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Every year thousands of Jews under the age of the 18 pay thousands of pounds for an intensive indoctrination programme. The fact that the cost is usually paid by their parents hardly makes these ‘Tours’ any more justifiable. In the UK, these programmes are run by the UJIA, which should tell you all you need to know about them. But, inexplicably, a few (thousand) slip through the net. Maybe that bit poorer, less gullible, or not needing to go to the Middle East to get their fix of teenage fondling and dry humping. To catch these renegades, the Jewish establishment offer them a free trip once they reach the age of 18 so that they can claim their – drum roll please – BIRTHRIGHT!

Now, as we all know, a birthright is not something taken all that seriously in Judaism. One can buy it for a bowl of soup. But in the hands of Birthright Israel, every Jew has a ‘right’ (given by God? by Jewish funders? are they one and the same?) to visit a small, hot, overcrowded country to which they may have absolutely no connection. Once there they receive a full ‘Israel bootcamp’ experience, doing the rounds of Masada, the Kotel, the dead sea, ‘cool Tel Aviv’ in an itinerary so hackneyed it was probably devised by Moshe Dayan in 1952. Participants are dragged around the country for 10 days, with little rest, leaving them in a wonderfully receptive state; ready to take in whatever ‘informal education’ is given to them. Now naturally, organisers claim that Birthright is ‘non political’, as Gidi Mark, Birthright’s director of marketing put it in 2006 “I don’t think it’s political for Jews to support Israel”. Just in the way that its not political to vote Tory if that’s what your Dad does. Birthright are so non political in fact, that while organisers actively encourage participants to stay in Israel after their trip, should they be found planning to continue with a trip to the Palestinian Territories (such as one run by the excellent Birthright Unplugged) they will be prevented from attending Birthright. That they might see the whole picture? God forbid, has v’shlaom, pppppppppp.

The official aim of the enterprise?

“To diminish the growing division between Israel and Jewish communities around the world; to strengthen the sense of solidarity among world Jewry; and to strengthen participants’ personal Jewish identity and connection to the Jewish people”.

To deconstruct one by one: a) it is not necessary to have more connection between Israel and Jewish communities round the world, we need to build local Jewish identities, to strengthen diaspora, so small Jewish communities are no decimated by ‘aliyah’. b) solidarity amongst Jewry can be deeply negative, when many Jews have become taken in by racism, unthinking nationalism, and quasi-fascism, it is imperative to speak out against those Jews, and not be in solidarity with them. Adherence to Judaism demands solidarity with the oppressed, not with the privileged. c) The old canard – Jewish identity and continuity. Now we at Jewdas may be willing to concede that this can be a good thing, provided a sense of Judaism’s radical tradition and history is also gained. But is it really necessary to fly them half way round the world and indoctrinate them into supporting brutal nationalism in order to do this? We think not, see later for a better way.

But we jewdasers, magnanimous lot that we are, would be willing to forgive all of this, if it weren’t for one thing. You see, all of the bad things Birthright does are massively outweighed by something much more important – carbon emissions. By now, hopefully, you know all about this stuff. We’re all fucked, unless we radically alter our behaviour, large areas of the globe will become uninhabitable, large scale famine will ensue, possibly the beginning end of human existence. Go read some Monbiot, if it hasn’t sunk in yet. And aviation is a major contributor to this, both because of the vast distances covered, and the fact that emissions at high altitudes are significantly more damaging. Basically we need to stop flying, or only do it very rarely. Climate science has established that to stop a disastrous rise in global temperatures, we need to ration ourselves to only emitting an acceptable level of carbon. That level is around 1.5 tonnes of carbon per year. About the same emissions as a return flight from London to Tel Aviv (or New York). So were you to make such a trip, you could emit no further carbon for the rest of the year. Which is impossible, given that you need heat and shelter to survive. So such flights become impossible and immoral, given the consequences of not reducing emissions in this fashion.

Some flights are difficult to oppose such as a journey to see a sick or dying relative. But in order to ‘promote Jewish identity’? It won’t matter if Jewish identity is weak if there’s little inhabitable earth left on which to live it.

So will Birthright stop sending thousands of people on flights every year? It could be done, at least from Europe. It is possible to take trains through Europe to Greece, and then sail from there to Haifa. It would be slow, and expensive no doubt, though Birthright should be able to get hefty discounts through block booking/chartering boats etc. But it would be worth it. The good of this step could outweigh all the bad outlined above. It would have a side effect of experiencing Israel as connected to the space around it, not in a vacuum, where Hendon and Ben Yehuda Street flow imperceptibly into one another.

Too time consuming and expensive you say? Or not dealing with the political issues with Israel trips? Ok then, here’s another suggestion. Meet Birthright Spain. You travel there by train, which is relatively fast (no more than 24 hours from most of Western Europe and Central Europe), and has far lower emissions than flying. You still get to engage with Jewish identity, but in a context of the extraordinary religious tolerance and co-existence that flourished in mediaeval Spain. You learn Maimonides, Nachmanides, Ibn Gabirol, Albo, and Rabbenu Yonah. You engage with the complexities of Jewishness by meeting descendents of converso (crypto Jewish) families. You invent new rituals, innovating Judaism instead of experiencing it as a fixed religion, or ethnicity. Plus; Its hot, so you get to hang out in swimming costumes, and make Jewish babies if you so desire.

So how about it Birthright? Wouldn’t this be a better way of doing things?

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5 thoughts on “Birthshite?”

  1. just a few corrections:

    1) Birthright is free:
    “This exciting trip offers 21-26 year olds (20 yrs for students applying for UJS trips) an inspiring free ten day educational trip to Israel.”

    2) “You still get to engage with Jewish identity, but in a context of the extraordinary religious tolerance and co-existence that flourished in mediaeval Spain.”
    Is this some kind of a joke?
    You’ve been sorely misinformed, get your facts straight:
    And even today, Spain is brimming with “real”, “old-school” Anti-Semitism.

    3) While the discussion about carbon emissions is somewhat relevant, it doesn’t have anything specific to do with Israel.

    So while I tend to agree with your main point (Birthright is dumb), I also have to recommend you do your homework so it can be taken seriously.

  2. further corrections:

    “We’re all fucked… And aviation is a major contributor to this”

    I’m afraid, Geoffrey Cohen, that 4% is not a major contribution. Now I’m sure there are many valid criticisms of Birthright, might I suggest that you find a one, rather than building a straw man, before beginning your next rant.

    ‘The accumulation of atmospheric carbon dioxide due to aircraft over the next 50 years is projected to increase to 5 to 13 ppmv… this is 4% of that from all human activities assuming the mid-range IPCC scenario.’

  3. theschaff:

    that figure is certainly contested/out off date see here

    which suggest that aviation’s figure is currently 4.9%

    In the UK, the government think it represents 5.5% of our emissions and the estimate that its share will have approximately doubled by 2050, so were talking around 10%

    These figures, coupled with the fact that aviation is our fastest growing source of emissions make it indeed a major contributor, and one that, along with most other areas, needs to be drastically reformulated.

  4. @Guy Paikowsky : The Jews in Spain were actually best off under the rule of the Moorish conquest. The entire Islamic world, in spite of some extra taxes for all non-Muslims, was a very liberal place compared to the RC and Protestant Christian world.

    So I think the author of the piece must have meant the peaceful coexistence prior to the conquest of Spain by the RC Church and Inquisition.

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