Birthright or Birth-Wrong?
As the father of a daughter who learned a lot about Israel from her Birthright trip a decade ago, I was intrigued by David Halbfinger’s full-page rendering of its new alternative, funded by left-wing group J Street (July 11). Focusing on “the realities of the occupation” (of biblical Judea and Samaria), The New York Times Jerusalem bureau chief reiterated his newspaper’s unrelenting 70-year critique of a Jewish state that threatens its assimilationist credo.
The tour documented in detail by Halbfinger began in Har Gilo, part of the Gush Etzion settlement bloc established on a biblical site that was destroyed by marauding Arabs in 1947 (unmentioned by the Times journalist). Halbfinger is unsettled by the “blunt racial profiling” that occurs at Israeli checkpoints to protect Jewish residents. As the grandfather of a passionately engaged student at the Gush Etzion yeshiva, whose mother — my oldest daughter — frequently drives there from Jerusalem for a visit, I could not be more delighted with the security protection, similar to the check-in procedure for El Al travelers to Israel.
Halbfinger also seemed disturbed by the “high concrete walls to protect Jewish drivers from potential attacks by Palestinians” as they drive from Jerusalem to Hebron — a journey that I took last month with my son and grandson. Like Halbfinger, I was initially uneasy at the presence of the walls — a feeling that quickly morphed into comforting reassurance once I remembered the Palestinian shooting and stoning attacks against Israeli drivers that previously occurred on this road.
The J Street visit to Hebron was especially unsettling for Halbfinger. A Peace Now guide led the group on “a quick walk” through the massive Machpelah structure, burial site of the biblical patriarchs and matriarchs (erroneously identified by Halbfinger as also the burial site of Adam and Eve). There is no mention of Hebron as the location of King David’s rule before relocating his throne to Jerusalem — nor the refusal of Arabs between 1929 and 1967 to permit Jews to enter.
After the Machpelah visit, the group followed their guide through “the graveyard of abandoned storefronts and apartments” that line the main street of the Jewish Quarter. Once a thriving Jewish neighborhood, it is constricted by strict Israeli government limits on development that would increase the Hebron Jewish population. Like the Peace Now guide, Halbfinger ignored the striking Beit Hadassah building, the former medical clinic in the heart of Hebron where Jews and Arabs had been welcome for free medical care before the 1929 Arab riots when 67 Jewish residents were brutally murdered and their community destroyed. Now it is the apartment building for a dozen Jewish families where my son, grandson, and I were welcomed by David Wilder, the English language spokesman who had been a generous host and enlightening guide a decade ago when I was researching and writing a history of the Jewish community in Hebron.
Focusing on the dilapidated Jewish Quarter, where 800 Jewish residents are vastly outnumbered by more than 20,000 Palestinians, Halbfinger only briefly mentioned the thriving Hebron Arab city on the other side of the security barrier. It is the commercial hub of the Palestinian West Bank controlled by the Palestinian Authority, where 200,000 Palestinians live and shop in high-rise apartment buildings and shopping centers and are educated in two universities. No Jews are permitted entry, but neither the J Street guide nor the Times Jerusalem Bureau Chief seem to have noticed.
With “the facial expressions more pained and the questions more anguished,” the duly indoctrinated J Street students emerged from their tour to express their “disgust” with the Israeli government and their disillusionment with the Jewish state. Halbfinger gives prominence to “a black Jew,” an American college student who was “hit hard by the idea that ‘a state founded to protect one marginalized group’ was oppressing another.” She was determined to return to North Carolina “and educate American Jews about the Palestinians’ plight.”
J Street mission accomplished.
In the same Times issue, and with perfect timing, columnist Thomas Friedman — once a fervent teen-age Zionist who spent summers on a kibbutz before studying in Cairo, where he was smitten by Arab culture — wondered who is “a bigger threat to his democracy: Bibi or Trump?” In the forthcoming election for prime minister, “Israel’s identity as a Jewish democracy” is at stake. Fearing “Jewish banana republic stuff” under Netanyahu, who “undermines the rule of law to protect his rule and to perpetuate Israel’s control of the West Bank,” Friedman advises “Jews all over the world” to pray that Netanyahu loses. Friedman is their perfect rabbi.
“All the News That’s Fit to Print,” according to the Times‘ familiar masthead — or news that fits its discomfort with the world’s only democratic and Jewish state?
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.