This year, Diaspora Jews who have made a contribution to the life and welfare of the State of Israel are being given the honor of lighting a torch at the national ceremony that ends Memorial Day and ushers in Independence Day.
One of the first two such honorees on Monday night is Michael Steinhardt. A billionaire philanthropist who is a Wall Street prodigy and legendary hedge fund manager, he has given away hundreds of millions of dollars of his wealth to causes that promote his vision of “improving and enhancing the Jewish future” in a long list of causes. And Birthright Israel, which he co-founded, is the unique jewel in his philanthropic crown
The idea of giving this honor to Steinhardt really bothered Israeli author and radio host Irit Linur. In an opinion piece in Haaretz, she ranted, in a throwback display of Israeli secular superiority, that no Diaspora Jew is worthy of the torch-lighting honor because they – in particular American Jews – are a dying breed of assimilating losers. She brags, “Here in this country, we have three synagogues on every street, which one can attend or not. We put up wedding canopies at the same rate at which Americans buy bad coffee at Starbucks.”
For this reason, she says Steinhardt and the other Diaspora Jew being given the honor – Rabbi Marvin Hier of the Simon Wiesenthal Center – are unworthy. “On the day of the celebration of the one miracle of which there is no second, the proper place for anyone who’s not an Israeli is in the visitors’ gallery,” she declared
Speaking as an American Jew who did move to Israel, is raising a family here and whose kids will serve in the army, I see no reason why Steinhardt’s contribution to Israel is less deserving than that of a popular Israeli singer or soccer star, both of whom are being given the honor this year.
For 18 years, Birthright (known in Israel as Taglit) has sent young Diaspora adults ages 18 to 26 on a free 10-day trip to Israel. First conceived by leftist politician Yossi Beilin in 1994, the project was initially dismissed as an unrealistic pipe dream. But it became a reality in 1999 thanks to the support of Steinhardt and Charles Bronfman, who pushed the Israeli government to step up and roll the dice on this out-of-the-box venture.
Since then, Birthright has become a rite of passage for young U.S. Jews. It has visibly shifted the Israel-Diaspora dynamic, bringing the country alive in all its dimensions for half a million Jews from 66 countries, who would otherwise know only what CNN and their Facebook feed showed them.
Over the years, as a result of the connection they formed and the follow-up programs Steinhardt funded, many have gone on to make their own significant contributions to Diaspora Jewish life. And for a small number of Birthrighters, the visit sparked a desire to live in Israel and they made aliyah – which, presumably, die-hard Zionist cheerleaders like Linur can appreciate.
So why shouldn’t Steinhardt take the stage on Independence Day eve and light the torch, basking in his accomplishment?
There is a reason, but it’s not because he lives in the Diaspora. Steinhardt should feel troubled accepting the honor because the travel ban law passed by the current Israeli government spits in the face of the crucial message Birthright has stood for over the years: let’s bring all Jewish young people to Israel to see the Jewish state for themselves.
It was for this reason Birthright trips have always been subcontracted to a range of groups with a wide spectrum of political and religious outlooks, from Chabad to the Reform movement; “niche trips” for diverse groups have been created, including LGBT Jews and those with special needs, which succeeded in keeping Birthright solidly on consensus ground in both Israel and abroad.
In an interview with Haaretz in 2013, celebrating the program’s “Bar Mitzvah,” Beilin rejected growing concerns from the left that Birthright trips were delivering a heavy-handed and one-sided message as right-wing casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson began funneling tens of millions of dollars into the group and became more involved in its organization.
“I’m all in favor of a debate on Israel’s policies and don’t think Jews in the Diaspora should blindly support it, but this has nothing to do with visiting Israel. The Birthright visit has nothing to do with the conflict. It’s a first meeting,” Beilin said.
Birthright CEO Gidi Mark – who has helped lead the organization since its inception – was quoted in the same article as saying that even if participants “are not Zionist, it’s important for them to know what Zionism is. We live in a pluralistic world, and they are intelligent enough to make their own decision.”
But how can young Jews, many of them students, “make their own decision” if Israel now refuses entry to foreigners who advocate boycotts of Israel – including boycotts of West Bank settlements – as a statement against the occupation?
Just as the Steinhardt torch lighting was being announced last week, Haaretz reported that more than 550 Jewish-American students had sent a letter to Birthright, asking that it actively oppose the law that contradicts the program’s spirit.
The students also submitted a series of questions. They wanted to know whether Birthright intended to impose a screening process to vet applicants according to their views on boycotts, divestment and sanctions against Israel or other political issues, and whether participants who are turned back at Ben-Gurion International Airport because of the new law will receive help from Birthright. They wanted to know how the new law will impact the experience of participating in a Birthright trip.
“Some of us do not buy settlement products as a personal choice,” the students wrote. “Others have no problem doing so. All of us are concerned about the impact of this new legislation on our own and our peers’ ability to travel to Israel.”
They didn’t get an answer. They were merely referred to the FAQ section on the Birthright website, which states: “Birthright Israel does not inquire about the political views of its applicants and welcomes all Jewish young adults from around the globe to visit Israel.”
If Steinhardt truly cares about Birthright’s directive to “ensure the future of the Jewish people by strengthening Jewish identity, Jewish communities and connection with Israel,” the government’s new political litmus test for young people who want to see and experience Israel should deeply disturb him.
It clearly doesn’t bother him enough to refuse the torch-lighting honor now seen fit to bestow on Diaspora Jews. But he should use the platform to state, loud and clear, that he believes the doors of Israel should be open to every interested Jew (and non-Jew), no matter what their political beliefs, to come and see for themselves.
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