Three hundred young Jews, all clad in white and blue Taglit Birthright shirts resembling the Israeli flag, cheered as our trip’s founder entered the main auditorium of Tel Aviv’s Independence Hall. I knew he was wealthy. After all, how else could he have paid for thousands of young pilgrims to fly to Israel, let alone all hotel lodging, admissions fees to tourist sites and ten days worth of gas for hundreds of tour buses?
However, there was more to the story than first met the eye. At first glance, I would not have guessed that Sheldon Adelson was one of the most powerful men in the United States. I would not have guessed that he owned Las Vegas’s Venetian hotel, the largest and tackiest hotel in a city whose skyline is dotted with such monstrosities. I would not have guessed that he donated millions and millions of dollars to elect right-wing politicians in the U.S. Republican party, making him a major player in our national politics and a true symbol of our electoral system of one dollar/one vote. Instead, the short and slightly overweight man with a gentle demeanor resembled a grandfather. A few billion dollars richer than my zaydie, but a zaydie all the same.
He spoke in a gentle voice but with conviction about how a trip to Israel as a young adult helped him reconnect with his Jewish roots after having lost touch during his adolescence. He described his passion for bringing this connection between land and man to other American nomads. My first reaction to him was gratitude: Although I grew up far better off financially than Mr. Adelson did (he grew up the son of a taxi driver and knitting store owner), the fact that the trip was free of charge was not an insignificant factor in my decision to go on Birthright or in my parents’ decision to let me go.
One week after this meeting in Independence Hall, my tour group sat around in a circle and reflected upon our collective experience. One young man, a political communications professional, mentioned that he felt torn after meeting Sheldon: “While I feel like he supports my identity as a Jew, I do not feel like he supports my identity as a gay man,” referring to the fact that Adelson gives money to politicians who are adamantly opposed to gay rights legislation. While I did not get a chance to say two words to Sheldon Adelson, much less ask him about his opinions on same-sex marriage, I would not be surprised if his motivation to support these politicians stems more from their stance on Israel than out of blatant homophobia or bigotry. The United States is Israel’s biggest ally, and politicians on both sides of the aisle support Israel’s right to statehood and autonomy. Indeed, President Obama made headlines when he openly condemned violence in Israel and declared his support of a solution where Israel and Palestine peacefully coexist as two separate states.
However, the Republicans historically tend to have a more decidedly hawkish, pro-Israel stance in which they approve of military action against the Palestinians and of the Israeli settlements in the Gaza strip, and generally believe that the Israelis have the only legitimate claim to the land. Although I have my own opinions on the Israeli-Palestinian crisis, I am not going to spend this article discussing them. The main question I plan to dissect is, given that the person who funded Birthright has such a strong opinion on the matter, does Birthright create an environment conducive to allowing each pilgrim to explore Judaism on his or her own terms?
Fortunately, I felt, and still feel, that the supportive environment within my own group gave me enough room to breathe and discover what Judaism meant to me. If anything, my experience taught me that Jews come in all different colors and levels of observance. About half the people on my program had one non-Jewish parent and some had only a Jewish grandparent. Some were raised in observant homes and wanted a pilgrimage. Others did not grow up even lighting a menorah and wanted to get in touch with their roots. Still others in my group found out about their Jewish ancestry well into adolescence. We still felt a sense of community and felt the pull of the common thread that tied us together.
Ori, our Israeli tour guide, encouraged our freedom to engage and worship in as we individually saw fit. Educated as a historian, his focus on the trip was to share his extensive knowledge of the land and region, not to indoctrinate us. Although he was clearly proud to be a Jew and proud of his homeland, he also spoke out against the settlements and against the war. The Israeli Defense Force soldiers who accompanied us on the trip shared these views, which lead me to feel like supporting peace and a two-state solution was the norm of the nation. In addition, Ori highly encouraged intellectual discussion about a complex and nuanced topic with far more than fifty shades of gray. Given what I’ve heard about other people’s experiences, though, it seems like my group was the exception rather than the rule, an oasis in the vast desert.
According to some of my friends, their trips had a pointed pro-Israel agenda, and several of my friends felt pressured to drink a certain Kool-Aid. A friend of mine, a Jewish woman who studied Arabic in college and studied abroad in Morocco, feels uneasy to go on Birthright because she is afraid that she will only hear one side of the story, and that she will be told that being Jewish means rejecting the love of Arabic and Middle Eastern culture she picked up in college. Beyond pressure to make certain political choices, it seemed to me like my friends in other groups felt pressured to adopt particular lifestyle choices. In fact, one friend even said her trip director blatantly instructed the group to marry Jewish.
For the record, I never thought that the exact even number of men and women in each group was entirely a coincidence, a setup my mother referred to as resembling that of Noah’s Ark. Even thinking back to my own pre-screening interview before the trip, I realize that some of the questions were fairly loaded. Although they asked the typical questions to make sure that I was healthy, psychologically sound, and met basic eligibility requirements, I also received questions about how often I went to synagogue growing up, what Jewish holidays I celebrated, and whether or not I had had a bat mitzvah. I was explicitly told that I would be sent home and charged for the entire trip if it were discovered that I had lied. When I told them that only one side of my family was Jewish, I was asked if I considered Jesus Christ to be my lord and savior. During that first interview, I said that, while I believe that Jesus taught many valuable lessons that humanity can use, I do not personally view him as a savior. While the rabbi interviewing told me that he agreed with that sentiment, I was put on the waiting list. One year later, when I interviewed again and asked the same question, I figured the best course of action was to give a resounding “no.”
In addition to supporting militantly pro-Israel politicians in the United States, Sheldon Adelson also owns the most pro-war newspaper in Israel, Israel Hayom, a newspaper that has criticized other press for being too harsh on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin (Bibi) Netanyahu, a man who stood before the US Congress last year and demanded us not to make a nuclear deal with Iran, because Iranians were just as dangerous as ISIS. Even AIPAC, the most black and white pro-Israel lobbyist group in the United States, warned Netanyahu not to make this speech before Congress. Given all of this, is it really surprising that the above-mentioned examples are more common to birthright than my experience?
Now that I step back, I realize several ways that Birthright encourages one set of values and ideas about Judaism over others, namely the strict requirement that all pilgrims must be 18–26 years of age. Many people who attend the program are in college. They are at the point in their lives when they are just forming their views of the world, particularly trying to make sense of events such as the Middle East conflict without their parents’ opinions in the background. In addition to being young and impressionable, these young American Jews have also recently become eligible to vote and can use their voices to help make decisions for the country. Therefore, it is the perfect opportunity for Birthright to strike while the iron is hot and leave a lasting impression by surrounding students with staunchly pro-Israel rhetoric. In fact, during the Q&A session after Mr. Adelson’s speech, one woman from my group asked Mr. Adelson if he could extend Birthright to senior citizens who never had the opportunity to travel there. Adelson gave a vague and incoherent response about it “not being in the budget.”
As someone who cares about her Jewish faith, it is hard for me to condemn outright the biased nature of the trip. Several of my group-mates struggled with their faith growing up. The young man who felt torn about meeting Mr. Adelson also found out that his father was Jewish when he was a teenager. His father waited a long time to tell him because he had moved to the United States to escape anti-Semitism in Eastern Europe, and he did not want his children to carry that same burden. Birthright gave my friend an outlet not only to learn about the heritage he had only just discovered, but also a chance to be proud of that heritage. One young woman in my group was also half-Jewish, and the Irish members of her family often made anti-Semitic jokes, making her feel ashamed of that half of her heritage. Should she not also have a chance to be in an environment where she can be proud of that part of her identity?
The question is, though, should pride in our heritage be mutually exclusive with objectivity? While it is obvious that Sheldon Adelson’s wealth, influence, and strong views definitely impact the curriculum and itinerary of Birthright, is it possible to have any kind of religious-based excursion that does not promote some sort of point of view? Is having a bias necessarily a bad thing?
While I recommend Birthright, it is also with the condition that you consider each of these questions before signing up.
Bectrigger [pseud.], “Photo of Sheldon Adelson, chairman of Las Vegas Sands and Hong Kong-listed subsidiary Sands China, June 19, 2010, in Hong Kong at a press conference held at the Four Seasons Hotel, following China Sands AGM,” Wikimedia Commons, last modified July 17, 2011, Creative Commons (CC-BY-3.0), http://bit.ly/1NJk4fh.