Birthright Israel calls on its alumni to ‘take back Zionism’

Israel/Palestine
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One more for the “War is peace” file: Birthright Israel alumni are invited to attend a February 1st kick-off event for a new (self-described) “international movement” called Take Back Zionism. The evening’s theme: “Zionism is Humanitarianism.” Holocaust survivor-turned-ultra-hawk Elie Wiesel is the headliner, with an introduction by co-founding Birthright father, hedge fund demi-billionaire Michael Steinhardt. Promotional materials promise festivities will include “Israel’s Special Ops Humanitarian Task force” and “Israel’s Disaster Recovery Work in Haiti, New Orleans and Sri Lankaz [sic].” Tickets are $25 a pop, $150 for the VIP reception/open bar with Wiesel. If I don’t get to hold Baby Israel and hug his Haitian mother, I’m going to be very upset.

In many ways, Wiesel is the perfect front man for Birthright’s new venture. “Jerusalem is above politics,” Wiesel wrotein an open letter in April, echoing Birthright’s insistent claims of presenting Israel through an “apolitical” lens. (Conveniently, being “above politics” helps render institutions immune to political challenges.) “[Jerusalem] belongs to the Jewish people and is much more than a city, it is what binds one Jew to another,” Wiesel continued, adding, “And, contrary to certain media reports, Jews, Christians and Muslims ARE allowed to build their homes anywhere in the city.” Israel as exceptional, Israel as belonging not to its actual citizens but rather to diaspora Jewry, Israel as the perennial victim of the media’s slandering—it’s surprising Birthright and Wiesel don’t team up for hasbara more often.

Note that the evening’s headliner isn’t a David Grossman, someone to rehabilitate Zionism from the Avigdor Liebermans. Take Back Zionism is sponsored by the Birthright Israel Foundation-affiliated Jewish Enrichment Center, an Orthodox outfit that offers programming that ranges from challah baking to screenings of Crossing the Line: the Intifada Comes to Campus, the latest from the rabid anti-Muslim filmmaker who brought us Obsession: Radical Islam’s War Against the West. Take Back Zionism’s partners are the usual right wing pro-Israel groups: Stand with Us, the David Project, AIPAC, Zionist Organization of America, and so forth. But none of this should be surprising given that Birthright co-founders Michael Steinhardt and Charles Bronfman are both former trustees of AIPAC’s one-off think tank, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

“Take Back Zionism”—from whom? From the delegitimizers? “Contemporary discourse seeks to narrowly define Zionism and attack it by limiting its scope,” the website reads, as if to argue, “Despite what the Israel haters say, Zionism is not the suffering of Gazans, the interminable Occupation, the Judaization of East Jerusalem, the forced ghettoization of Negev Bedouin, or any other fiction-based headline.” Birthright’s “Zionism is Humanitarianism” endeavor invites young people to retreat into the Israel-right-or-wrong bunker—and then put on blinders, just to make sure there is no reckoning with the very real humanitarian crises underway between the Jordan and the Mediterranean. Take Back Zionism exudes that familiar stink of desperation that increasingly seems to emanate from everything the American Jewish establishment does these days in relation to Israel and young people. It feels like an aging generation’s attempted Astroturf operation that’s grossly misjudged its desired base. Yes, the young will eat the old. I hope.

Then again, there seem to be plenty of Birthright alumni who’ve bought into what Bronfman calls “the selling of Jewishness to Jews.” At takebackzionism.org, visitors are invited to submit their own answers to the prompt “Zionism is…,” which are then featured on a scrolling marquis. With casual bellicosity, one woman named Hadassah offered, “The reason we have the state of Israel, to show the Arabs it is our birthright.” A visitor named Brad ventured, “Manifest Destiny of the Jews”—let’s hope, against all odds, it was intended as critique. ”There are no right answers!” the website assures; it’s doubtful they’d approve a definition of Zionism that reminded visitors, as New Historian-turned-hawk Benny Morris put it unapologetically, “A Jewish state would not have come into being without the uprooting of 700,000 Palestinians…There was no choice but to expel the population.” Ditto a submission of Hannah Arendt’s formulation of Zionism as “German-inspired nationalism.” (Keep those words in mind when watching videos of the Birthright extravaganza known as the “Mega Event,” described by one former American Birthright tour leader as “a fascist rally.”)

Paging Jewish Voice for Peace: when you interrupted Netanyahu in New Orleans with correctives like “the Occupation delegitimizes Israel,” you made me proud to be young and Jewish. 73% of Birthright alumni describe their fun bus tours as “life changing”; the hawkish Israel on Campus Coalition boasts over 50% of their pro-Israel activists are Birthright alumni. On Thursday, Netanyahu announced $100 million of Israeli government funding for Birthright over the next three years, with a goal of bringing 51,000 diaspora Jews to Israel per year. JVP, please raise hell in New York on Februrary 1st and help take back the young from Birthright’s clenches. If only a bunch of left-wing billionaires would get together and realize JVP’s alternate vision of a free, ten-day Israel trip open to both Jews and Palestinians…

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