Some Other “Illuminations of Birthright”

As a participant in this summer’s Harvard Birthright Israel trip, I read with particular interest Sandra Korn’s recent reflections on her experiences during the very same tour (“The Illuminations of Birthright,” July 6, 2012).  I was quite surprised, though, by her assessment of the trip, and I fear that it may be misleading in several respects.

First, Korn makes several confusing omissions in her presentation of factual data and in her discussions of current events.  She writes, for example, that “Birthright gets much of its funding…from right-wing American Jews like casino magnate and Romney supporter Sheldon Adelson,” and she suggests that this helps explain why Birthright is “notorious for its role in influencing the political opinion of American Jews.”  However, while Adelson does contribute to Birthright, we must remember who founded the program before we declare it to be the product of arch-conservative sponsorship.  Birthright was established by Canadian Charles Bronfman and American Michael Steinhart.  Bronfman’s charitable activities through The Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies include sponsorship of the soon-to-be-opened Canadian Museum for Human Rights as well as major contributions to the Canadian Historica-Dominion Institute (he is its Founding Co-Chair) and the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada, organizations devoted to the scholarly study and public awareness of Canadian history and culture.  Bronfman also supports a variety of philanthropic initiatives in the international Jewish community.  Aside from his numerous activities through The Steinhardt Foundation for Jewish Life, Steinhardt’s contributions include the donation of two islands and almost half a million dollars to the Wildlife Conservation Society, and as a previous chairman of the Democratic Leadership Council, his moderate political views are hardly comparable to those of Sheldon Adelson.

Likewise, Korn’s recent editorial describes Israel as “a state that deports African immigrants,” implying that Israeli immigration policy is racist against non-whites.  If this were the case, how can we explain Operation Moses and Operation Solomon, two rescue initiatives in which the Israeli government evacuated over twenty thousand non-white Ethiopian Jewish refugees in the 1980’s and 1990’s, allowing them to immigrate to Israel?  What about the “Vietnamese boat people” affair of 1977, in which Israel welcomed and naturalized refugees from Vietnam who had previously been denied asylum in Hong Kong and Taiwan?  To clarify, Korn’s comment refers to the recent repatriation of illegal South Sudanese migrants.  The government of Israel gives approximately $1,300 to each adult migrant who returns voluntarily to South Sudan and $650 to each underage migrant.  (The Israeli government has also demanded that illegal Ivorian immigrants submit for compensated repatriation to the Ivory Coast before July 16th or face mandatory return; Sweden and Norway set in motion their own repatriation processes for Ivorian migrants over one year ago).  Meanwhile, Israel remains steadfast in its resolve not to repatriate immigrants from Eritrea and Sudan who arrived by way of Egypt (where refugees are not granted asylum) as they qualify for refugee status owing to the dangerous conditions in their home countries.  To this effect, Danny Ayalon, Israel’s Deputy Foreign Minister, made a statement to the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, declaring that “Eritrea has a regime described by the entire international community as a regime that does not protect human rights, and someone returning there is at risk – including risk of death.”  Israel has no interest in deporting Africans or other groups seeking asylum; it does, however, exercise its right to repatriate illegal migrants, just like countries such as the United States and Canada.

Korn writes, “we spoke to young IDF soldiers who dismissed human rights abuses against Palestinians as a forgivable consequence of a Jewish state.”  This is certainly not the attitude that I heard expressed by the Israel Defense Force soldiers with whom we spoke, all of whom were residents of Haifa, Israel’s most liberal and culturally integrated city.  In Haifa, as they explained, they had grown up and attended school alongside their Israeli-Arab friends and peers, and I found their views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to be particularly conciliatory and open-minded.

Elsewhere, Korn implies that during our visit to Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial and museum, stories of the Holocaust were used to justify the establishment of a Jewish state.  She points out that Yad Vashem’s architecture leads visitors through a dark tunnel at the end of which there is “a balcony overlooking Jerusalem” representing the “symbolic conclusion of the Jewish saga.”  However, I was not at all left with the impression that this architecture and the discussions of the Holocaust led by our tour guide were designed propagandistically to influence participants’ views on the state of Israel.  They were, quite simply, meant to illustrate the dramatic developments that make up the remarkable trajectory of modern Jewish history.

In general, to my surprise, I found that discussions of political, religious, or otherwise ideologically charged topics during our trip were characterized by respectful, humble, and laissez-faire guidance at the hands of our tour guide and trip leaders.  For example, on one particular afternoon, students participated in an activity in which our group leaders read a series of assertive statements expressing opinions regarding Jewish identity or Israeli politics.  After each statement was read, students stood up and walked to one of four demarcated spaces depending on whether they chose to “agree,” “strongly agree,” “disagree,” or “strongly disagree” with the assertion.  The trip leaders called upon one student representative from each of the four demarcated spaces in order to explain his or her opinion on the assertive statement that had just been read.  Our tour guide and trip leaders were careful not to express any of their own opinions during this activity so as to promote discussion and contemplation without influencing students’ views.  Similarly, when guides presented lessons on modern Israeli history, they would often make comments such as, “we must consider the other side.”  For example, at Israel’s Independence Hall in Tel Aviv, a guide taught us about the history of Jewish settlement in Ottoman Palestine in the early 20th century.  He made us aware of the fact that Zionist settlers acquired land through legal purchase, but he also pointed out the need to sympathize with local Palestinians who felt anxiety over the gradual transfer of land to individuals whom they viewed as newcomers.

I will not deny that prior to my own participation in Birthright, I had expected the program to involve irritatingly biased and propagandistically right-wing accounts of Israeli history and politics.  I was pleasantly surprised, however, to find that these expectations were inaccurate, and I laud Birthright Israel and our guide and group leaders for the tour’s general tendency towards moderation and evenhandedness.  I would urge members of the Harvard community to visit Israel and other destinations in the Middle East with an open mind, drawing their own conclusions about the many difficult and complicated struggles faced by the inhabitants of the region.

Daniel J. Frim '14 is a folklore and mythology concentrator in Adams House.