In his op-ed (“Israel’s have-nots will keep paying for Birthright, if Sheldon Adelson has his way,” May 22, 2013), Itay Ziv is mistaken about the motive behind Birthright’s establishment. When Ziv criticizes the finance minister for his willingness to meet with American Jewish billionaire Sheldon Adelson about continuing to fund Birthright, he creates the impression that Birthright was conceived by Adelson, who is on the political right wing. Ziv claims that the project was established to educate the next generation of the pro-Israeli lobby and the next generation of donors to Israel. That is a distortion.
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I established Birthright in 1994 as part of the struggle I waged then for the cessation of donations from Jews the world over to Israel. Instead I called on them to fund, collectively, visits by their sons and daughters to Israel and suggested that the Israeli government participate in the project’s funding.
Almost the entire Jewish world rose up against me. The donors from America said that their donations expressed their affinity with Israel and that without donating, they would have no way to show solidarity. Various other people in Israel said that Israel could not afford to fund the visits of wealthy young Jews to Israel and that it would be better to fund programs in Israeli development towns.
The struggle to establish Birthright was a struggle against the major current, against the Jewish establishment in Israel and the world over. The goal was to end the artificial relationship between the poor nephew and the rich uncle from America.
Five years after I broached the idea of the project, including exploring possibilities of cheaper flights on El Al, it began to take form. Funding was supposed to come from three sources: the Israeli government, private Jewish philanthropists and the Jewish Federations of North America. Incidentally, the latter donates less than expected to the project.
A goal that was just as important was to promote Jewish continuity — out of the idea that a visit to Israel for a few days with many other young people from the Diaspora would excite them and leave a long-lasting impression. The intention was that following the visit, they would be more interested in their Judaism, in the communities where they lived and in Israel. I hoped that some of them would continue visiting Israel to study and for other purposes and that some would move to Israel in the end.
Today, after about 350,000 young people from the Jewish world visited Israel at the Jewish people’s expense, it can be said that these goals are being met every day. Financially speaking, by the way, these trips have brought billions of dollars into Israel over the past 13 years. In other words, we lost no money.
As far as I am concerned, the buses that the young Jews ride in, together with the men and women soldiers who accompany them, are far more important than the visit to Masada or any other place. The meetings between these young Jews create new insights both among Israelis and among their counterparts from abroad. The brief visit to Israel has turned the country into a Jewish meeting place simply because the visits are free. That idea got me into a lot of hot water. (Charles Bronfman tried to convince me that one who receives a gift, without contributing any of his own money, looks down upon what he is given; he later changed his mind and became one of the project’s most important donors.). But that idea has proven itself. The young people come in droves, queues for the visit are getting longer, and we are having trouble keeping up with the demand. This year, a record 45,000 young people — roughly half the population of Jewish college students in the Diaspora — will be coming to Israel.
The fact that Sheldon Adelson — who is as far from me, ideologically speaking, as east is from west — decided to donate such a large amount to the project does not make Birthright a radical right-wing idea. It only proves that it is an idea that the various movements within Zionism and in the Jewish world see as an effective investment for strengthening one’s Jewish connection and relationship with Israel. Benjamin Netanyahu was the first prime minister to express governmental approval for the project. Ehud Barak was the first prime minister to approve an allocation of tens of millions of dollars for it, and I hope that anyone who leads the country in the future will continue to support it.