Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Is Birthright is Responsible For An American Kid's Death? No.

My Birthright Israel Group (guy with the gun is our security guard)
According to Allison Benedikt, the death of an American boy who joined the Israeli army in their battle against terrorists is partially the fault of Birthright Israel, the program for young American Jews that sends them to Israel, all expenses paid, for 10 days and teaches them about the country and its people. If Max Steinberg hadn't gone on Birthright, she says, he never would have joined the IDF, and would still be alive today.

There's a lot of finger pointing going on as the latest Gaza-Israel crisis drags on, but this is a new low.

The mission of Birthright, as quoted by Benedikt, is to "ensure the continuity of the Jewish people by strengthening Jewish identity, Jewish communities, and solidarity with Israel." Nowhere in this mission statement is joining the army mentioned. Yet Benedikt writes, "Though most trip alumni do not join the IDF (Birthright’s spokeswoman told me they don’t keep track), to do so seems like the ultimate fulfillment of Birthright’s mission—the ultimate expression of a Jew’s solidarity with Israel is to take up arms to defend it."

Yes, apparently "solidarity" = becoming an Israeli soldier.

Soldiers in training, according to Benedikt
This couldn't be further from the truth. Birthright Israel is really about one thing, and that's getting Jewish boys and girls to make babies together. Everything about the trip points out the precariousness of the Jewish people, our shaky place in the world, something not always evident within the upper middle class Jewish communities of the United States, where, by and large, we're free from antisemitism and generally accepted. The biggest threat to Jews today is not Hamas, but intermarriage, conversion and secularism, which is achieving over many generations what Hitler attempted to do in just one. For many Jews today, being Jewish is watching Curb Your Enthusiasm and enjoying lox on a bagel... and if that's the extent of it, then what about the next generation? What kind of faith will they pass on?

Orthodox communities are growing--with the amount of children they produce, that's a given. But the middle-of-the-road, Conservative Judaism movement that gave me my upbringing and once served as a model for modern Judaism is falling apart. This brand of Judaism doesn't pretend someone is dead if they marry outside the faith... and while that's the right thing to do, it means that subsequent generations are one step further removed from the culture and beliefs that withstood the Spanish Inquisition, the crusades and Hitler. It means as time goes on, American Jews are becoming simply Americans. The Jewish part, the part that survived centuries of persecution, is being lost.

Birthright Israel attempts to restore a sense of duty to maintaining this Jewish identity-- that even if we do choose to intermarry, even if we don't share the religious beliefs of our ancestors, we have a responsibility to keep the ideals and beliefs of Judaism alive. For most Birthright participants, this may mean going to synagogue a bit more often, celebrating Shabbat on Friday nights, or simply educating themselves more about Judaism and Jewish history. For others, they may seek out a Jewish spouse (maybe the girl they hooked up with on their trip).

Joining the IDF is something apart from that. Yes, on my Birthright trip, we spent time with kids our own age who wore IDF uniforms. But none of us joined the IDF. Instead, one member of our group fell in love with one of them. Teddy from California and Shilana from Tel Aviv have been together for close to five years now. That's the endgame.

Benedikt writes, "What makes an American kid with shaky Hebrew and no ties to the state of Israel suddenly decide he is ready to make this sacrifice? Maybe Max was especially lost, or especially susceptible, or maybe he was just looking to do some good and became convinced by his Birthright experience that putting on an IDF uniform and grabbing a gun was the way to do it."

Max Steinberg's sense of duty extended to fighting for Israel, the same way so many young Americans join the military here, in the United States. But it's a decision separate and apart from a 10-day program aimed at getting Jewish kids to bone each other. Max could have moved to Israel later in life, waiting until he aged out of military service (age 30). Instead, he chose to join the IDF even sooner than he legally was required to as a new immigrant (olim, as they're called, have 1 year of acclimation-- Max signed up six months after his Birthright trip), and joined an elite sharpshooting force voluntarily. He didn't have to do any of that. Birthright certainly didn't tell him to, unless I was in the bathroom when everyone else was taking target practice.

It's clear Benedikt sees Birthright as a brainwashing organization: "It turns out that it’s not that hard to persuade young people to see the world a certain way and that Birthright is very good at doing it. You spend hundreds of millions of dollars to convince young Jews that they are deeply connected to a country that desperately needs their support? This is what you get."

Except it's not what you get. You get Teddy and Shilana. You get me. You get the thousands of other participants who did not join the IDF, but have a deeper appreciation for their roots. Max's brother and sister, who were on the same Birthright trip, did not make the same decision. Perhaps they were just snoozing when Birthright made the "take up arms for Israel" pitch?

Max is dead because of a Hamas gunman. That's it.  Pointing a finger at Birthright is shifting blame away from the people with guns, rockets and bombs. And that's where the blame should lie.

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