Thursday, June 30, 2011

Birthright, Birth Left & Hormonal Mifgashim

Some Israelis disapprove of her muckraking the Taglit after accepting a junket. Still, the romance of Birthright Israel captivated Kiera Feldman, who recounts her ten days on the 'love incubator' touring Israel's ethnocracy for free in the latest issue of The Nation. (Cue background music: Hava Nagila on the oudh.)

This unapologetically Zionist program originated with lefty Israeli politician Yossi Beilin, better known for the Oslo accords. Over the years, he has attracted deep-pocketed Jews to be godfathers of Birthright. Co-founder Charles Bronfman, the billionaire heir to the Canadian Seagram’s liquor empire, and Sheldon Adelson, the Las Vegas casino king who is the 5th richest American, stand out. Touting Israeli settlers' Ahava Dead Sea products seems to be a sub-plot.

Some excerpts from Feldman's piece:

A new era is dawning for Birthright. What began as an identity booster has become an ideology machine, pumping out not only Jewish baby-makers but defenders of Israel. Or that’s the hope.

'hormonal mifgashim,’”is the promotion— by turns winking and overt —of flings among participants, or between participants and soldiers. “No problem if there’s intimate encounters,” an Israel Outdoors employee told American staffers during training. “In fact, it’s encouraged!” Birthright boasts that alumni are 51 percent more likely to marry other Jews than nonparticipants.

The free trip is framed as a “gift” from philanthropists, Jewish federations and the State of Israel. Far-right Casino magnate Sheldon Adelson is the largest individual donor, having given Birthright $100 million over the past five years. The Israeli government provided Birthright $100 million during the program’s first decade; Prime Minister Netanyahu recently announced another $100 million in government funding. Birthright’s budget for 2011 is $87 million, a number expected to reach $126 million by 2013, enough to bring 51,000 participants to Israel that year alone.

To apply for a Birthright trip, participants need just one Jewish grandparent—and to pass a screening interview. (Practicing a religion other than Judaism is an automatic disqualifier.) After their ten days on Birthright, participants may postpone their return by up to three months to travel in the region, and it is not unheard of for progressives to “birth left” in the West Bank afterward (as I did)— although Birthright policy is that anyone discovered to have a “hidden agenda” of “exploiting” the free trip “to get access to the territories” to promote “non-Israeli” causes can lose her spot. Birthrighters planning anti-occupation activism with the International Solidarity Movement have been dismissed.

“Welcome home” is a predominant message, a reference to the promise of instant Israeli citizenship for diaspora Jews under the 1950 Law of Return. (About 17,000 Birthright alumni now live in Israel, according to the Jerusalem Post.) It serves as a pointed riposte to the right of return claimed under international law by the 700,000 Palestinians expelled in 1948 upon the creation of the Jewish state, and their descendants.

My traveling companions were not monsters. Birthright’s overstimulation brings about a deadening of feeling. It’s hard to imagine the suffering of others when you’re having the time of your life. In Tours That Bind, sociologist Shaul Kelner contends that Birthright activities revolve around “fun and good feeling,” meaning “the group’s hedonism is thus one of the most effective checks against a determinedly critical politics.”

It’s pleasure as a medium for Jewish nationalism. In Birthright, dissent is for fun-suckers.

Birthright Israel's raison d'etre is the declining birthrate for secular Israeli Jews. Young Jews from the Diaspora are being invited to bump up the Jewish population figures.

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