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What the Birthright Walkouts Really Accomplish

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In the early 12th century, a wealthy Spanish Jew left the dinner table early to the dismay of his wife and young daughter. They watched as he slowly put down his eating utensils, tucked in his chair, and left his napkin on the table. It’s not that he wasn’t hungry, per se, rather he was unable to eat. This was already the third time this month that such an episode had occurred.
 
Slowly walking from the kitchen to his study, he sat down in his chair, took out a piece of parchment and began to weep. Tears flowing onto the paper, he began attempting to capture his emotions.
 
“My heart is in the East, but I am at the edge of the West. How then can I taste what I eat and take enjoyment in it?”
 
It wasn’t that Spain in the 12th century was a particularly hard time or place for Iberian Jews. On the contrary. Yehuda Halevi, our wealthy Spanish Jew, lived in what historians deem the “Golden Age in Spain” where there was more religious and intellectual freedom than in any other episode in pre-modern Jewish history.
 
Halevi was educated in traditional Hebrew, Arabic literature, Greek philosophy, and science, and worked as a physician with the full freedom to express both his Jewish identity and scientific worldview, while working alongside fellow Spanish Muslims and Christians. It would be difficult to point to a better possible situation for a Medieval Jew.
 
Yet towards the end of his life Halevi left behind everything and boarded a ship to Alexandria, and, after a short time in Egypt, set sail for Israel. Our records end here with historians even disputing whether or not he actually reached the land before his death soon after this time.
 
Anyone keeping up with Jewish news lately has probably heard of a string of Birthright walkouts egged on by the political group IfNotNow. The motive behind this phenomenon is clear. Birthright consciously ignores the political reality of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, and (in the view of some) the occupation, opting instead for a purely heritage focused trip that introduces young American Jews to the historical, cultural, and religious nature of Israel.
 
We need to be perfectly clear that what Birthright does is completely ok.
 
As much as Jewish (and other) bashers of Israel try to ignore, there is no Judaism without Israel. Israel is where the early myths and moral lessons of the Bible were dreamed of and composed. Israel is the birthplace of some of the earliest religious poetry ever, written by the Psalmists who were love sick in their devotion to God. Israel is the land that the Jewish prophets, with their timeless moral lessons, continuously traversed, encouraging the population to take up acts of social justice.
 
Israel is where the beginning of the creation of the Talmud, the cornerstone of post-biblical Judaism, took place, just years after the destruction of the second Temple. Ironically the phrase “if not now”, was first spoken by a Jewish scholar in Jerusalem roughly 1,900 years ago during this exact time. When prayer began to co-exist with and subsequently take the place of ritual sacrifice, the Rabbis made sure that Israel was central and ubiquitous in nearly every prayer.
 
Israel is the endpoint of hundreds of attempted pilgrimages before the pre-modern era, with Jews risking their lives to travel across the world to reach their homeland. Stories like that of Yehuda Halevi highlight the fact that these pilgrimages were not undertaken to escape religious persecution or for economic gain. Rather, scores of Jews throughout the centuries left everything behind for the simple opportunity to walk the streets of Israel as a Jew.
 
This highlights the importance of Birthright and other trips that take Jews to Israel. The purpose is to show people who grew up viewing Judaism as an archaic religion that they don’t want to practice, that Judaism is actually relevant. That Judaism is truly a civilization with cultural, ethnic, spiritual and nationalistic components that resonate today.
 
Yes, it is important to talk about the conflict, and I implore everyone going on Birthright to do their homework. After I staffed Birthright I even sent out a reading list of books with a multiplicity of perspectives on the conflict and occupation, just days after our trip ended.
 
But when groups try to polarize Birthright, to co-opt it, framing it in a bad light, and seeking to convince people not to go, or to leave mid-trip, they are only ruining the chance for thousands of young Jews to discover and connect to their Jewish identity in the place where their collective history began.
 
They are nothing more than spoilers of an amazing opportunity that most Jews throughout the last 2,000 years could only have dreamed of, as they sat in the midst of exile.
 
Moshe Daniel Levine regularly writes blog postings for Jewish Values Online.  
 
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