Birthright Israel, scheduled to bring 6,000 college students from North
America to Israel over the coming months, is the latest proposed panacea
for the crisis in Jewish identity.
David Forman, director of the Reform Movement's Israel programs, rightly characterized the idea of providing every college student a free trip to Israel as "an act of desperation." American Jewry continues to search for a magical quick-fix that will allow for Jewish continuity without Judaism.
That search for a purely ethnic identity - Jewishness without content - is doomed to fail, for it cannot answer a young Jew's most basic questions: Of what importance is my Jewishness? Why does it matter if I continue to view myself as Jewish? What claim does the Jewish people have on me other than that it has been around a long time?
So-called "Jewish identity" has been defined down to the point that it is considered a supreme triumph if one Jew marries another. If that couple also join a temple (no matter how infrequently they attend) and write out a check to the federation, what more could one hope for?
Birthright Israel godfather and patron Michael Steinhardt unwittingly indicated how easily the program could turn into another monument to emptiness when he expressed the hope that a trip to Israel would join the "bar and bat mitzva" as milestones in young Jewish lives. The modern bar mitzva usually does little more than mark the end of any formal Jewish education and provide an opportunity for parents to compete in conspicuous consumption.
A reporter's of her recent two days with a Birthright group gives some taste of Steinhardt's vision in action. By the first morning lecture, one student is already guzzling a beer, causing the supervisors to reconsider their alcohol policy. Throughout, the reporter is regaled with stories of drinking exploits on the trip.
The most hopeful remarks about Jewish continuity she hears were one coed's comment that Israeli soldiers are "amazing" and a young man's remark that "Israeli women are beautiful."
During a preplanned "conversation'" designed to bring out the advantages of living in a culture where one is a majority, one student and then another announce that Christmas is their favorite holiday.
DAVID Breakstone, director of Camp Ramah in Israel, is probably being too pessimistic in his estimate that the chance of any lasting impact on a group of those with no previous exposure to Israel is about "one in a 100." Our Sages tells us that the air of Eretz Yisrael makes one wise.
Undoubtedly some students will ask themselves why they are in Israel and not sunning in Acapulco or skiing in Aspen. And even if they answer, "Because Israel was free," they will still have to ask themselves why Steinhardt and Charles Bronfman committed, with astonishing generosity, millions from their personal fortunes and the State of Israel gave $70 million to bring Jewish college students to Israel.
Those questions can lead to others: What does it mean to be Jewish? What did it mean for my ancestors? What is the secret that has allowed this people to survive all its oppressors?
Yet the premise that Israel by itself can continue to provide Jewish identity is woefully off the mark. Israel as a nation is going through its own profound Jewish identity crisis. It might be described as the world's largest laboratory for proving that ethnic Jewish identity cannot sustain itself for more than one or two generations.
What will American college students learn by meeting Israeli contemporaries? Will they experience their Jewishness as a bond of diverse people across wide expanses? Hardly likely.
On Israeli college campuses, post-Zionism reigns supreme.
Israel, proclaim the post-Zionists, must become a "state of its citizens,"
not a Jewish state. By definition, then, Israel will have no particular
connection to the Diaspora.
Will they learn love of the Land? How? By reading Avirama Golan in Ha'aretz describing Israelis as people "dwelling on another people's land, ... who have not yet learned to live in peace with their neighbors"?
Will they learn to see themselves as part of the ontinuum of Jewish history? From whom? From Israeli students who follow up a trip to Auschwitz with lewd entertainment and thereby demonstrate their alienation from the Jewish past? Some things one does not do after visiting one's grandparents' grave.
Even Israeli history does not move our young. An Israel TV reporter was shocked to find recently that students in a "better" Tel Aviv high school could not say where the Golan is, much less how it came to be in Israel's possession.
Reviewing the new Israeli history texts in Commentary, Hillel Halkin lamented, "There are many words missing here, the smallest of which
is 'we.' Nowhere is the ninth-grader reminded that he belongs to the
people he is reading about; ... nowhere that their story is his."
Students are invited to empathize with the plight of the Palestinians and to view Israeli history through their eyes. Well, if our American visitors want to do that, they will have no trouble doing so on their own college campuses.
In conversations with their Israeli contemporaries, American college students will find that the latter aspire to New York or Silicon Valley - if not to live there, then at least to import that culture.
For that, American college students might as well stay home.