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Birthright: Why the Controversy?

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Post  Admin on Thu 18 Jul 2019, 8:04 pm

Birthright: Why the Controversy?
In recent years, controversy about Birthright-Israel has been making headlines. Birthright has been accused of being a mouthpiece for a right-wing Israeli government and donors. Some claim Birthright gives a one sided Zionist-centered view of Israel while ignoring the situation for Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, as well as non-Jews living within the Green Line. There are differences in opinions of those who criticize the organization. Some call for a complete boycott of Birthright trips to Israel, while others simply wish to include more education about the conflict in the itinerary.

So, what is Birthright, why the controversy, and is it accomplishing its goals?

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A Brief History
Birthright began in December of 1999 out of concern that rising assimilation in the diaspora was leading to disengagement with Jewish life and the State of Israel. The idea of a free trip to Israel for every Jewish young adult came about in 1994 through Yossi Beilin, Israel’s Deputy Foreign Minister at the time. To date, Birthright has given the opportunity to 650,000 Jewish young adults to travel throughout Israel for free. In Birthright’s own words, their trips have three educational focuses at their core:

Narratives of the Jewish people;
Contemporary Israel;
Ideas and values of the Jewish people.
A unique aspect of the Birthright trip compared to other trips to Israel is the IDF soldiers who act not as security, but as participants on the trip. This experience is known as the Mifgash. This is a key part of how Birthright creates connections between diaspora Jews and Israelis. The Israeli soldiers on Birthright trips are often the same age as the participants and relate to things like tastes in music and common young adult problems. Birthright participants leave the trip with new connections to the State of Israel and new Israeli friends.

Why is Birthright Controversial?
Controversy around Birthright gained major media attention in the summer of 2018, when a small number of participants decided to walk off the trip, claiming that Birthright was giving them only a one-sided view of the conflict. They wanted to talk to Palestinians and visit the West Bank, which is not included in Birthright’s itinerary. Controversy also surrounds Sheldon Adelson, a major supporter of President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Due to his forthright political views, some see Birthright simply as a mouthpiece of the Israeli government and the right-wing.

While controversy around Birthright is often only concentrated on its views of the conflict, there are other criticisms of the trip as well, including the promotion of an Israel-centered view of Jewish life, rather than embracing the value of Jewish life in the diaspora.

So, are these young Jewish activists right? Is Birthright simply a mouthpiece for a right-wing view of Israel? In order to understand the Birthright controversy, you have to go back to its founding.

Birthright was born during a time of immense hope for peace, in between the peace accords that became known as Oslo I and Oslo II. During that time, Yossi Beilin traveled to the United States in his role as Deputy Foreign Minister, and became concerned about the continuity of the Jewish people outside of Israel.

His idea was to “create a wide network of young Jews from around the world and from Israel, to increase awareness of the common Jewish story, not as a religion but as extended family.”

Related reading: I Teach at Birthright. IfNotNow is Wrong.

When he shared his idea, he faced backlash from the government and the Jewish Agency, who wanted more money to be invested into Israel’s periphery, not to “rich American students.” Wealthy philanthropists who would eventually become major funders of Birthright called the plan unrealistic and unsustainable. Birthright only came into being five years later, under another left-wing government led by Ehud Barak. 

Between 2006 and 2007, Sheldon Adelson, then known most for being a wealthy casino magnate, donated $60 million dollars to Birthright in order to open spots for 24,000 participants who had been on a waiting list due to Birthright’s exploding popularity. From that point on, he became Birthright’s biggest donor, donating millions of dollars to keep up with Birthright’s growing participation.

Birthright has maintained that Adelson has no impact on the trip itinerary.

Adelson is joined by a variety of other donors from all over the political spectrum. Despite their deep ideological differences, they come together in their support for Birthright because of the trip’s apolitical nature.

Taglit Birthright participants visit at the Western Wall in 2014. Photo by Flash90
Who Decides the Itinerary?
Birthright doesn’t operate its own trips. It utilizes independent trip organizers such as Hillel International, Chabad, and other independent providers to run trips for them. Even as Birthright grew and new donors joined, including its biggest contributor Sheldon Adelson, Birthright did not change how it operates its trips.

All trips must visit a Jewish heritage site, a Zionist heritage site, a contemporary national heritage site, a “natural” heritage site, and a Shoah (Holocaust) heritage and learning site. These requirements give Birthright trips significant flexibility, allowing individual providers to offer unique themed trips including:

Medically Accessible
Biking and Hiking
Art, Music, and Entertainment
In 2016,  wanting to include more voices in the Israel conversation, Birthright added a mandatory two-hour lecture on geopolitics of the region, as well as including opportunities to talk to Israeli-Arabs. This has caused controversy from some on the right, calling the inclusion of Arab voices unnecessary to include in the Birthright itinerary.

Remaining Apolitical
Birthright Despite calls from left-wing groups such as IfNotNow and J-Street that Birthright is a right-wing organization, Birthright maintains that it is apolitical. However, left-wing groups claim that by not taking students to places like checkpoints and the West Bank, they are inherently being political.

Let’s be honest: Birthright knows its audience.

College campuses are more polarized than ever. In an annual survey of first year college students taken by the Cooperative Institutional Research Program at the University of California, Los Angeles in 2016, a little over 42 percent of incoming college freshmen defined themselves as politically “middle of road,” the fewest percentage of moderates since the annual survey’s inception more than fifty years ago.  The report also calls the 2016 incoming class “the most politically polarized” in its history.

If the goal of Birthright is to ensure Jewish continuity in the midst of a rising tide of assimilation and intermarriage, while at the same time appealing to a wide range of polarized political views, then the only solution is to not be political. If going to a settlement would anger liberals, and visiting a checkpoint would anger conservatives, then the only solution is to do what would satisfy the greatest number of people: Don’t do either.

Real Results
The Jewish Futures Project (JFP) is a long-term study on the impact of Birthright. It is conducted by the Maurice and Marilyn Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University. Its latest report in 2017 showed that Birthright is accomplishing the goals of its founders, outweighing any controversy connected to Birthright.

Key Findings of the Study:

Birthright participants are more likely to feel a connection to Israel, have a Jewish spouse, raise children Jewish and be engaged in Jewish life, even a decade or more after the trip.

In contrast to reports of “distancing” from Israel among young American Jews, Birthright’s effect on connection to Israel persists and is significant. Most JFP panelists feel at least “somewhat” connected to Israel, and participants report higher levels of connection than their nonparticipant peers.

If the goal of Birthright is to ensure the continuity of the Jewish people, and studies show it is accomplishing its goals, then Birthright has no real incentive to change its itinerary, and why should it?  From its inception, Birthright has claimed to be an apolitical trip, focusing on connecting diaspora Jews to Israel and the Jewish people. The focus is not and should not be the conflict.

Some Concluding Thoughts…
Something must be said about Birthright loud and clear: No one is forced to go on Birthright.

Birthright is just what it is described as – a gift that every Jewish young adult is entitled to. Just like any gift, one can politely decline.

Birthright also gives every participant the opportunity to extend their trip for a small cost and stay up to three months, during which participants are free and unrestricted to travel to places within Israel proper and the West Bank, talking to whomever they wish. There are plenty of low-cost programs that offer opportunities to travel to settlements, Palestinian cities and villages, and checkpoints in the West Bank. Information about these programs is just a Google search away.

In the social justice world, people often speak of privilege: white privilege, male privilege, etc. What about the privilege of Jewish identity? Of having had the ability to grow up learning about who you are and about Jewish values and history. Birthright is about equalizing that privilege. Leveling the playing field for all Jews, so that everyone has an opportunity to experience what it is like to be a part of a people – the Jewish People. Surely the opportunity Birthright provides outweighs any controversy.

See the Israel

What’s in a Name? The Origins of Judea, Philistia, Palestine and Israel
Origins of Judea and Israel
The land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea has been inhabited for millennia, this much is indisputable. Jericho, Jerusalem, Jenin, and Jaffa are all some of the oldest cities in the world, having been continuously settled since before 2000 BCE.

However, just about everything else about this land is contentious, right down to the name. Palestinian historians such as Nur Masalha and key members of the Palestinian leadership as high as Mahmoud Abbas have claimed that the Palestinians are descendants of ancient peoples such as the Canaanites and Philistines, and that it is from this connection that the name “Palestine” is derived.

Bearing in mind that nationalism as we understand it is in and of itself a 19th-century phenomenon, it’s worth asking if the Palestinian claims are true.

Did the name Palestine come from the people, or did the people take their name from the place?

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Origins of the Name “Palestine”
Map of the Ancient Kingdoms of Israel, Judah, and Philistia, Origins of Judea and Israel
The ancient kingdoms of Israel, Judah, and Philistia
There are two primary sources for the region which is variously known today as Israel, Palestine, the Levant, and Canaan: archaeology and the Bible. While there are differences between the two, archaeologists and historians agree that the general narrative of the Bible is correct: Canaanites ruled the Levant before being pushed out by the ancient Hebrews, who then fought with the Philistines until invading empires conquered both tribes.

The name “Palestine” first appeared in Herodotus’ 5th century BCE histories to describe the coastal area of the Levant where the Philistines lived, before Romans applied it to the whole of the area following the suppression of the Bar Kochba Revolt of 132 CE. Thereafter, the word Palestine applied to the whole of the land, and subsequent rulers identified it as such.

Origins of the Palestinian People
Origins of Judea and Israel, Map of the Province of Ottoman Syria (Wikimedia Commons)
The province of Ottoman Syria
It is important to remember that while the land was called Palestine by the year 134 CE, Islam would not arrive in the region for another 500 years.

In 634, the leaders of the first Muslim caliphate launched a series of invasions which resulted in the conquest of the previously Eastern Roman provinces of the Levant, including the area then known as Palestine. The conquest was followed by the mass conversion of the population to Islam and simultaneous migration of Arabic people from their native peninsula into their newly conquered territories, where they rapidly integrated into societies and mingled with the inhabitants, creating distinct genetic groupings closely matched with Arabic culture.

The Levant was ruled by a series of empires and caliphates following the Islamic conquest, first the Rashidun, Umayyad, Abbasid, and Fatimid Caliphates, then the Kingdom of Jerusalem (established by the Crusaders), which was succeeded by the Ayyubid and  Mameluke Sultanates before finally being conquered by the Ottomans, who ruled the Levant from 1516 to 1917. Despite being a Turkish-dominated empire, the Ottomans were very successful in integrating the Arabs. Not until 1908 did Arabs begin to agitate for more rights and independence through political Arabism.

The Great Arab Revolt of 1916 backed by the British Empire ended Ottoman control over the area. The revolt was a product of Arab nationalism, the successor to political Arabism and the Arabic answer to Turkish nationalism.

However, not all Arabs were believers in the movement, and there was no widespread uprising across the Palestinian area. Despite this, following the end of World War I, the region of Palestine was included when the Arab Kingdom of Syria was declared, along with all of modern-day Syria, Lebanon, and parts of Jordan. Not until the kingdom fell apart in 1920 did any sort of specifically Palestinian national identity begin to emerge in response to Zionism and the rising levels of Jewish immigration into what was now the British Mandate for Palestine.

Origin of the Name “Judea”
Map of the Hasmonean Dynasty, Origins of Judea and Israel
The Hasmonean Dynasty
The name Judea comes from the Kingdom of Judah, one of the successor states of the biblical united monarchy which ruled all of ancient Israel. Founded in 934 BCE, the kingdom ruled the lands from Jerusalem to Beersheba until its conquest in 586 BCE by the Neo-Babylonians.

Although the kingdom was destroyed, the name survived with the Jewish people, and when an independent kingdom once again reemerged in 140 BCE, the land was referred to as Judea. This name even survived the Roman conquest of the kingdom, and the Roman province which was created from much of the former kingdom bore the name Judea (Latinized as Iudaea).

The people of Judea, however, did not appreciate Roman rule, and the Jewish inhabitants revolted multiple times, necessitating the deployment of huge armies. After the third and final one of these (the previously mentioned Bar Kochba Revolt), the Romans changed the name of the province itself as part of their effort to suppress Jewish nationalism, and thereafter the name Palestine stuck.

Origin of the Name “Israel”
Israel is an even older name than Judea, found in the Bible (Genesis 32:28):

Then the man said, “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel,[f] because you have struggled with God and with humans and have overcome.”

The name Israel was thereafter identified with the Tribes and Kingdom of Israel which Jacob’s descendants founded, and came to be synonymous with Judah, before eventually being replaced by it.

The first instance of widespread use of the name in the modern era was during the British Mandate: while the official name in English was the Mandate for Palestine, on official documents written in Hebrew the name would include the initials for Eretz Yisrael.

British Mandate Palestine
This, combined with the fact that the name Judah was associated with lands which mostly were not included under the partition plan of 1947, resulted in the name of the new Jewish state: Medinat Yisrael, the State of Israel.

Why Does This Matter?
In a different situation, this would merely be a debate over semantics: Levant, Canaan, Judea, Philistia, Palestine, Israel, they would all be different names for the same place.

Unfortunately, a key feature of Palestinian nationalism is the erasure of Jewish history, and so what the land is called does matter.  The Palestinian Authority routinely denounces archeological finds in the city of Jerusalem as fake or illegitimate (see here, here, and here). It is common to hear claims that “Jesus was a Palestinian,” but this is misleading; Jesus was most likely born in Bethlehem, which today is within the borders of the West Bank, but he was Jewish and at his time of birth Bethlehem was part of the Herodian Tetrarchy, a Jewish client state of Rome. Furthermore, claiming that Jesus was a Palestinian (or Israeli, or Arab, or Middle Easterner, etc.) is inherently wrong because none of these terms existed at the time. Jesus would certainly not have identified himself as Palestinian, because that concept existed only as a place name, and not even one in widespread use.

Related reading: How Ancient Coins and Seals Prove the Jewish Connection to Jerusalem

To be sure, the conclusion to draw is not that Palestinian Arabs have no national history or heritage, because they most certainly do. However, the Palestinian narrative of descent from Canaan continuously through to today is disingenuous at best and outright false at worst, because it implies that the idea of Palestine as a nation has existed for just as long, and this is demonstrably false.

In summary, the name Palestine originally had nothing to do with the Palestinian people, but instead was associated with first the Philistines and then the area where they had lived, while the Palestinian people are a mix of indigenous and Arabic populations who assumed the label off of the example of the British Mandate.

In contrast, the Jewish people are historically connected to the names of Judea/Judah and Israel. While this by no means invalidates Palestinian claims to peoplehood, it is important to recognize what is truth and what is not.

Maps of the ancient kingdoms, Ottoman province, Hasmonean dynasty and British Mandate Palestine all via Wikimedia Commons;


 Birthright: Why the Controversy? Balfou13
Tags: Balfour, Law, Legal Rights, Zionism, History

By Dr. Elana Yael Heideman

On November 2nd, 1917 the letter, known as the Balfour Declaration was sent from Lord Balfour to Lord Rothschild announcing British support of a “national home for the Jewish people” in Palestine. Written and publicized as the first international recognition of Jewish rights for sovereignty in our ancestral homeland, this momentous event was, like any writing, the product of a process that required time, effort, patience and compromise.

Following the infamous meeting between Balfour and Weizmann years earlier, the Zionist cause came to the attention of the then-British Prime Minister. When Lord Balfour was appointed as the Foreign Secretary in 1917, he was well-positioned to advance the Zionist dream. Thus, following several meetings between Balfour and Chaim Weizmann, a committee of fiery, passionate, and visionary Zionist leaders were actively involved in the drafting of what would become the historical declaration.

In any writing process, with many rounds of drafting and review there may be sentences, paragraphs, or even words that can be ambiguous and left up to the reader to grasp for themselves. When Leopold Amery, Achad Ha-Am, Cowen, Ettinger, Hyamson, Marks, Sieff, Leon Simon, Tolkowski, Jabotinski, Harry Sacher, Landman.came together to draft their proposal for Balfour, they faced real challenges in crafting a statement that would meet the high expectations of the British government but would also accommodate the deep desires of the Zionist vision.

On July 14, 1917, these members of the Zionist Political Committee met at the Imperial Hotel in London to do just that - by no means a simple task.The first draft, written by Leopold Amery focused on the importance of reconstituting the national home of the Jewish people and the impact on the Jewish people around the world. The committee continued to have ongoing debate over the proper wording and vision to be included in the public affirmation of Jewish nationalism, which was finalized on July 17 and then shared with Lord Balfour.

Josh Perelman of the National Museum of American Jewish History (NMAJH) emphasized the significance of the process. “The version on hotel stationary plainly stated that His Majesty accepted the principle of the National Home of the Jewish People in Palestine, and that he would endeavor for the achievement of that goal. The typed version expanded on that idea.Together, [the drafts] are able to show the iteration of process that led up to the official statement we know today. You can see them working through the vernacular."

The Balfour Declaration was edited four times before the final copy was released on November 2nd, confirming His Majesty’s Government's recognition and commitment to the Jewish national homeland. Each edition had a different focus.

Lord Balfour took the letter and redrafted it again with merely a few words in a bit of a tamer manner as early drafts proved to be too detailed and elaborate for the Government. Later, Lord Milner continued to edit the declaration twice making the declaration more passive as well as focusing on how this would affect the other nations. Out of fear for what may happen with non- Jewish communities in the land, Edwin Samuel Montagu, an anti-Zionist Jew and Secretary of State for India, urged for changes in the early draft to incorporate protection from anti-semitic persecution. All of these edits crafted together the Balfour Declaration as we know it today. It emphasized that the land belonged to the Jewish people while at the same time showing the rights of the others around the land.

When drafting the final version of what became the official Balfour Declaration, Lord Balfour felt the need to be as explicit as possible in his wording, especially for the Jews, Arabs, and the British who would all be directly affected by its implementation, as this letter touched on issues that were of the utmost complexity. He understood the need to make sure that the recipient and its subsequent readers would understand with precision what was written and that there were no words that could be lost in translation or misconstrued.

Whereas many have claimed that the declaration was little more than a colonialist endeavor, the careful wording of each draft of the document demonstrates the deep thinking, strategic referencing, and overall goal of this 67 word letter that would change the course of history.

In an earlier draft the Balfour Declaration refers to Jews as the “Jewish Race” in which later it changes to “The Jewish People”- why do you think this was an important change? What is the difference between a race and a people?
Does the use of the term “state” then differ from its use today? Why would that matter in how we understand the drafting of Balfour’s public affirmation?
What do you think are the most important aspects of the Balfour Declaration?
What would you add or subtract from the declaration if written today?
READ the Balfour Centenary Declaration - why does this declaration matter?

IMAGINE you are one of the people involved in the drafting of Balfour’s proclamation. 
WRITE a letter to your family and friends describing that experience and the significance of what is happening in Jewish history.

DRAFT a declaration of your own - what affirmative stance do you feel you want to take? On what issue? Who would you send it to or share it with? WILL YOU DO IT?

The timeline of events that led to the Declaration of the Jewish State of Israel is a tale that flows from Herzl to Balfour, Lloyd George to Harry Truman, and onward to today. Make sure you have your facts as more and more try to distort the truth about Jewish history and Jewish rights.
READ MORE https://israelforever.org/interact/blog/battle_lines_drawn_the_jews_would_not_surrender/?utm_content=Link+451313&utm_campaign=Newsletter&utm_source=Then+and+Now%3A+Jewish+determination+and+the+Voice+of+The+people+of+Zion&utm_medium=Email

The hope and endurance of the refugees from Eastern Europe who finally brought the modern Exodus to a close after two thousand years remain in our hearts and in our memory. The world was aroused by the global cry for Jewish justice - a cry that resounds with us still today.
READ MORE https://israelforever.org/interact/blog/battle_lines_drawn_the_jews_would_not_surrender/?utm_content=Link+451334&utm_campaign=Newsletter&utm_source=Then+and+Now%3A+Jewish+determination+and+the+Voice+of+The+people+of+Zion&utm_medium=Email

Inherit the memory and translate into meaningful art with this easy to implement Exodus Seascape Water Resist Painting guide for all ages. A great way to bring history to life at summer camp, home, or anywhere, anytime.
READ MORE https://israelforever.org/history/exodus/sailing_home_art_for_exodus/?utm_content=Link+451344&utm_campaign=Newsletter&utm_source=Then+and+Now%3A+Jewish+determination+and+the+Voice+of+The+people+of+Zion&utm_medium=Email

The following excerpts about Parshat Balak give us insight into a number of topics that emerge from this powerful story of a king and his prophet Balaam, determined to destroy the Jewish People. Read with friends at your Shabbat table and discuss the questions below for a unique exploration of important topics that relate to our lives today.
READ MORE https://israelforever.org/programs/shabbat_tzion/standing-alone-together-parshat-balak/?utm_content=Link+451362&utm_campaign=Newsletter&utm_source=Then+and+Now%3A+Jewish+determination+and+the+Voice+of+The+people+of+Zion&utm_medium=Email

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