Jewish college mag calls Birthright propagandist

Whoever thought a year ago that Birthright Israel would become financially embattled — more or less attacked by a magazine representative of a core constituency?

A year ago, the program widely regarded as the single most effective Jewish identity-forming initiative in existence was coming off a record year, sending 42,000 Jews between the ages of 18 and 26 on free 10-day trips to Israel. The organization that runs the trips was riding high on some $60 million in gifts from casino mogul Sheldon Adelson. And it was the darling of the Jewish philanthropic world.

But 2008 is ending with something of a thud.

In November, Birthright officials told JTA that because of a decrease in funding, the organization would be cutting its budget from $110 million to about $75 million (Adelson, who had given $60 million for 2007-’08, was slated to give $30 million total for 2008-’09 and 2009-’10). Then the Jewish Agency for Israel, which is one of the main partners behind Birthright — along with the United Jewish Communities, the government of Israel and private philanthropists — proposed a significant cut of its own contribution to the program.

At the same time, the Birthright Israel Foundation, the group’s fund-raising mechanism for courting private philanthropists, was facing a leadership change

Now, a magazine that represents the age cohort of Birthright’s participants has taken a direct jab at Birthright.

New Voices, a national Jewish student life magazine, published an article Monday titled “Birthright’s Hidden Cost: How Your Free Trip Will Help Israeli Hard Liner Benjamin Netanyahu Become Prime Minister.”  The piece asserts that Birthright is a borderline propaganda tool for Adelson to push his politically right-wing agenda.

Josh Nathan-Kazis, the article’s author and the magazine’s editor, writes::

You knew there was no such thing as a free trip when you signed up for Birthright. You might not have been spending any money, but you understood that in return for a flight, hotels, and food, you were agreeing to sit through hours of propaganda. And just as the gambler doesn’t mind that his poker room martini isn’t as free as it feels, you didn’t mind that Birthright was asking for your attention in return for their gift. You knew what was coming, you contextualized it, and you enjoyed the ride.

It’s my contention that you didn’t know the half of it. The transaction into which the Birthright participant enters is much more complex than simply trading a pair of ears for an experience. Unbeknownst to most participants, a significant amount of the program’s funding comes from a single billionaire donor whose support for hawkish Israeli politicians threatens to derail the peace process. By accepting this man’s money, Birthright forces tens of thousands of unwitting young Jews to stand behind him, implicating a generation in his damaging political adventures.

Journalistically, the story is highly problematic, as a number of commenters on New Voices’ Web site point out. It has a snappy headline, but really does very little in the way of actually substantiating that Birthright indeed is pushing propaganda.

And it fails to point out that Birthright among Birthright’s group of first funders was the super-politically-left Edgar Bronfman, who remains a major contributor to the program.

In an interview Tuesday morning with The Fundermentalist, Nathan-Kazis defended his story.

“The article did not criticize the content of the trips or its programming," he said. "I didn’t imply that. There is no evidence at all that Adelson has any impact on the program, and I didn’t mean to imply that. People appreciate the trips,” he said. “I was trying to talk about where the money comes from and trying to look at the nature of the transaction between the student and the donor. And what the implications are when someone who gives 30 percent of the budget in 2008 has a political agenda.”

Nathan-Kazis said that he did not mean to attack Birthright per se; rather, he wanted to say that there is a danger in the way that the Jewish communal world has moved away from a traditional fund-raising model that relies on a large base of small donors and toward a dependency on mega-donors like Adelson.

“I think Birthright has been a fantastic thing and it would be silly to say anything else, and I am not aware of any mass movement against Birthright,” he said.

Nathan-Kazis’ point is valid, but it’s lost in his magazine article, which instead focuses on criticizing Bithright. It will be interesting to see how Birthright reacts.

It also could be interesting to see whether or not any of the donors on the board of New Voices — which has had fund-raising problems in recent years — have a problem with Nathan-Kazis’ analysis.

He and his staff have full autonomy over the content of the magazine, which prints 10,000 copies and sends out an email blast with its stories to some 5,000 additional readers. Nathan-Kazis said the magazine traditionally poses a dissenting voice.

The question here is did he go too far, especially in using the word propaganda to describe Birthright.

“I went back and forth on using that word and maybe that was a mistake,” he acknowledged to The Fundermentalist. But he says he has faith that it will not cost his magazine funding. “I haven’t heard anything from the board, yet, but the story went out last night. I imagine they won’t be thrilled. But our funders understand that New Voices is a publication that is not going to say what they agree with.”

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