility, would remain in Israel and become part of Israeli society in the tens of thousands at the drop of a hat. It’s like that old song: “Why is it that the boys that I want don’t want me, and the boys that I don’t want do.”
And why doesn’t the immigration authority not want Rose and Rohan? Because they are not Jews who came to Israel under the Law of Return. But how many Jews are taking advantage of that law?
In recent weeks, several planes of Nefesh B’Nefesh olim, new immigrants, have landed – welcome and blessed, of course. But the 2,000 or so Jews who make aliyah annually from the United States are the exception that proves the rule. The major U.S. Jewish institutions show no interest in even talking about aliyah as a realistic life option.
How many U.S. Jews know that 2,000 of their countrymen have made aliyah this year? Is this ever reported or given prominence at AIPAC meetings and other major Jewish galas? Do Birthright participants, who get to meet prime ministers, presidents and army chiefs of staff, also get to meet olim from the United States who could have been their parents, cousins or friends? Not only is the answer a resounding no, but, almost systematically, programs like Birthright don't expose their clients to American olim because doing so would raise aliyah as a realistic life option.
On the other hand, Rose and Rohan were prepared to “make aliyah” (which, in this case, simply means remaining here), speak fluent Hebrew, and Rohan is well integrated into his Israeli school and probably would go on to serve in the army; in short, would become Israeli. The only issue remaining would be their Jewish status.
In his masterpiece Hebrew-language book “The Israeli Century,” Prof. Yossi Shain addresses this matter. He reveals that there is a 2,000-year-old debate over the question of who is a Jew. Without delving into the entire story, one can conclude that there is a historical and halakhic basis for asserting that an individual who wants to live in Israel, throws his lot in with the Jewish people, speaks Hebrew and serves in army is a Jew. Even without formal conversion, a process distorted by the Orthodox Rabbinate, Rohan, not to mention his children, would become Jewish Israelis, to my mind much more Jewish than an ultra-Orthodox Jew living in Brooklyn.
The moral claims against the expulsion of Rose and Rohan are clear. But the real evil and stupidity are to be found in the cynical exploitation of foreign workers, a lack of clear and consistently enforced immigration laws, and rationalizations based on empty myths about the link between Israelis and Diaspora Jews who do not speak Hebrew, have no interest in living in Israel and never heard of the Law of Return, let alone consider taking advantage of it. True, Birthright provides some tourist economy and sinecures for a number of functionaries, who mouth empty slogans about bridging the gap between Israel and the Diaspora.
If I, as a Jewish Israeli, had to choose, I would choose Rose and Rohan, and transfer all the budgets for programs like Birthright to absorption of the foreign workers and asylum seekers, their evolution into part of Israeli society, and the hope and expectation that they and their children would become part of the Jewish people.
David Chinitz is a professor of public policy and health policy at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
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