Birthright trips for non-Jews

Birthright trips for non-Jews

We’re just a few weeks away from Israel’s turning 60 and the silence, outside anywhere but the Jewish community, is deafening. I have seen virtually no mention of the milestone in anything but Jewish publications. There was a lot more buildup for the opening of Heathrow’s Terminal 5 than Israel’s upcoming commemoration and there is certainly more in the news about the buildup to the Beijing Olympics.

Israel’s monumental achievement, the fact that this tiny country with its neighbors hell-bent on eliminating it has somehow managed to survive, does not seem to be much of a story outside the Jewish world. Some would say that this is appropriate. Israel is, after all, a Jewish state. Why should anyone else care?

But on another level, the fact that no one seems to be celebrating along with the Jews speaks volumes of our failure. Israel, it seems, has lost its ability to inspire all but Jews and evangelical Christians. These two groups see Israel’s creation and survival as possessing world-historical meaning. But to the rest of the world, Israel is a country that is in the headlines because of bombs and battles. So, the world is saying, no offence to you Jews, but what does your anniversary have to do with us?

But wait a second. The anniversary of the death of the great Martin Luther King Jr. was commemorated this past Friday not just by black Americans and not just in the United States but around the world, including Israel. And this is because the movement that King created, while focused primarily on the plight of blacks in the South, was seen as a global cry for freedom and justice. The civil rights movement portended an end to racism and irrational prejudice in every corner of the globe. Thus, it has significance for people everywhere. But was Zionism not once viewed in the same light? Was it not also a movement by an oppressed people, persecuted in every land, to find a home where they could live in peace and freedom?

We Jews have unwittingly contributed to the insular and exclusivist mindset that has made Israel a Jewish-only project.

Two great mistakes have been made. The first is portraying Israel as a modern entity with insufficient historical roots. The second is to portray Israel as a Jewish-only entity with little relevance to the rest of the world.

Mistake No. 1 is captured by a conversation that I had with a businessman who told me a few months back that he was concerned that Israel’s emphasis on its 60th birthday might feed Arab propaganda that Israel is a modern entity, created by European-Jewish colonialists, that has usurped Arab land. Instead of calling this Israel’s 60th birthday party, he argued, why not have a different motto along the lines of "3,000 + 60" that captures the uninterrupted nature of the Jewish people’s attachment to its ancestral homeland?

He has a point.

Every few years, I travel to South Africa for book tours. Black South Africans, while incredibly loving and receptive to Jews, can be ambivalent about Israel. To them, Israelis seem like white people who colonized the darker-skinned inhabitants of a land not their own. The parallel to apartheid South Africa creates immediate sympathy for the Palestinian side.

I respond by telling my African hosts that the parallel between the two stories is really the reverse. Like black Africans in their land, the Jews were the original people who inhabited ancient Israel. But then the Romans came, colonized the land, decimated the Jewish population, and exiled them to Europe and other parts of the Empire. But the Jews never lost a connection to their ancestral home, prayed every day to return, and a sizable Jewish minority remained even after the exile. Then, ‘,000 years later, when the opportunity and resources presented themselves, we began to reconstitute ourselves as a sovereign entity. But emphasizing Israel as being only 60 would seem to reinforce the view that the Jewish people’s relationship with the land, rather than having an ancient origin, is a modern phenomenon.

And the second mistake, of making Israel something of only Jewish concern, is captured in the most successful and visionary Jewish program of our time, Birthright Israel. Birthright is nothing short of a miracle, and one of the reasons that I so revere my dear friend Michael Steinhardt and his counterpart Charles Bronfman is for their foresight in seeing just how inspirational the modern Jewish state could be to disaffected Jewish youth. But why stop there? Israel has the power to inspire non-Jewish youth as well.

The Jews are history’s most influential people, having given the modern world its three foundations: God (universal brotherhood), the Ten Commandments (law), and the messiah (progress aimed at perfecting the world). Those ideas were all born in the very soil of Israel, the world epicenter of faith and spiritual transcendence. But that’s not how the modern world sees it. India and Tibet have become the place of pilgrimage for Westerners seeking enlightenment. Just look at the level of sympathy the world rightly has for Tibet’s struggle against China versus the seeming lack of sympathy for Israel’s struggle against terrorism. That’s because the world feels it has a stake in Tibet’s welfare. The heroic Dalai Lama has successfully portrayed his homeland as a place from which light shines to the entire earth — and not just Buddhists. Should we not portray Israel in the same authentic light?

Of all the presents we can give Israel on its illustrious "3,000 + 60 Birthday," none would be more helpful than to inaugurate a "Birthright for Non-Jewish Youth" program that would seek to bring 50,000 non-Jewish students from around the world to Israel every year. Campuses are the places where Israel is today most attacked in the West. Why not expose non-Jewish students to how stirring Israel is and give them a stake in its future?

I’m supposed to be leading a press and media Birthright Trip to Israel for the Mayanot Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem this summer. Many non-Jewish colleagues have practically begged me to attend. Birthright alumni from all over globe will tell you the same: Their non-Jewish friends are envious of the transformative trip to Israel, which right now is the preserve of Jewish youth alone.

As for the cost, churches all over the United States would contribute, as would non-Jewish philanthropists and foundations sympathetic to Israel. And it would be the best PR Israel ever had.