Of Balaam and Birthright: When a curse is a blessing

Of Balaam and Birthright: When a curse is a blessing

NEW YORK — Officials of Birthright Israel are said to be worried about the impact of an in-depth, highly critical piece, written by a recent participant and published in the July 4 issue of The Nation.
They needn’t be.
In fact, like the biblical Balaam, the Moabite prophet who, when hired by King Balak to curse the Jews, ends up blessing them against his will (as we read in synagogue last Shabbat), Kiera Feldman, 26, who wrote The Nation piece, has unintentionally underscored the success of the project, asserting that it turns “blank slate” young Jews into pro-Israel advocates.
Feldman herself did not qualify as a “blank slate” when she signed up for the free 10-day trip last year. Self-described as “a baptized child of intermarriage” on assignment and funded in part by The Investigative Fund, loosely affiliated with the liberal Nation magazine, she makes clear that she is sympathetic to the Palestinian cause and opposed to Israel’s treatment of and attitudes toward Arabs.
“With the relentless siege of Gaza, the interminable occupation, the ever-expanding settlements, the onslaught of anti-Arab Knesset legislation,” she writes, “Israel has earned its new status as an international pariah.”
She headed for the Holy Land in search of proof that young American Jews are, in effect, being brainwashed to support Israel’s political point of view.
The breathless blurb summarizing her article (entitled “The Romance Of Birthright Israel”) on The Nation’s website reads: “By providing all-expenses paid trips to Israel for Jewish young adults, U.S. funders and Israeli politicians are creating the next generations of American Zionists.”
And this is a bad thing?
Apparently it is, according to Feldman, who writes that Birthright, now beginning its second decade and having sent more than 260,000 young people (18-26) to Israel, “no longer is … simply a project to shore up Jewish identity; Birthright has joined the fight for the political loyalties of young Jews.”
Organizers and funders tell her that is not the case, maintaining that the trip is designed to give participants an educational experience, a chance to explore their Jewish identity, an emotional connection to their people’s ancient homeland and a fun time with peers from around the world.
Feldman provides a thorough and accurate depiction of how Birthright was created, and credits it with “maintain[ing] rigorous quality control” in offering up a highly moving experience.
But she feels it does too good a job. She employs a mocking tone toward her fellow travelers, observing how, in her eyes, they swallow the Zionist Kool-Aid in becoming emotionally attached to the land and people of Israel. She describes the tears that are shed at the Western Wall, at Yad Vashem and at Mount Herzl’s military cemetery.
“The moment almost always comes,” she writes, when participants come away “armed with a new ‘pro-Israel’ outlook.”
That particular reference was to a Reform 26-year-old woman from New York who returned from a Birthright trip during the Gaza war in 2008 and announced: “Israel really changed me. I truly felt when I came back that I was a different person.”
Writes Feldman: “It was mission accomplished for Birthright Israel.”
The subtext: there goes another liberal Jew lost to the cause of the Palestinians and to criticism of Israeli policy.
She takes umbrage at the fact that “welcome home” is a key message of the Birthright trip, asserting that “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.”
Even Feldman admits, though, that “despite my best efforts to maintain a reportorial stance,” she experienced “a return to the intensity of feeling of childhood,” which she attributed to lack of sleep, the “mind-numbing itinerary” and the planners’ effort to provide a deeply emotional experience.
She writes that a key element of the trip “is the promotion — by turns winking and overt — of flings among participants,” and acknowledges that she, too, found romance with a bus mate “when the lights went down in the fake Bedouin tent.”
Feldman’s most stinging critique is in offering up examples of alleged biased remarks against Arabs by Birthright tour guides and the crime of omission when it comes in dealing with the occupation. And she is deeply upset that participants are encouraged to buy Ahava products at the factory’s Dead Sea gift shop, claiming the company profits “by illegally exploiting Palestinian Dead Sea resources,” a charge denied in the article by the company’s board chairman.
One of the great ironies of the Balaam story in the Bible is that in his attempt to curse the Jewish people, the prophet, looking down on the Israelite camp from a mountain, makes a statement so sublime that it has become part of our daily liturgy: “How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your dwellings, O Israel.”
Kiera Feldman is not as eloquent as Balaam, but she, too, leaves us with the impression that despite her best efforts to demean Birthright Israel, the organization is far-reaching, effective and successful.
“A new era is dawning for Birthright,” she writes. “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.”
It certainly is mine.

(Gary Rosenblatt, editor and publisher of The New York Jewish Week, can be reached at Gary@jewishweek.org. This column previously appeared online in the Week.)