Back in the late ‘70’s, President Carter extended an invitation to dozens of American rabbis to join him at the White House. Part of the visit included being personally introduced to the President. A handshake followed. Upon being announced, one prominent New York area Rabbi decided to air his feelings. “Mr. President,” he said. “I voted for you in November 1976. Given your shameful attitude toward Israel, my having supported you is something I have regretted ever since.”
I recall discussing the comment with Jacob Sodden, a rabbi in the neighborhood. Rabbi Sodden was outraged at the sheer chutzpah of his outspoken fellow clergy. “If you are upset with the President, you write a letter. You refuse the invitation to the White House and explain why. You stand across the way from the other Rabbis lined up to meet with the President and you hold a placard expressing your feelings. But how dare you show up as a guest and spit in the face of your host!” exclaimed Rabbi Sodden.
Rabbi Sodden has long since been taken from this world, but his words to me rang loud and clear, as I read an article about Birthright Israel participants who make it a point to walk off the program to meet with “poor” Palestinians as a form to protest the “one-sidedness” of Birthright Israel. “Sheer Chutzpah! ” I exclaimed. If twenty- something- year-old American Jews wish to visit with “poor Palestinians” to hear their side of the story, that is their prerogative. I wish them the very best and instinctively, I lapse into Yiddish and say “gay gezunterhayt”(go visit them in good health.) But do so at your own expense and not as a participant of Birthright Israel.”
Walking off a Birthright trip to Israel to visit “poor Palestinians” is no different than accepting an invitation for a Shabbat dinner and then in the middle of the meal abruptly getting up from the table and walking out of your host’s home, so that you can resume your Shabbat meal elsewhere. To make matters worse, you show up again for dessert at the home of the host who originally invited you and then proceed to act as though nothing happened.
If that weren’t sufficient chutzpah, the one who walked off is reported in the article as having explained “Judaism is about love and kindness.” Indeed, it is! Judaism is also about respect. And that’s one area where those who walked off from Birthright fall woefully short. Judaism is also about being proper guests. The same Judaism that teaches love and kindness, also teaches : “Whatever your hosts tell you, do,” (Talmud, Pesachim 86b. A variant reading adds “except walk off.”) In the words of a mentor of mine who purposely misquoted a popular, but totally incorrect proverb: “You don’t take your cake and mash it in your host’s face.” And that’s precisely what those who walk off Birthright Israel are doing. As one who has arranged for a goodly number of Jewish young adults to participate in the program, I know for a fact, that Zionism is the agenda of Birthright Israel, not Middle East politics.
And that brings me to the epitome of chutzpah. According to that same article, those who walk off Birthright Israel and visit with “poor” Palestinians, do so at the urging and encouragement of a network of Jewish activists whose goal is to end Jewish American support for the occupation of Palestinians. Groups such as “J Street” and “If Not Now” that do have a political agenda, have every right to exist and promote their agenda. They also have every right to compete with Birthright and promote all-expense paid trips to Israel for American Jewish youth. I would however expect these groups to have the integrity and veracity to be upfront about their agenda. To interfere with the agenda of Birthright Israel, to approach participants and lure them away with their agenda – even if it’s for a few hours – borders on “gneivat da’at” (stealing of one’s mind.) After all, those who sign up with Birthright Israel, do so with the expectation of experiencing Israel. There ought to be no expectation of becoming involved with politics.
Let Birthright Israel continue to do what it does so well. Let those who are concerned with the “poor” Palestinians go over to the West Bank, as well as other Palestinian enclaves, and lend a helping hand at improving the lives of those Palestinians. Perhaps if they are truly occupied with helping others, they won’t have any time for chutzpah toward their own.