Letter to the Editor: The Real Purpose–A Defense of Birthright



Upon opening last week’s Maroon-News, I was quite unsettled to find a commentary piece boasting an unqualified indictment of the Taglit-Birthright Israel program. The author, Sam Spitz, takes Birthright to task for what he believes to be its maliciously motivated endeavor to both misinform American Jews, as well as contribute to the sustenance of an anti-Arab bias among the next generation of Jewish leaders.

Spitz was thoroughly disturbed by what he perceived as a calculated lack of infor­mation about the perspectives of people liv­ing in the West Bank and Gaza Strip areas. He was also offended by the fact that, on several occasions, Birthright staff members freely made “abhorrent, Islamophobic” re­marks; he implies that such statements are deleterious not only because of their intrin­sically hateful nature, but also because of the danger that his peers could take such slurs as truth.

I have no right to question the authen­ticity of Spitz’s description of his Birthright experience, nor do I intend to; such an un­dertaking would be disrespectful. However, as a past Birthright participant and a gener­ally informed person, as well as a student of history and religion, I do have a responsi­bility to respond to some of the allegations raised by this article.

Spitz’s piece is very politically charged, repeatedly referring to the respective check­points and security fences that separate the West Bank and Gaza from the rest of Israel.

While these topics are more than wor­thy of discussion, the major point that Spitz seemed to have missed is that Birth­right is in no way the appropriate forum for a discourse on such issues.

Indeed, Birthright’s mission statement clearly articulates that the program was created “in order to diminish the growing division between Israel and Jewish com­munities around the world; to strengthen the sense of solidarity among world Jewry; and to strengthen participants’ personal Jewish identity and connection to the Jewish people.”

Birthright endeavors to create feelings of connectedness among American Jews, the state of Israel and the worldwide Jew­ish community; it seeks to provide a mean­ingful cultural and religious experience, to make participants understand the joy and value that they can derive from their Juda­ism. Its very name – Taglit – calls upon par­ticipants to “discover” the land on which an historic Jewish community once lived, and on which a current Jewish community es­tablished a democratic state in the wake of a devastating genocide. Birthright’s raison d’être is to foster meaningful connections between the next generation of American Jews and the culture, history and religion that they all share.

In light of that, it is upsetting to hear that Birthright representatives are espous­ing such distasteful sentiments. However, having heard detailed stories about over a dozen trips from friends, classmates and even Colgate’s former rabbi (who led a trip several years back), as well as having had my own Birthright experience this past summer, this sort of behavior seems to be anomalous. Most discussions on my trips and others about which I have heard, fo­cused either on people’s personal experi­ences at each site visited, or on how the trip as a whole had affected their Jewish identity. The most disturbing thing that happened to me in Israel was getting stuck in an Alumni Hall-sized elevator for almost 30 minutes with 13 other people, one of whom was a claustrophobe.

What I am trying to say is that for all his allegations that Birthright as an organiza­tion is dedicated to “hiding Israel’s flaws,” Spitz seems to have ignored Birthright’s actual mission entirely. Spitz does to Birth­right exactly what he accuses Birthright of doing to Israel – he is misrepresenting it by espousing a half-truth.

Yes, there are undeniably major social and political issues with which the nation is currently contending, and yes, hateful rhetoric must be replaced with rational dia­logue if these matters are ever to be solved to the satisfaction of all involved parties.

But Birthright is not about address­ing these concerns. It is about providing its participants with a meaningful Jewish experience. To criticize Birthright for not focusing on, for instance, Palestinian griev­ances, is like criticizing your English Liter­ature professor for not teaching you Num­ber Theory; the latter is simply outside the scope of the former’s stated purpose.

On another note, I proudly accept Spitz’s challenge to engage in “meaningful dialogue” about the issues facing Israelis and Arabs and encourage everyone to do the same. However, I urge you to do so dispassionately. Do your research, talk to people who have lived in the region and reach your own conclusions.

I am self-aware enough to admit that I am not impartial is enough to mediate any sort of dialogue, but frankly neither is Spitz. His opinion informs the lan­guage he uses throughout his article. He calls people with different opinions “ideo­logical adversaries” rather than “interlocu­tors.” He refers to Gandhi and Mandela, implying an obvious comparison between the oppressed groups that these men rep­resented and the Palestinians. He says that Americans are “seldom exposed” to the “Arab perspective,” conveniently ignoring the many ways in which this perspective is easily accessible, whether it be through the myriad Arab press outlets available on the internet, or just by taking a class on the subject – Professor Khan’s History of the Modern Middle East course would be a great place to start. An implicit bias is just as harmful as an explicit one, and both must be avoided if we are to truly have a “meaningful dialogue.”

I applaud Spitz for his desire to spark a discussion of this nature. However, I sim­ply cannot allow him to take aim at such a valuable organization that has served to en­rich the lives of thousands of young adults looking to explore their own cultural and religious identity in his effort to do so.