I’m here in Israel officially on a UJC-sponsored media mission to Sderot and Ashkelon. But the mission to the rocket-pecked areas on Israel’s border with Gaza doesn’t officially start until Monday night, so the Fundermentalist has been looking for Funder-fun.
Sunday night, I ended up at the Taglit-Birthright mega event, the gathering of several thousand kids 18-26 who are in Israel on the free 10-day trips. It’s quite a spectacle and worth checking out if you ever have the chance. I’ll have more on the event itself, including video, a little later in the day.
Rest assured, the Fundermentalist found the real juice at the VIP-only-pre-mega-event event. Though the stars of the Birthright funders – Michael Steinhardt, Lynn Schusterman, Charles Bronfman and the like – were, well, the stars of the outdoor buffet of exquisite fare, dozens of other Birthright donors, dignitaries and potential donors milled about a lawn decked out with white couches and delicacies.
The Fundermentalist, though, may have uncovered the answer to a great Birthright mystery: Who really came up with the idea for Birthright?
Conventional philanthropic wisdom has held that it was some combination of Steinhardt and Bronfman and that essentially Bronfman had the idea to take as many North American young adults as possible to Israel, while Steinhardt came up with the idea to make the trips free – and argued vehemently with Bronfman until Bronfman acquiesced.
That’s only about a quarter right, according to Israeli MK Yossi Beilin.
Beilin told the Fundermentalist in unequivocal terms that Birthright, widely accepted as the most significant Jewish philanthropic endeavor of this generation, after sending some 180,000 Jewish kids to Israel over the past eight years for free, was in fact HIS idea.
Beilin, speaking with the Fundermentalist within sight of both Steinhardt and Bronfman – at their own party, no less – said that he, Beilin, came up with the idea to send Diaspora Jews to Israel for free in 1993, when he, Beilin, was deputy Foreign Minister under Shimon Peres.
In 1994, he had Danny Abraham price out exactly how much such an endeavor would cost, Beilin said, adding that he then presented the idea to Bronfman, who summarily rejected it. “Charles said, ‘Giving the trips for free? No one will respect it,’” Beilin said. “He sent a letter, telling me it was a waste of money.”
Beilin, wearing sunglasses at dusk, said that he still has the letter. (His wife, Daniella, listening to the discussion, said that it was a “shonde” that her husband’s name has been forgotten in the Birthright discussion.) Beilin also said that he pitched the idea to Steinhardt in 1994, but Steinhardt did not think it would work.
By 1999, Steinhardt, the former hedge fund star had dropped out of Wall Street to become a full-time Jewish philanthropist. He actually approached Beilin about the idea, but said that he was only getting involved if Bronfman was involved.
Beilin thought it would be impossible, but Steinhardt had Bronfman on board within a few days.
Next, Beilin, then the justice minister, brought the idea to then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak, who secured $70 million from the Israeli government over five years to pursue the project. Steinhardt, Bronfman and other American mega-donors pitched in $5 million each. The American Jewish federation system also put up significant money – and even though “the Jewish Agency fought against it like hell,” Beilin said Sunday night, the Jewish world had soup.
And how does Beilin feel while Bronfman and the rest bask in the glory of his idea? “At least the program is running,” he said.