NEW YORK – One of the founders of Birthright Israel described a group of protesters outside his organization’s annual gala event on Sunday as “left-wing, stupid young Jews.”
Michael Steinhardt, 77, flipped the bird to the demonstrators, who were mainly from the group Jewish Voice for Peace.
“I find it really peculiar that so many Jews are supporting BDS and events like their protest,” Steinhardt told Haaretz. “I don’t really understand it, but that’s my age catching up with me, I guess.”
Anti-Birthright protesters were relegated behind a barrier outside the Ziegfeld Ballroom in Midtown, where the organization’s 18th anniversary celebration took place.
A few broke free to try to hand honoree Sheldon Adelson a “return the birthright ticket.” But the mega-philanthropist, who announced a $70 million gift at the event, was instantly surrounded by bodyguards who blocked the protesters’ access.
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When Steinhardt and his wife Judy arrived at the event, they were confronted by protesters chanting: “No free trips on stolen land! Boycott Birthright that’s our plan!”
“I passed this group of protesters behind a barrier and it was clear these were young Jews,” Steinhardt said later. “Birthright is such a warm, welcoming, nonpolitical enterprise you’d think they could find better things to protest. They were screeching something and I gave them the finger, and that was that,” he added.
Steinhardt is a famously contrarian billionaire hedge-fund investor who is one of the creators of the “mega-donor” phenomenon in which major philanthropists create their own projects rather than work through established Jewish organizations.
As well as being a co-founder of the 10-day free trip to Israel, he is also the creator of a network of Hebrew-language charter schools.
Steinhardt made history last year after being chosen as one of two Diaspora Jews to light an official torch at the Israel Independence Day ceremony.
JVP said it had 150 protesters, mostly college students, at Sunday’s event. A Birthright Israel employee told Haaretz she saw closer to 50 protesters.
JVP members were joined by Students for Justice in Palestine, the Palestine Solidarity Alliance and Democratic Socialists of America.
“We attempted to hand-deliver one of our ‘return the birthright’ tickets to Adelson himself, but he was mobbed by security so we couldn’t really get close,” said Ben Lorber, JVP’s campus coordinator. “He was the target of our action, so of course the students were eager to get him one of the returning tickets.”
A video shows Adelson’s bodyguards shielding him from protesters with open umbrellas during the attempt.
JVP advocates for boycotts, divestment and sanctions against Israel. “We think Birthright offers a Disney-fied portrayal of Israel-Palestine and it’s simply unjust that we get a free trip while our friends – Palestinian refugees – are unable to visit, much less return to their homes,” Lorber said. “We think the Palestinians deserve the right to return to their homes and an end to the occupation.”
Despite the protesters and rain, the sold-out gala was attended by over 650 people and raised some $125 million, according to the Birthright Israel Foundation. That’s a new record for one of its fundraisers.
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Since Steinhardt and Canadian-American businessman Charles Bronfman began Birthright 18 years ago, it has brought more than 600,000 young Diaspora Jews ages 18 to 26 to Israel, and had some 100,000 young Israeli Jews meet their peers from overseas.
The organization says it runs trips built around a wide range of needs and interests – from those specifically focused on nature to some for LGBTQ Jews and others for Jews with special needs. Birthright recently expanded its age limit to 32 for trips this coming summer.
Casino magnate Adelson, 84, attended the gala with his wife and partner in philanthropy, Dr. Miriam Adelson. He also owns the free Israeli daily Israel Hayom. On Monday, Forbes estimated Adelson’s fortune at $39.5 billion. Bloomberg also reported Monday that Adelson has now donated a total of $410 million to Birthright.
Steinhardt, 77, estimates he has given Birthright about $25 million over the years: $2 million per year in the early years and $1 million more recently. Forbes estimated his wealth at just over $1 billion.
“Birthright has done almost everything we hoped it would do, in magnitudes far greater than we ever thought,” said Steinhardt. “We never thought it would have sent over 600,000 kids and had 100,000 or so Israelis participate. Birthright has created an environment where kids who are undereducated ‘Jewishly’ have the opportunity to see and experience Israel in ways that would not have been possible otherwise,” he added.
Lorber, meanwhile, spoke passionately about the injustice of Palestinian refugees not being permitted to return to their ancestors’ homes, which they fled or were expelled from during Israel’s War of Independence in 1948. However, when asked if he believes there should be a State of Israel, he declined to answer.