I read this article last night and was thoroughly disappointed.

“Birthright’s Hidden Cost” by Josh Nathan-Kazis — http://newvoices.org/editorial/birthrights-hidden-cost.html

Nathan-Kazis writes in his article (which you can read at the link above) that Birthright Israel (BRI) billionaire donor, Sheldon Adelson, has pushed Birthright to indoctrinate its participants with a right-wing agenda.

However, no where in this nicely written article is there any connection, statistic, or relevant fact that connects Adelson to indoctrinating Birthright Israel participants to a right-wing / pro-Netanyahu agenda.

Josh Nathan-Kazis does not draw out a case for this, rather, he explains how Birthright Israel is reliant on such wealthy donors, who like to take up certain causes.

Firstly, has Nathan-Kazis interviewed a statistically relevant number of Birthright participants over the past few years to make your conclusion about propaganda and indoctrination? If he did, why weren’t these findings included in his article? Clearly, he had none.

Secondly, the article does not discuss at all the fact that Birthright Israel does not actually run any of its programs. Rather, there are some 30+ organizations running various types and styles of Birthright Israel trips (called trip providers), all deciding how to educate and even indoctrinate its participants. It’s up to the trip provider, not Birthright Israel. BRI merely has a set rules and requirements each trip provider must follow, and working for one of them myself, I know that teaching a pro-Netanyahu or pro-right-wing agenda is NOT one of those requirements.

Thirdly, even if this analysis were true, how would indoctrinating non-Israelis affect the Israeli elections? Last I checked, BRI participants live in the Diaspora, which typically means they can’t vote in Israel (most of them at least).

While I do have my own personal problems with BRI, namely the lack of actual education that goes on during the 10-day program, this false analysis of a right-wing indoctrination is far from the truth.

I agree, it is important to look into the donors that fund an organization, but this article has not proved any connection between the cause (the donor) and the stated effect (right-wing indoctrination). Unfortunately, this is just another piece of shoddy yellow journalism.

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  • “namely the lack of actual education that goes on during the 10-day program”

    In several Jewish education classes I’ve take the professors never had this gripe. Birthright practically wrote the book on expereintial education; their main focus isn’t to pack you with facts until you’re an expert in Middle Eastern studies. They give you just enough history an background to create an experience sensational enough for the learner to go home wanting to read bogs like Jewlicious, pick up a Dershowitz books (Edward Said, Thomas Friedman, what have you) book, and educate yourself.

    It actually has been the very first form of Jewish education to, overwhelmingly and statistically (Brandies has done a number of studies) spur participants to learn more after the learning experience. That’s the very goal of every committed educator.

  • Dani,

    This post responds to an argument I didn’t make. My article simply doesn’t argue that Adelson is using his donations to influence the nature of the trip or indoctrinate Birthright participants.

    The piece you linked to argues that in the implicit transaction between the Birthright participant and the donor, the donor receives a certain amount of status. In the case of Adelson, who gave such a huge percentage of Birthright’s operating costs, the donor receives a lot of status. I argued that participants should consider that Adelson uses this status to pursue a right wing agenda in Israel, and as such those who take his money are implicated in his political work.

    In a word, dani, your post is pretty “shotty.”


  • “implicit transaction between the Birthright participant and the donor, the donor receives a certain amount of status.”

    Nu? Don’t philanthropists deserve a certain amount of ‘status’?

    “participants should consider that Adelson uses this status to pursue a right wing agenda in Israel”

    Responsible people won’t pour hundreds of millions into a cause without some form of oversight. He has a perfect right to doll out his millions with pull-strings attached. And, last I checked, birthright isn’t shy about having a Zionist agenda. Do you believe that there are participants who aren’t yet wise to this, but affiliated enough to read “New Voices”?

  • I’m not talking about his “Zionist agenda,” Lori. I’m talking about his pro-Likud agenda. Are you saying the two are one and the same?

  • “Are you saying the two are one and the same?”

    In the strictest sense, yes.

  • Josh: So let me see if I understand. Adelson gives money to Birthright and that gives him influence in Israel to pursue his right-wing agenda? Most Israelis haven’t even heard of Birthright… Like he can’t be such a bad guy if he helps send all these spoiled American kids to Israel for free and sits close to Peres at the Presidents Conference and donates money to hospitals etc. etc. Talk about a spurious connection. The logic seems a little convoluted and the basis of the article’s negativity seems to be that Adelson supports Netanyahu and you don’t. I don’t support him either, but Adelson isn’t doing anything illegal and if Likud wins then the people have spoken. I think Adelson’s millions had less to do with Likud’s projected ascendancy in Israel than did a mess of cheap rocket-kit Qassams lobbed into Israel by the Palestinians. You make it seem as if Adelson is evil incarnate just because he’s a right winger. I have never voted for a right wing party in my life but people are entitled to their opinions and just because I disagree with them doesn’t make them evil loathsome or deserving of extra special scrutiny.

  • “just because I disagree with them doesn’t make them evil loathsome or deserving of extra special scrutiny.”


  • I am happy that Jonathan is leading New Voices to examine such issues – even if I dont agree with his conclusions.

    I would point out though that rich diaspora Jews buying influence in Israel has been an issue for Israel and Israeli democracy since Herzl got his Idea.

    Birthright’s founder Michael Steinhardt, the Schustermans, and Bronfmans all have vested interests in Israel. Does that mean that we need to scrutinize their agenda too?

    My guess is that Russian moguls are having as large or greater impact on the future of Israel, in terms of money spent.

    David is right that the katushas that are falling like evil hail upon Israel’s south constitute the largest help to Bibi.

    And this is what Hamas wants – the last thing they want is a Prime Minister that wants to pursue a pure peace agenda.

    But back to New Voices and Dani’s piece here. I don’t think this is yellow, Dani, and Jonathan brings a lot of issues to the table, such as the Bibiton newspaper.

    I don’t agree with his conclusions that taking a free Birthright trip is endorsing Adelson’s politics.

    Going on Birthright is endorsing that the Jews have a right to their own State. It is a seriously a Zionist enterprise.

  • Lori, don’t be silly.

    ck, I think I’ve responded to the overheated comment you made on my article page with my comment above. With respect to this comment, I still think you’re missing the point.
    I’m not saying that Adelson’s doing anything illegal. But I think that American Birthright participants should know that the guy who is paying for a third of their trip is also, for example, funding a free daily newspaper that Israeli observers call a transparent pro-Netanyahu rag. Many of our readers don’t support Netanyahu, and wouldn’t want to engage in the sort of transaction with Adelson that is implicit in the acceptance of a free trip, given that his “philanthropy in the last couple of years…seems to have given him stature, and a kind of immunity,” according to a recent New Yorker article.

  • Josh – just be fair and admit that the main reason you took the angle you did was because you are against Adelson’s politics. Do we also have to tell the kinderlach that Birthright was founded by a guy whose fortune was made in bootlegging? Does going on Birthright endorse criminal activity then? Shall we tell the kiddies that another major Birthright donor make their money in the oil industry and that therefor going on Birthright supports our continued dependence on fossil fuels and the damage that does to our environment? Or do we talk about several other funders and their Liberal agendas? Sorry Josh. Your article simply doesn’t cut it. You are asking for a heightened level of scrutiny against Adelson not because of how he may use the prestige garnered by his philanthropy, but rather because, simply put, you disagree with his politics. Please don’t try to frame this issue as some general ethical responsibility that Birthright owes its participants, because it isn’t. The responsibility to scrutinize a philanthropist only kicks in according to you when you disagree with the Philanthropist. That’s obvious from what you wrote and you should just own up to it.

  • Yeah, BRI is so right-wing that I was forced to get off the bus in a parking lot for the Old City, then walk 1/2-3/4 mile to the entrance of the City of David archeological site, just because merely taking a bus there is a “contentious” issue. And this was on a trip with Mayanot, which is associated with Chabad-Lubavitch, so you know what direction they tend to be. From one Josh to another, I have to tell you not to draw conclusions unless you experience things close-up.

  • Silly? If you disagree with my perspective, just say so plainly. You don’t have to pretend that it is silly. It isn’t. It is nuanced, quite well thought out, and coming from a person with a degree in Israeli studies. How about a little bit of respect for those whose world view diverts from your own. Is everyone who disagrees with you either ‘silly’, or material for your writing?

  • ck, Adelson is substantively different. Taking money from bootleggers or tax evaders or securities fraudsters is one thing. But, as I wrote in the piece, the actions you’re holding these men accountable for are in the past. The transaction between the participant and Adelson is different, as it has an impact on political events that have yet to take place.

    And Lori, it’s silly to argue – as you did – that to be a Zionist is to support Netanyahu. An Israel studies major such as yourself should have a bit more of a historical perspective than that. Unless I misunderstood you.

  • What about taking money from donors whose other philanthropy has a decidedly Liberal agenda? I am not going to mention names but other Birthright Israel donors support organizations that are socially progressive, or organizations that are decidedly anti-Haredi. Those actions also have an impact on “political events that have yet to take place.”

    Just to be clear, I am not by any means a Netanyahu supporter and as far as Liberal agendas go, I am more likely to support those. My issue with your article isn’t a political one but rather one of policy and consistency. Birthright Israel is as apolitical an organization as one will find in the Jewish world. The donors that fund it represent a wide spectrum of political and ideological orientations. As long as Birthright continues to remain substantially apolitical, the political activities of its donors are substantially irrelevant and inconsequential. I’d understand the scrutiny you put Adelson under if what he was supporting was some kind of fringe, lunatic political ideology. But he’s a Likud supporter. They are a mainstream Israeli party and while I am not going to vote for them, they’re still not hateful, illegal or grossly offensive. Again, I submit that the only reason you’ve subjected Adelson to this kind of incredible scrutiny is not because of principle, but simply because you abhor Likud. Those Birthright sponsors who support Meretz, Kadima or Labor are not subject to the same criticism – hence your analysis fails.

  • Oh and Josh? I just wanted you to know that I appreciate your input and your willingness to address our criticism. I’m glad that this conversation has remained civil and when all is said and done, I still think you’re a very promising writer and that Newvoices is a wonderful publication.

  • I know this isn’t the main topic here but Birthright did not practically write the book on experiential education. Young Judaea, USY, Habonim Dror…there are countless Israel trips that have been doing it for years. Birthright just happens to do it for free.

  • I appreciate it, David.

    But still, I think you’re distorting my point. I’m pretty clear in the article that partisanship should not disqualify donors. Adelson’s donations in Israel are far from ordinary. I’m not talking about donations to politicians. I’m talking about starting a newspaper as a propaganda tool in favor of a particular candidate, as many believe Adelson did. For more on this, read the New Yorker article I cited: http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2008/06/30/080630fa_fact_bruck?currentPage=all

    A opinion piece about a liberal who used his money in a similar way would be totally justified. I’m not aware of any. Of course, New Voices is a generally progressive magazine, and I think it’s more likely that the Adelson situation would give our readers pause than some hypothetical situation with a liberal donor.