Israel's Have-nots Will Keep Paying for Birthright, if Sheldon Adelson Has His Way

Why did Yair Lapid agree to meet with Sheldon Adelson and promise not to cut funding to his pet project?

Itay Ziv
Itay Ziv
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Itay Ziv
Itay Ziv

Sheldon Adelson asked for a meeting, and Yair Lapid consented. Adelson’s purpose in asking for the meeting was to ensure that Lapid would not cut government support to the Birthright program — which totals $40 million per year — as part of the budget cuts.

In these words, more or less, Lapid described the enigmatic meeting he held with Adelson last month to a reporter from the New York Times. His tone was not apologetic. On the contrary: The purpose of the description was to show that the meeting was innocent, that there was nothing political about it, as Lapid asserted. Incidentally, the grant to Birthright has remained intact in the budget.

As the finance minister sees matters, there is nothing political about a decision to allocate NIS 150 million for a showcase project whose direct beneficiaries are citizens of a different country, most of them financially well-off. Even if the elderly had to pay a fee of NIS 35 per month for a caregiver to finance it — a measure that will bring millions of shekels into the state coffers – or cut back special aid to local authorities in the Druze and Circassian sectors by almost half, saving the state about NIS 30.6 million, or imposing any other cutback on the financially weak, minorities and others who cannot arrange a meeting with the finance minister any time they please to free up the tens of millions of shekels that the Birthright program needs so badly. For Lapid, it’s not political – even if it means giving a foreign billionaire who meddles in local politics on a daily basis anything he wants, no strings attached.

First, let it be said that any decision the finance minister makes is, of necessity, a political one. It means there is a deliberate intention that the money will go to a particular place at the expense of another. The decision about funding Birthright is no different in this sense. Actually, it is even more political in nature.

Birthright has a clear ideological purpose: to cultivate among young American Jews positive feelings toward Israel — feelings that will be translated later into a strong public lobby, donations to Israeli causes and, in the most successful cases, immigration. So the basis of the decision to fund the program is an ideological one.

The reason Lapid doesn’t see Birthright as political seems to be the consensus that exists about it among the Jewish public. Even if that’s really the case — a claim that’s definitely not taken for granted at a time of budget cutbacks, and in any case one that’s impossible to check or prove — paradoxically, what brought the project into the heart of the consensus from the very first was its political and ideological diversity.

In other words, the Jewish public in Israel likes Birthright precisely because of its political nature. If it were not political, nobody would care about it.

The political dimension of Lapid’s decision to fund Birthright has to do not only with content, but with form as well. His quick granting of a tycoon’s request for a meeting, the unmediated meeting with him, the private, exclusive closure of the matter — all of these are political acts in nature whose purpose is to carry out politics of a particular kind, the kind we know here as "money and power." Lapid did not attend that meeting as a private individual, a journalist or a poet, and Adelson did not get all that attention from him because of his pretty face.

Lapid does not see it because it’s not convenient for him to. He’s trying to make something that’s within the bounds of the political consensus into something non-political. In other words, something silenced. Otherwise, how could he explain an act whose purpose is to take from the poor and give to a foreign billionaire?

Jewish American billionaire Sheldon Adelson, left, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, center, and Adelson's wife, Miriam.Credit: Eyal Warshavsky

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