What Makes an American Kid With Shaky Hebrew Decide He Is Ready to Die for Israel?

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July 22 2014 11:42 PM

“Solidarity With Israel”

A Birthright trip convinced an American with shaky Hebrew that he was ready to die for another country.

Taglit Birthright 2009.
Though most Birthright alumni do not join the IDF, to do so seems like the ultimate fulfillment of the organization’s mission.

Photo by Quazie/Flickr Creative Commons

In 2012, Los Angeles native Max Steinberg traveled to Israel for the first time, on a 10-day trip sponsored by Birthright Israel. A few months later, he joined the Israel Defense Forces. On Sunday, he died fighting in Gaza, leaving behind his parents, who will now take their first trip to Israel to bury their 24-year-old son.

There are many people to blame for Steinberg’s death. There is the Hamas fighter behind the weapon that actually killed him. There are the leaders, on both sides, who put him in Gaza, and the leaders behind all of the wars between Israel and the Palestinians. I can trace it back to 1948, or 1917, or whatever date suits you and still never find all the parties who are responsible. But I have no doubt in my mind that along with all of them, Birthright shares some measure of the blame.

Birthright was founded by Jewish philanthropists Charles Bronfman and Michael Steinhardt in 1999 “to change the course of Jewish history and ensure the continuity of the Jewish people by strengthening Jewish identity, Jewish communities, and solidarity with Israel” by sending young Jews on all-expense-paid trips there. The organization has been extremely successful: Birthright reports that more than 400,000 young Jewish men and women have visited the Holy Land on its dime, and research out of Brandeis University confirms that the trips are having the desired effect, producing a more-engaged Jewish diaspora with stronger ties to Israel. Though most trip alumni do not join the IDF (Birthright’s spokeswoman told me they don’t keep track), to do so seems like the ultimate fulfillment of Birthright’s mission—the ultimate expression of a Jew’s solidarity with Israel is to take up arms to defend it.  

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A few years ago, Kiera Feldman wrote about Birthright for the Nation and described “the mifgash”—a multiday portion of the trip during which Israeli soldiers join the group as a way to create a bond between young diaspora Jews and their IDF peers:

Soldiers meet Birthrighters in full uniform, spend the remainder of the mifgash in civilian clothing and then dress back in uniform for the encounter’s final day: the Holocaust Museum followed by a visit to the graves of Theodor Herzl and fallen soldiers. Lynn Schusterman, a Birthright funder and board member, told me the bonds formed during the mifgash help participants gain an understanding of soldiers’ “moral and ethical standards.” After the 2006 Lebanon war, Brandeis researchers found that Birthright alumni were more likely than other young American Jews to view Israel’s military conduct as justified.

What else happens on those 10-day trips? There is a lot of hooking up and plenty of, as Feldman writes, “reinforcing the Zionist claim to the land” (Feldman’s tour guide identified everything they saw out of the bus window as “in the Bible,” and her group was given maps that identified the West Bank as “Judea and Samaria”). And, “at some point during their all-expenses-paid ten-day trip to a land where, as they are constantly reminded, every mountain and valley is inscribed with 5,000 years of their people’s history,” there is “the moment”—the moment when participants realize just how important Israel is to them, to their fundamental identity, and how important they are to Israel.

According to Steinberg’s parents, that is exactly what happened to Max. His mother told the Washington Post that, initially, he didn’t want to go on the Birthright trip, but once he did, it changed him. It was on his group’s visit to Israel’s national cemetery at Mount Herzl that Steinberg saw the grave of an American “lone soldier” who died fighting for Israel and “decided that Israel was where he wanted to be.” He joined the IDF, his father said, because he saw it as an obligation were he to stay in Israel.

Birthright says that aliyah—the immigration of diaspora Jews to Israel—is not one of its goals, but like Steinberg, many participants come away with the feeling that Israel is where they belong. Birthright estimates that 20,000­–30,000 of its participants have acted on that feeling by moving to Israel. I have known many young American Jews who have made the same decision—who at 18 decided that they belonged in Israel and, though they’d never considered joining the American military, moved across the ocean to join the IDF right after high school. People say Birthright is “just like camp,” and it sure sounds like a very condensed version of the Jewish camp I attended as a kid, whose purpose was, at the very least, to foster a connection to Israel in young Jews—and at best, to get us to move to the country and fight for it. My camp, filled with the children of liberal American Jews, did this by presenting a very simplistic picture of the political situation in Israel and the threat to Jews worldwide, all within the context of helping to fix the world while having the time of your life. Birthright does a form of the same.

On Tuesday, Birthright issued a statement from its CEO, Gidi Mark. “We are deeply saddened to inform you of the tragic loss of one our Taglit Birthright Israel alumni Max Steinberg,” Mark wrote. “His life—a life filled with promise cut short far too soon—will live in our hearts forever as a reminder of the sacrifices he and so many before him have made to keep Israel safe.”

What makes an American kid with shaky Hebrew and no ties to the state of Israel suddenly decide he is ready to make this sacrifice? Maybe Max was especially lost, or especially susceptible, or maybe he was just looking to do some good and became convinced by his Birthright experience that putting on an IDF uniform and grabbing a gun was the way to do it. That serving and protecting the Jewish people was the moral thing to do, and that the best way to accomplish it was to go fight for the Jewish state. It turns out that it’s not that hard to persuade young people to see the world a certain way and that Birthright is very good at doing it. You spend hundreds of millions of dollars to convince young Jews that they are deeply connected to a country that desperately needs their support? This is what you get. 

Allison Benedikt is a Slate senior editor. Follow her on Twitter.

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