Opinion

The Birthright vs. J Street Fight About Free Trips to Israel Is Completely Pointless

J Street has validated, rather than challenged, two controversial Birthright principles – that young Jews deserve freebies and that Israel should be at the center of their Jewish identity

Protest in Jerusalem on the day of the opening of the U.S. Embassy relocated to Jerusalem. 13 May 2018
Olivier Fitoussi

Back in the 1980s, there was a joke about a Swiss Jew who emigrates to Israel and opens a ski shop in Tel Aviv. Three months later, he wrote a letter to his parents in Zurich. "Things are great. I haven’t sold one pair of skis yet, but thank God, I’ve already got competition."

Ski shops in Tel Aviv are no longer a laughing matter, but I was reminded of that joke this week when Haaretz’s Judy Maltz broke the story of the pro-peace pro-Israel J Street organization planning its own free trip for young American Jews, to counter Birthright.

Instead of Birthright’s Israel at its best highly sanitized itinerary of sea, sun and sex with Jews, J Street will be offering its innocents abroad a more nuanced view, including visits to the Palestinian communities living under military occupation in the West Bank.

As far as posing a competition to Birthright, J Street’s BirthLeft (© Allison Kaplan Sommer) is starting small. Just one delegation of forty students, for now. A drop in the Mediterranean compared to Birthright which over the past two decades has brought 600,000 to Israel. But it is an intriguing challenge. One that follows the public abandoning of the tour last year by a handful of Birthright refuseniks, protesting over not being shown the full picture.

Maybe J Street’s journey will even influence Birthright to make some changes to its program. But by organizing a competing trip, they have also, perhaps inadvertently, validated two of the most controversial Birthright principles – that young Jews deserve freebies and that Israel should be at the center of their Jewish identity.

Over the years, there has been much criticism of the hundreds of millions of dollars of Israeli government and Jewish philanthropic funds that are annually spent on providing young Jews with an all-year-round all-costs-paid overseas break. Many fervent Zionists believe that the money could be put to much better use and kids, or their parents, are capable of paying their own way.

The other central objection to Birthright is over the central precept of the project that the best way to get young Jews to engage with their identities is through ten days of fun in Israel. If there’s a counter-narrative to Birthright, it may be something like BirthWrong, the boozy jaunts organized by the British-Jewish anti-Zionist and anarcho-diasporist collective Jewdas, to historic Jewish sites in Spain and France "for anyone who’s sick of Israel’s stranglehold on Jewish culture."

Judaism is such a wide and diverse heritage that has so much to it besides Israel, but it's hard to engage with most of the most devoutly anti-Zionist Jews when they focus their entire Jewish identity on Israel.

Principled non-Zionism and anti-Zionism are perfectly valid positions for Jews to hold (for some non-Jews as well, but in many cases, especially the obsessives, it is merely a thin radical-leftist cover for anti-Semitism). They have a proud historic tradition.

But just like the old Jewish heretics who rejected Orthodoxy on the base of deep knowledge and wide learning of the fundamental religious texts, the founding father and mothers of anti-Zionism rejected Zionism because they simply didn’t need it. They had a full Jewish existence and a sense of where they were in the world that didn’t depend on there being a sovereign Jewish state.

Too many anti-Zionists today are of the ilk of Jenny Manson, the chair of the pro-Corbynite Jewish Voice for Labour, whose lack of self-awareness was on full display when she said in an interview that she "began to identify as a Jew in order to argue against the State of Israel and its behavior."

Young Jews arrive in Israel for a Birthright trip.
Courtesy of Birthright

It’s not for me to tell anyone where to devote their efforts, but just imagine how popular Yiddish theater, Ladino music and just about any other avenue of non-Israeli secular Jewish culture and learning would be if the defining element of anti-Zionist Jews’ identity wasn’t Israel. There are of course many Diaspora Jews, and Israelis as well, who live rich Jewish lives without Israel being at its core.

But if that core is solely about being a Jew who objects to the Jewish state, as it is for many anti-Zionists, then it begs the question what would make them Jewish if, as they wish, Israel didn’t exist.

Jewish diasporism and anti-Zionism is having a renaissance of sorts, particularly among young left-wing Jews in the West, and that’s a potentially fascinating and positive development for the Jewish people as a whole. Israel needs the challenge, and Diaspora Jews need to work out their identity issues. An anti-Zionist counterpoint is critical for having this debate.

But that counterpoint has to have true foundations which are not based solely on rejection of Israel. The debate will not be worth having unless it's centered around people who care for Jewish life and identity, and isn't just about criticizing or protecting Israel.

The argument over how to conduct Birthright’s tours of Israel is nothing more than a sideshow. The real problem with the itinerary is not that it hides Israel’s ugly sides, but that it is based on a very shallow concept of both Israeli reality and Jewish identity.

J Street may achieve its objectives by competing with what is now one of the mega-organizations of the Jewish world, but by simply competing with Birthright, it won’t be truly challenging it, or launching the essential conversation about Israel’s true relationship with the Jews.