Taglit-Birthright is a major zionist organization that gives free trips to Israel to young Jews around the world, mostly from the USA and Canada. However, some people have accused Birthright of inciting racial hatred of Palestinians and other non-Jews. Such was the case made by Sam Sussman, a Jew who while working to help build relations between Jews, Palestinians, and other non-Jews, was told that not just one, a hundred, or ten thousand, but a hundred thousand non-Jews are worth less than a single Jew, and that a Jew should allow his non-Jewish friends to die if it means saving a Jew he never met and knows nothing about:
As the 405 bus comes over the Jerusalem hills, my phone chirps with another email. “I’m excited to go to Israel on Birthright next month,” it reads, “but I don’t want to leave without also speaking to Palestinians.”
In my work with Extend, an organization that introduces young American Jews to Israelis, Palestinians, and Palestinian citizens of Israel, I encounter this hope every day. “I’ve been taught it’s part of Judaism to be conscious of all people,” an applicant wrote to me last month, “but I’ve never had an opportunity to meet a Palestinian.”
These young American Jews who yearn for meaningful conversation with Palestinians are graduates of Jewish day schools, active in synagogues, and leaders in campus Jewish organizations. They speak with courage and conviction of their Jewish values: freedom for all people from the oppression that has plagued Jewish history; equality for all people irrespective of religion, nationality or race; and the obligation of each person to help repair the world.
They have learned well from Jewish institutions that taught them to reach for truth and strive for justice.
These young leaders don’t want to be in conflict with Jewish institutions, but increasingly they feel unwelcome in one of the most significant of them: Birthright.
Tens of thousands of U.S. Jews have yet to depart for their free 10-day trip this year, but already for Birthright it seems a summer of discontent.
On June 18, five Jewish educators affiliated with If Not Now were ejected from New York’s JFK airport after encouraging Birthright participants to ask about Israel’s treatment of Palestinians. “As a trip leader it’s my job to keep people safe,” said a Birthright employee as he defended his decision to break up conversations between the If Not Now activists and Birthright participants.
It was a strange definition of security, and the Birthright participants noticed. Ten days later, five participants walked off a different Birthright trip after feeling their questions about the occupation were not welcome. They headed to Bethlehem and Hebron to see the occupation for themselves with Breaking the Silence.
Sunday, another group of eight participants left their Birthright trip during a visit to Jerusalem’s City of David, to conduct a solidarity visit with a Palestinian family slated for eviction from their home.
Birthright has respond to the frustration of millennial American Jews by emphasizing that it is apolitical, and serves to deepen Jewish identity, not educate about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
But choosing to sidestep the conflict is a political move in itself. And at a moment when American Jews are more divided than ever about Israel’s 51-year occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, it is a stance that is neither sustainable nor inclusive.
While it’s common to hear that younger American Jews are less connected to Israel than any previous generation, data show the opposite: millennial American Jews are more connected to Israel than previous generations, but they are also more critical of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians. Dov Waxman calls this “critical engagement,” and it should interest Birthright. It suggests that creating community between Israeli and American Jews is not served by preventing younger American Jews from asking critical questions about Israeli policy.
The distinction between “critical engagement” and hatred for Israel is often lost on those with a more traditional view.
As the five Birthright participants left the trip, their guide yelled after them, “You came to bash Israel. You didn’t come to learn about Israel, you came to learn about Palestine.” “We came to learn,” one young woman replied. For them, that meant meeting Palestinians as well as Israelis.
Watching this exchange on Facebook Live, I was reminded of my own Birthright experience. In 2012, I headed to JFK eager to join a Birthright program I had been told was designed for curious liberal arts students. It never occurred to me that sincere questions would be treated as a threat.
The first time I asked about the conflict, my guide voiced the old cliche, “The Arabs never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.” Later questions about the conflict, no matter their specifics, received the same answer. When several of our group asked whether we were driving through the West Bank, the trip leader told us, “It doesn’t matter.” When I asked an IDF soldier if she had ever talked to a Palestinian, she asked why I was on “the Arab side.”
The most disturbing moment of the trip came at the top of Masada. Our trip leader began to describe fond memories of an Italian-American neighbor from Staten Island. “But if I had to choose,” he said, suddenly earnest, “between her life and the life of a Jew I have never met, I would choose the Jew. If I had to choose between the lives of my 10 best non-Jewish friends and one Jew I’ve never met, I would choose the Jew.”
At this, even the more conservative participants seemed uncomfortable. But the guide upped the ante further. “If I had to choose between 10,000 non-Jews and one Jewish life, I would choose the Jewish life.”
Our trip leader’s eyes narrowed and he leaned closer to us, like an overzealous football coach delivering a pep talk. “Do you remember the tsunami in Asia a few years ago? It killed 100,000. If I had to choose between all those people or one Jewish life, I would choose the Jewish life.”
I am sure Yossi Beilin, champion of Oslo and architect of Birthright, would be as appalled by this as our Birthright group was. This episode was extreme, but the Masada speech made explicit the implicit message of our Birthright program: enjoy swimming in the Mediterranean, wandering Ben Yehuda Street, and learning about Israel’s success in high tech, but don’t worry about those who live here who are not Jewish.
It’s an approach Birthright reinforced last November when it ceased meetings with Palestinian citizens of Israel.
Birthright left me eager to meet those who live in Israel-Palestine but were not included in our program. After spending time in the West Bank, Palestinian communities in Israel, and parts of Israel not included in Birthright, I co-founded Extend in 2013. Participants meet Palestinian civil society activists in Ramallah and Hebron. We learn about the civil disobedience movement in Nabi Saleh and Bil’in. We meet with Palestinian citizens of Israel in Kafr Qasim and Lod. We meet with Israeli organizations that don’t make it onto Birthright itineraries, such as Breaking the Silence, Meretz, B’Tselem, and Rabbis for Human Rights.
By openly showing Israelis and Palestinians struggling together for human rights, co-existence, and justice, we are trying to introduce young American Jews to an Israel-Palestine in which they see their own values. Participants leave feeling more deeply connected to Israel-Palestine and more determined to advocate for a just future for all.
After the five Birthright participants left their trip, a Haaretz headline declared, “Between Adelson and BDS, Birthright has become a political battlefield.” But Birthright does not have to choose between the hard-right agenda of the Trump-Netanyahu-Adelson alliance or the BDS camp.
It can choose instead to meet young American Jews where they are: deeply connected to Israel, but also concerned for its Palestinian neighbors, who do not yet share the freedom Israelis enjoy. (source)
Can one imagine if a man said “One German life is worth more than 100,00 Jews?”
It would be international news.
Is it be acceptable to call anybody– Jew or non-Jew- with such pejorative language?
The issue is not an adversarial one, but a human one. All men are made in the image and likeness of God, and all are descendants of Ham, Shem, and Japheth. While men are distinguished by race, talents, capabilities, handicaps, class, and roles, this does not affect their humanity in the eyes of God.
In Islamic theology, a man’s humanity is conditional upon his belief in and practice of Islam. A man who is a better Muslim is, by Islamic standards, more “human” than a Muslim who practices poorly, who is still more so than a non-Muslim. This is why in Islam, a Muslim is not required to abuse a non-Muslim, but if he does it is not considered sinful. This is a clear error, since it is nothing but darwinism where genetics is substituted with religious piety.
Unfortunately, this kind of racism that is theologically enshrined in Islam, has been promoted for some time by Rabbis who, citing the Talmud as their justification, are doing what Islam does except in a Jewish context.
For example, after Baruch Goldstein, an Orthodox Jewish settler in Israel from New York, went on a murdering rampage against innocent Muslims because of nothing less than a hatred of them before being killed, major Jewish Rabbis defended him, saying that “one million Arabs” were not worth the life of a single Jew:
“One million Arabs are not worth a Jewish fingernail,” Rabbi Yaacov Perrin said in a eulogy. At the service in Jerusalem, attended by 300 people, one man shouted, “We are all Goldstein,” an opinion echoed across Qiryat Arba by neighbors who said variously that they approved of his attack on the Arabs or at the least could not judge him. (source)
Another major Orthodox Rabbi, Dov Lior, who was arrested in 2011 for writing a book saying that Jews should kill non-Jews simply because they are not Jews, also has praised the Goldstein incident, saying likewise that God prefers Jews over non-Jews, and that Goldstein was a saint for murdering innocent people:
Lior then issued a religious edict, saying, “a thousand non-Jewish lives are not worth a Jew’s fingernail”.
Lior praised Goldstein, calling him a “great saint and rabbi … may his memory be blessed”.
Several months after the massacre, Lior told disciples in Kiryat Araba near the occupied West Bank city of Hebron “Jewish blood was redder than non-Jewish blood … and that a Jewish life is preferred by the Lord than a non-Jewish life”. (source)
Another famous Orthodox Rabbi and Kabbalist, Rabbi Yitzhak Ginsburg, who has promoted the genocide of the Palestinians, was arrested for inciting violence by writing a book which teaches that it is not a crime to murder non-Jews because the Ten Commandments are only relevant for Jews:
The book, named “The King’s Torah,” deems the killing of non-Jews who threaten Israel as legal. “It is permissible to kill the Righteous among Nations even if they are not responsible for the threatening situation,” the book says, adding: “If we kill a Gentile who has sinned or has violated one of the seven commandments – because we care about the commandments – there is nothing wrong with the murder.”
Ginsburg, who recommended the book to his students, is a follower of Chabad. He has faced prosecution in the past for incitement to racism after having published a book insisting that there is no place for Arabs in the state of Israel. The charges were dropped after Ginsburg issued a clarification letter. (source)
There is also the case of Ovadia Yusuf, the chief Rabbi for all Sephardic Jews- comparable to the Pope for the Sephardim- who said that African people are monkeys, that non-Jews exist only to serve Jews, and that he refused to apologize because he said it was justified by the Talmud:
“You go around in the streets of America, every five minutes you will see a negro. Do you bless him as an ‘exceptional creature’?” Yosef is quoted as saying. “We don’t say a blessing for every negro… He needs to be a negro whose father and mother are white… if you know, they had a monkey for a son, they had a son like that.”
The Anti-Defamation League, a New York-based civil rights organization, slammed the “racially charged” comments from the rabbi as “utterly unacceptable.”
A statement issued on behalf of Rabbi Yosef said that the religious leader was referencing religious scripture when he made the remarks. “The words of the rabbi are quoted from the Babylonian Talmud in Berakhot,” the statement read. (source, source)
Thankfully, there have been many Jews of good will, including many in the Israeli government, who have stood against individuals such as these Rabbis who teach racism and hatred. The good work of these people, who while one may not agree with all their beliefs or views, recognize the inherent dignity of all men and try to support this in their particular life context is commendable and must not be forgotten.
However, the fact that such major figures with established positions of power, influence, and support make statements such as these indicates there is something seriously wrong. As Sussman writes in his story, from his experience, he saw American Jews on Birthright being accused of veritable anti-Semitism for asking questions about the Palestinians that did not fit with a view that was racialist and nationalist. (source, archive)
The rabbis quoted above are just a few major ones. There are many more who teach the same or similar.
There needs to be an honest, genuine conversation about this, because it is a problem that is not going away, and is only going to get worse if kept hidden. Sunlight is the best disinfectant, and the best way to confront this particular illness of the soul is to make it public, talk about it, and then put the matter to rest and take measures to ensure it does not happen again or if it happens, can be dealt with effectively before it becomes a problem again.
Evil is not countered by evil, but with truth and righteousness. One man’s sin does not justify another man sinning against him because sin is sin as it is objective moral wrong. It does not matter who the man in question is because a man’s humanity is not determined by a man’s race, but comes from his creation, and the position of a man in God’s eyes comes from grace, not from race.