Why I Steal from Birthright

3 Oct

Don’t get me wrong, I loved my free trip to Israel. I rode a camel (see below), made some new friends and got closer with old ones, ate lots of falafel and even learned stuff. Similarly, the free Shabbat parties dinners (multiple kegs and take-out Indian) I was able to host for friends, Jew and non-Jew alike, were wonderful.

I am earnestly thankful for the $3,000+ (emphasis on the +) that some wealthy Zionists have spent in a brazen attempt to instil in me a deeeeeeep connection, not necessarily spiritual, with Israel. The thing is, I am also quite resentful of this expenditure for two reasons:

1. As a budding NGOist (until I find a real job) with a little bit of experience in the non-profit world and also the world of ultra-poverty, $3000+ seems like a lot to spend to send a bunch of spoiled kids (taking a sample size of my group, 100% of whom, including myself, could more than easily have done without the free trip, and subsequent subsidized house parties) to Israel and filling them with good vibes, beer and Dead Sea salt. $3000 is enough to fund the salaries of 10 teachers in a Burmese refugee camp for a year. Its more than the average annual income of about a third of the world. You get the idea.

Obviously there is a critical flaw to this argument: what about donating to museums, the opera, college? Well, yeah…I would put donating to Birthright into this category, and I am guilty of doing some wasteful spending myself (see above description of how I spent the Birthright Shabbat money).

The real reason I steal from Birthright is:

2. I don’t like being told that Israel is a ‘Jewish State’, and more personally, that I should feel a connection in any way to the place because I’m a Jew. I don’t and don’t think I should.

A great op-ed by Sari Nusseibeh in Al Jazeera pretty much encapsulates the anti-Jewish State position that is the principle point from which I draw my discontent with the Birthrightists…

Demands for a “Jewish State” from Israeli politicians are growing without giving thought to what this might mean, and its supporters claim that it would be as natural as calling France a French State. However, if we consider the subject dispassionately, the idea of a “Jewish State” is logically and morally problematic because of its legal, religious, historical and social implications. The implications of this term therefore need to be spelled out, and we are sure that once they are, most people – and most Israeli citizens, we trust – will not accept these implications.

First, let us say that confusion immediately arises here because the term “Jewish” can be applied both to the ancient race of Israelites and their descendants, as well as to those who believe in and practice the religion of Judaism. These generally overlap, but not always. For example, some ethnic Jews are atheists and there are converts to Judaism (leaving aside the question of whether these are accepted as such by Ultra-Orthodox Jews) who are not ethnic Jews.

Second, let us suggest also that having a modern nation-state being defined by one ethnicity or one religion is problematic in itself – if not inherently self-contradictory – because the modern nation-state as such is a temporal and civic institution, and because no state in the world is – or can be in practice – ethnically or religiously homogenous.

Third, recognition of Israel as a “Jewish state” implies that Israel is, or should be, either a theocracy (if we take the word “Jewish” to apply to the religion of Judaism) or an apartheid state (if we take the word “Jewish” to apply to the ethnicity of Jews), or both, and in all of these cases, Israel is then no longer a democracy – something which has rightly been the pride of most Israelis since the country’s founding in 1948.

Fourth, at least one in five Israelis – 20 per cent of the population, according to the Israel Central Bureau of Statistics – is ethnically Arab (and are mostly either Muslim, Christian, Druze or Bahai), and recognising Israel as a “Jewish State” as such makes one-fifth of the population of Israel automatically strangers in their own native land and opens the door to legally reducing them, most undemocratically, to second-class citizens (or perhaps even stripping them of their citizenship and other rights) – something that no-one, much less a Palestinian leader, has a right to do.

Fifth, recognizing a “Jewish State” as such in Israel would mean legally that while Palestinians no longer have citizens’ rights there, any member of world Jewry outside of Israel (up to 10 million people perhaps), should be entitled to full citizens’ rights there, no matter wherever they may be in the world today and regardless of their current nationality. Indeed, Israel publicly admits that it does not hold the land for the benefit of its citizens but holds it, in trust, on behalf of the Jews of the world for all time. This is something that happens in practice, but that obviously¬†Palestinians in the occupied territories – including Jerusalem – do not see as fair, especially as they are constantly forcibly evicted off their ancestral homeland by Israel to make way for foreign Jewish settlers, and because Palestinians in their diaspora are denied the same right to come and live.

The rest of the op-ed is a little wax-biblical for my taste, but the takeaway is pretty clear. A Jewish State that is a democracy is a contradiction. The argument on the other end, which is I gather, the argument of my parents and the majority of their generation, is that following the Holocaust, the “Jewish State” is our only chance for survival. To that, all I can say is I’d rather be dead than a tyrant.

The lesson to be drawn out the collective Jewish past should be one of empathy. As a diasporic people with a history rooted in discrimination, we should value what it means to be displaced, poor and generally shat upon by the world. We should be the first people to fight the famine in Somalia, the first people to find homes and open up our own to those who have been shut out of their’s by war and intolerance, the first to understand and stand up for the universal human rights of anyone, anywhere…we shouldn’t suck so much.

I hope we don’t die out, but if we do, I hope Israel isn’t the way in which we are remembered. Or if it is, I hope it takes the American mantle of ‘give us your tired, your poor…’ I’m not gonna hold my breath.

*please don’t tell anyone at Taglit Birthright about this post…I hope to throw some Shabbats in the future.


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