INN-sidious! An Open Letter to Birthright Participants

Extremist fear nuance; we don’t. Birthright’s educational vision is multidimensional but not contradictory.

The Jerusalem Post

July 3, 2018

INN-sidious! An Open Letter

to Birthright Participants

Extremist fear nuance; we don’t. Birthright’s educational vision is multidimensional but not contradictory.​

D ear Taglit-Birthright Israel participants,

A friendly warning: a small but loud group is treating you like dupes. Last week, some members of a marginal organization called IfNotNow (INN) abandoned their bus-community – “suddenly” upset by Birthright’s allegedly one-sided education.

These extremists call the reasonable refusal to pivot every Jewish experience around Israel’s relationship with the Palestinians “dishonest.” Yet they want you to believe that members of the same group happened to be on the same trip, happened to keep trying to hijack the educational conversation to advance their agenda, happened to find a competing trip to join (having flown to Israel on Birthright’s dime), then happened to have their cameras recording when they confronted their tour educator and deserted.

Hmm. Beware those who preach integrity yet lack it. So many planned coincidences undermine their credibility and insult your intelligence. These young people INN-sidiously INN-filtrated Birthright and other Jewish organizations. Once again, they abused the American Jewish community’s trust. Treating everyone else as unenlightened idiots lacking their sophistication and sensitivity, they abandoned their new community – melodramatically, intentionally, deceitfully.

You know the drill. Birthrighters assume their peers come with an openness, sincerity and basic decency. If you don’t, you’re essentially stealing spaces from others on Birthright’s waiting list. If you don’t, you’re bonding with others on a platform of treachery.

Predictably, the INNers sigh on their video that “sacrificing” these relationships was painful – while touting their own “bravery.” But this con was like Republicans crossing over to vote for the weakest candidate in a Democratic primary: they weren’t open to learning how to navigate their own Jewish journey, with no strings attached – which is Birthright’s mission. They came handcuffed to their ideology – and committed to poisoning others’ experience.

Beyond betraying that bus community’s trust, their educators’ emotional investment in them, and their free Birthright gift, IfNot’s Nonsense disrespects all 650,000 Birthright alumni. They assume you’re not smart or savvy enough to understand what Birthright is – and isn’t. They’re making the mistakes Birthright is committed to avoiding: they’re underestimating you. They think you’ll swallow a simplistic propaganda line. They mock your ability to judge, sift, assess and draw independent conclusions about our rich heritage, our wonderful state and, yes, Israel’s complexities.

These dishonest critics claim Birthright miseducates and misleads because Birthright won’t mimic their partisan agenda and obsession. Read INN’s website. It’s so busy being “anti-occupation” that it rejects the Jewish people’s consensus values: “We do not take a unified stance on BDS, Zionism, or the question of statehood.” Everyone’s free to say that. But anyone who attends Birthright knows where Birthright stands on these issues: antiboycott, pro-Zionist and pro-Israel’s right to exist (which INN coyly calls this “question of statehood”).

While openly embracing those principles, Birthright encourages a culture of questioning. I’m a lay leader – watching Birthright as outsider and insider since 2000 – writing this unauthorized column independently. I fear no questions. In the spirit of the office hours we professors hold regularly, I invite Birthrighters with sincere questions to email I’ll meet as many of you as I can, individually or in groups.

EXTREMISTS FEAR nuance; we don’t. Birthright’s educational vision is multidimensional but not contradictory. Beyond refusing, as a nonpartisan, big tent, Jewish people-oriented organization to grind partisan axes, Birthright offers a layered, proportioned taste of Jewish history, Jewish identity, Jewish peoplehood and Israel. The challenge of how Israel lives with its neighbors is a legitimate part of the conversation, but it’s not the only legitimate conversation. Turning Birthright into a trip centered around the Palestinians’ story rather than our story would be like teaching the alphabet using only the letter “X.” Of course, teach X – but don’t neglect the 25 other letters.

The same answer applies to all partisans seeking to drag Birthright left or right. Birthright is a Jewish identity-building journey. It’s Jewish peoplehood 101, using Israel 101 as a main – and quite appealing and fun – platform. Hopefully, you’ll return to Israel and deepen your understanding of the issues that most grab you. That could include addressing the Palestinian question from whichever political perspective you choose.

Staying nonpartisan in these polarizing times – with Israel targeted for delegitimization and destruction – is difficult. But Birthright’s broad peoplehood platform is precisely what has proved so magical.

Last week’s mega-event for thousands – not five – showcased Birthright’s expansive spirit. Sheldon and Miriam Adelson addressed the participants, as did Charles Bronfman. The Adelsons fund conservative causes. Bronfman funds liberal causes. But together, they – and thousands of other donors, Left to Right – fund this big, broad, beautiful big tent Jewish peoplehood cause, too.

I’m proud of Birthright’s 18-year track record of inviting a higher number of Jews than the 600,000 who lived in Israel in 1948 into a conversation about who they are, who we are, and who we can be as a people. I’m proud of Birthright’s sterling reputation for respecting participants and empowering them to captain their Jewish journeys. And I’m proud to stand with the overwhelming majority of you, dismissing the rare disgruntled ideologues.

Birthright’s English name is the foundational, opening welcome – you’re in, you belong, join us! Its Hebrew name, Taglit (Discovery), emphasizes the experiential, the ideological, the revelatory – open up, see what you can find, within our people, within yourself.

No one expects Israel, the Jewish people or, frankly, you to be perfect. But perhaps through this open, honest, exploratory process, you will become proud, engaged, thoughtful, critical, Jewish citizens, building constructively, not deriding destructively.

The writer is the author of the newly released  The Zionist Ideas, an update and expansion of Arthur Hertzberg’s classic anthology The Zionist Idea, published by the Jewish Publication Society. A distinguished scholar of North American history at McGill University, he is the author of 10 books on American history, including  The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s.

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Professor of History · McGill University Leacock 628 · 855 Sherbrooke St. W · Montreal, Quebec H3A 2T7 · Canada