Archive for May, 2008

Birthright Israel’s Biggest Night

Friday, May 30th, 2008


Jewish Week Home Page

Jerusalem – I attended the biggest Mega-Event ever for Birthright Israel on Sunday night, with 7,500 screaming participants gathered at an outdoor ampitheater near here, and my ears are still ringing.

The Mega-Events are the highlight and culmination of the ten-day free trips for 18-26 year olds from throughout the diaspora, bringing all of the current participants together for one special evening featuring theatrical productions that rival Broadway and the Academy Awards with a mixture of music, strobe lights, videos, choreographed dancing, fireworks and lots of kitsch.

The crowd at the Latrun tank museum (the site of a major battle in the 1948 War of Independence) was pumped from the outset with uptempo Israeli music blaring, to get them in a celebratory mood.

The scene looked like a European soccer match, with the various national groups cheering themselves hoarse, waving Israeli flags and doing the wave even before the program started. There were contingents from Argentina, Brazil, Canada, France and India, and of course, the U.S., the biggest by far.

Birthright officials expect 24,000 participants on trips this summer, and 42,000 in all this year, the biggest numbers ever, thanks in large part to a major infusion in funding from Las Vegas-based businessman and philanthropist Sheldon Adelson.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert addressed the crowd and may have received the last enthusiastic reception of his tenure, given the view that his days in office are numbered. But you would have never known it from him or the crowd as he exhorted the young people to come back to Israel.

“There is only one place in the world that is ours,” Olmert said, “and this is our place. This is your home. There is no other home for you but this one.”

The audience cheered.

Olmert personally thanked the mega-donors who helped make Birthright a reality, and presented awards onstage to Michael and Judy Steinhardt, Charles Bronfman, Lynn Schusterman, incoming Birthright chair Dan Och of New York, and several others.

Then the entertainment began, hosted by popular Israeli TV host Michael HarPaz (Hebrew for Goldberg), who began his introduction in a thick Hebrew accent before looking up and proclaiming in perfect English, “who am I kidding, I’m from Detroit!”

The next hour and a half was non-stop entertainment, with pop stars, elaborate stage productions, sing-a-longs (like “Adon Olam” and other Hebrew songs transliterated into English on giant screens so the Americans could join in), and a seemingly endless supply of fireworks, an Israeli favorite.

The dramatic highlight: after a short film clip about a young Israeli soldier, Assaf Hershkowitz, from a canine unit who had to leave the Canadian group he was touring with (more than 30,000 Israeli soldiers have traveled with the 180,000 Birthright participants over the last eight years) to return to his unit the day before, a helicopter appeared in the night sky. It circled over the crowd, then appeared to land just behind the stage, and Assaf soon trotted onstage with his dog at his side as the crowd roared its approval.

Asked by HarPaz if the dog, Vosko, did any tricks, Assaf answered, “well, he can find bombs.”

Over the top? Sure. And was it ironic that towards evening’s end, HarPaz led the crowd in a heartfelt rendition of John Lennon’s “Imagine,” with everyone singing about an ideal world of no nations and no religion? Absolutely. But everyone was having too good a time to deconstruct the good feelings created by having so many thousands of young Jews together, celebrating Israel and their Jewishness.

There are, no doubt, valid criticisms of the hedonistic aspects of the Birthright trips, and surely there could be more serious Jewish content infused in the tours. But there is no arguing with the fact that Birthright has been a huge success in attracting so many young people who may never have visited, or thought about, Israel had it not been for this bold venture.

For one night, at least, there was a palpable sense of excitement and Jewish unity and pride in the cool night air of Latrun, and one can only hope that those good feelings will last a lifetime.

Obama A Threat To Israel, Mideast Expert Charges

Saturday, May 17th, 2008


Jewish Week Home Page

Tel Aviv — Judging from the views of Israeli academics at a panel Thursday afternoon, Israel has much to worry about if Barack Obama is elected president this fall.

Barry Rubin, a well-known and respected Mideast expert and academic, told an audience today at a conference at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies (BESA) at Bar-Ilan University here that an Obama victory would precipitate “the most dangerous crisis facing the world.”

After citing his own credentials as a former Washingtonian who worked for the campaigns of numerous Democratic presidential candidates, going back to John Kennedy in 1960, Rubin described Obama as “not the candidate of the [moderate] Arab states, but the candidate of the Islamists, whether he knows it or not.

“If elected, he will be the most anti-Israel president in American history,” asserted Rubin, who is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center at IDC, the Interdisciplinary Center of Herzliya, and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal.

He said that while Obama speaks of his willingness to meet with autocratic leaders of countries like Iran and Syria, he only uses the carrot half of the carrot/stick equation.

“He never mentions what he would do if the talks fail, and he doesn’t talk about the need for the U.S. to show its strength.”

Rubin predicted that Obama would choose Robert Malley, a former State Department official who criticized Israel for its role in the failure of the Camp David peace talks in 2000, to be director of policy planning, if elected. And Rubin said it was no accident that Obama’s recent reference to the Israel-Palestinian conflict as “a constant sore” was the same phrase Rashid Khalidi, a professor of Arab studies at Columbia University, has used in an article in The Nation.

Another Israeli panelist on Thursday, Eytan Gilboa of the sponsoring BESA Center, was not as critical as Rubin. But he said that Obama has the American Arab vote “in his pocket” and that his lack of experience and seeming eagerness to talk through any problem were “worrisome” traits.

The other two panelists were Robert Lieber of Georgetown University and me.

Lieber said Obama is not anti-Israel and indeed appears supportive of the Jewish state. But he said the Illinois senator would face a serious problem if, as president, he tries to reason with American and Israeli enemies like Iran, whose leaders have proven intractable for decades. “It won’t get him very far,” said Lieber, who also spoke of Obama’s inexperience, predicting that he would be tested early on by U.S. adversaries.

In my presentation, I said there was “a good deal of discomfort and unease” with Obama among American Jews, particularly those over 40, and that it was difficult to tell how much was based on his policies or lack of experience, how much on his association with Rev. Jeremiah Wright, and how much on race, among other factors.

The two-day conference theme was “Whither American Zionism?” But most of the presentations dealt with the past, with several speakers, including former Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Arens, pointing out that the movement’s golden years were its early ones, in the first two decades of the 20th century.

The movement had “an auspicious start,” noted Arens, who cited early leaders like Justice Louis Brandeis and Justice Felix Frankfurter. “But it didn’t live up to expectations,” he said, citing the low figures of American aliyah.

Large-scale aliyah from the U.S. “could have made all the difference,” Arens said, in Israel’s struggles with its Arab neighbors.