The New York Times and Birthright
It might be considered odd for a major newspaper to run a front-page story about Risa Nagel, who abandoned her Birthright tour in Israel to join several friends who, in “an act of protest,” left the Western Wall to visit a Palestinian family. It was, Times reporter Farah Stockman wrote, “an act of protest that was bound to cause pain and controversy.” But for Stockman and the Times it was an irresistible opportunity to highlight (yet again) the imagined deficiencies of the Jewish state.
Birthright has brought nearly 700,000 young American Jews (including my daughter) to Israel in “an effort to bolster a distinct Jewish identity and forge an emotional connection to Israel.” But it is hardly surprising that the Times, given more than a century of brimming discomfort with Zionism before 1948 and with Israel ever since, would focus on “some Jewish activists [who] have protested Birthright.” The dissidents claim that it tries to “erase the experiences of Israeli Arabs and Palestinians living under occupation in the West Bank.”
The protests, Stockman writes, highlight “the growing unease among many young American Jews over Israel’s policies.” Her sample (comprising a tiny Birthright handful) express their inclination “to take Israel’s existence for granted and who focus instead on the millions of Palestinians left stateless by the conflict.” And, she gratuitously adds, there are “many older American Jews have long expressed unease about Israel’s settlements in the West Bank but consider it anathema to openly protest the Jewish state.” Obviously, she has yet to encounter Times Jewish columnists Thomas Freidman and Roger Cohen, whose op-eds have long sounded a drumbeat of criticism of Israel.
As for Ms. Nagel, whose “Jewish upbringing included Hebrew school, a bat mitzvah, and a desire to go on Birthright,” but “knew little” about Israel, she was drawn to a “free 10-day vacation.” It quickly turned into an intramural debate among participants over Israel’s “military control over the West Bank” (unidentified as biblical Judea and Samaria). Several of them had been in contact with IfNotNow activists critical of American Jewish support for “the occupation.” Among the reasons cited for skepticism regarding Birthright’s impartiality is that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “routinely addresses Birthright events” and even “urges participants to support Israel” once they return home.
Ms. Nagel’s odyssey, once she abandoned her Birthright group, began with “an Arab family facing eviction in East Jerusalem.” (There is no indication whether or not the family owned the property.) Then, accompanied by members of Breaking the Silence (comprising former Israeli soldiers who oppose “the occupation”) she visited Hebron. It is, Ms. Stockman writes, “a populous West Bank city divided between [200,000] Palestinians and a few hundred Israeli settlers” who “occupy” (i.e. inhabit) a tiny neighborhood under heavy military protection. She does not indicate why it is “small” — because for decades the Israeli government has prevented attempts to expand the community beyond its current limit of some 600 Jewish residents. The towering Herodian structure of Machpelah, burial site of the patriarchs and matriarchs of the Jewish people, eludes her notice.
But Ms. Nagel was offended to see the Star of David painted on the walls of shops once owned by Arabs on streets that for security reasons Palestinians may not use. There is no mention of Palestinian Hebron, the commercial hub of the West Bank inhabited by 200,000 residents with access to shopping malls and high-rise apartment buildings. No Jews may enter.
Nor does she reveal why there is “heavy military protection” — it is against repeated acts of murderous Palestinian violence against Hebron Jews (dating as far back as 1929, when the centuries-old Jewish community was destroyed). Nor did she meet any Hebron Jews to learn their perspective on their ancient holy city, King David’s capital before relocating his throne to Jerusalem. But considerable attention is paid by the Times reporter to JStreetU, a student organization that opposes Jewish “settlements” in the biblical homeland of the Jewish people.
As for Risa Nagel, the ostensible focus of the Times article, she disappears in Ms. Stockman’s preoccupation with Israeli misdeeds. But in the concluding paragraph she gives her the final word. Ms. Nagel reveals that since her Birthright experience she has been to “more Shabbats and Havdalahs.” But at “our Havdalahs,” she notes proudly, “we talk about racism, sexism and the occupation.” There is no mention of Israel. So much for the rewards of her Birthright experience.
Jerold S. Auerbach is the author of Print to Fit: The New York Times, Zionism and Israel, 1896-2016, recently published by Academic Studies Press.