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How I Fell in Love with Israel

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I remember my first impression of Israel vividly.

It was almost sunrise when my mother and I pulled up to my cousins’ apartment in Petah Tikva. We were disheveled and weary from travel, laden with overflowing suitcases and discombobulated from the time difference. As I yanked my suitcase out of the elevator, a quick beam of light flickered from the balcony to my side. Gently abandoning our luggage in the hallway, my mother and I stepped out into the warm morning light.

It was about 5 a.m., and the sun was just rising. It cast a warm glow over the chalky white apartments, illuminating laundry strewn on clotheslines, flapping gently in the breeze. Hilltops flowed like soft waves in the distance, and the creeping sunlight lit upon packs of stray cats howling in the streets. It looked so authentically Middle Eastern, and unlike any city I’d ever seen before.

To this day, Petah Tikva is known as one of the ugliest cities in Israel. It’s ridiculed on Israeli TV and my teenage cousin repeatedly moans about how boring it is. Still, at that moment, it seemed like the most beautiful place on earth to me.

From that day forward, I spent years fantasizing about Israel, Googling cities from Netanya to Eilat and picking up scraps of Hebrew that I gleaned from synagogue. At age 15, I was even researching real estate in Jerusalem. You could say that I fell in love with the country.

Earlier this week, Alison Benedikt — senior editor of Slate magazine — published an article titled, “Did Birthright Kill Max Steinberg?” Since then, the title has been changed to something a little less preposterous, but the point remains the same — Benedikt, a former Israel advocate and now a rather bitter critic, seems to believe that a largely donor-funded trip to Israel is actually a trick masterminded by the Israeli government to ensnare foreigners (Americans specifically) into the IDF.

Of all the problems in the Middle East — Sudanese refugees, civil war in Syria, the dismantlement of Iraq as a country —  and Benedikt takes a moment to tackle the issue of … Birthright?  

Several responses have cropped up to Slate’s inflammatory piece, citing statistics that show just how unsupported Benedikt’s claims are — the percentage of Americans who join the IDF as a direct cause of Birthright is insignificant.

But since Benedikt’s article was pretty much all anecdotal, I’ll insert an anecdote here myself. I, too, went on Birthright. I tried to take it for what it was — a highly enjoyable, but cursory glance at a country much deeper and multi-layered than camel rides in the desert or a sunrise hike up Masada.

On one particular night, our group visited the graves of fallen Israeli soldiers. In the past, I’d played with the idea of what it might be like to join the IDF (though, with my feeble muscles and weak nerves, I can’t imagine they’d want me very much). But as the Israelis in our group stepped forward one by one, tears forming in their eyes as they described the loved ones they’ve lost, I realized the gravity of the decision to enlist.

To put it bluntly, seeing the agonized faces of my Israeli friends as we hovered over the graves definitely did not make me want to sign up. I shouldn’t speak for anyone else — this was just my experience. But I’ve never known anyone, not in my group or any other group, who joined the IDF for no other reason except Birthright. It feels ridiculous even just typing that out.

Overall, of course Birthright is pro-Israel. The program did not take us exploring through the West Bank or peeking at Gaza City. The issue of a Palestinian state is an enormous topic in Israel, but the purpose of Birthright is not to wrestle weighty political issues with packs of tourists. The purpose is to offer a quick glimpse of a beautiful country often pictured in the media as a bombed-out and hopeless minefield.

It’s important to remember that, as a Birthright participant, nobody is knotting a blindfold over your head. You’re welcome to enter Israel with an open mind and look at its society with a critical eye — as you should in every place you live in or visit. No one will prevent you from doing research and forming an opinion of your own. No one will beat you with a stick for asking questions.

In her article, Benedikt was clearly baffled that a young, American boy such as Max Steinberg, with his whole life ahead of him, would choose such an unlikely route as an IDF soldier. After all, she argues, many young Americans barely even know Hebrew when they enlist— the implication here being that soldiers like Steinberg could just as easily have chosen China or France or any other foreign nation to serve in. Why fight for a country you weren’t even born in?

Maybe Benedikt, in her multiple trips to Israel, never felt at home there. Maybe she never dreamed about Israel, or never yearned to go back, craving that slice of Middle Eastern land more than her own hometown. And that’s very understandable.

I didn’t fall in love with Israel during Birthright. Don’t get me wrong, I had a great time. But the most unforgettable moments are those when Israel amazed me in the smallest of ways — Jerusalem vendors belting out prices for cucumbers, the smell of fresh challah mingling with with the floating aroma of shawarma, narrow Old-City alleyways flowing seamlessly from the Arab to Jewish Quarters. From the moment I first saw it, Israel touched me. Since then, the impression it made has never left.

The fact that Benedikt never had these feelings does not mean that she somehow dodged Birthright’s secret agenda; it just means that everyone’s experiences are different. That’s all. Birthright may have its own purposes, but if its agenda solely involves enlisting American soldiers, it doesn’t seem to be doing a very good job.

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