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Tuesday, July 20, 2004

Ethics 101

I am torn concerning an ethical issue, and I hope writing about it (and perhaps hearing some other viewpoints) might help me clarify things.

In Friday’s online version of the Ha’aretz newspaper, there was an article about ISM activists from the U.S. using the Birthright program to get a free trip to Israel.

I’ll pause here to fill in some background for those not familiar with these two terms.

ISM (International Solidarity Movement), a Palestinian-run program (which many assert is partially funded and supported by the PLO) attracts many American and European volunteers to its activities here. They conduct demonstrations… lay down in front of bulldozers… barricade themselves inside buildings slated for demolition (it is Israel’s stated policy to destroy the home of any terrorist who carries out a lethal attack)… confront Israeli soldiers at checkpoints... and even make public attempts to breach the security fence.

Birthright is a program that provides an all-expense paid visit to Israel to any Jew between the ages of 18 – 26 who has never participated in an organized trip to the Jewish Homeland. Airfare, transportation, food and accommodations are all taken care of. The goal of the program is to foster a lasting bond between Israel and the Jewish diaspora. The guides who take these groups around the country, and the soldiers who occasionally protect them are forbidden from talking about political topics or even answering questions about sensitive issues. The assumption is that the trip itself is supposed to provide enough background for the participants to be begin to form their own political opinions.

So, you can see where there might be an ethical problem if Jewish students who are anti-Israel activists on their respective college campuses and in their communities, use the Birthright program to get to Israel. Basically they are using Israeli government money to afford themselves the opportunity to frustrate, and even attack the Israeli government.

The article interviews a couple of college students, Max and Jessica, who deliberately withheld information about their anti-Israel activism (Jessica went so far as to apply for Birthright from another town since she was well known for her activism at her own school). They tell the reporter that, “I was afraid they would uncover my intentions”. The organization also makes no secret of the fact that it gives instructions to its volunteers on how to hide their true intentions from the Birthright organizers and guides.

Once they were on the trip and their political leanings became clear to the leaders of the birthright program, Max and Jessica were encouraged to direct their energies to one of the left-wing political/social causes within Israel. However, it seems that the excitement of demonstrating and activism were much more attractive than the relatively mundane clerical tasks they would have been assigned as volunteers within the Israeli political mainstream.

Here’s my problem: Birthright is ostensibly for any Jew. But by admittedly concealing their true intentions and political sentiments, these ISM volunteers seem to be acutely aware that they are crossing some sort of ethical boundary (for all I know this subterfuge/ pseudo-espionage may be an exciting part of the attraction). I just feel that it is a bit cynical to use a gift from the Israeli government as a springboard for attacking the Israeli government.

I'm particularly curious to know how people (Jewish or not) outside of Israel view this topic. I'm not asking whether you favor the Israeli or the Palestinian cause... but rather whether you feel it is ethical for ISM to be encouraging its members to use Birthright to finance their trips to confront the policies of the Israeli goverment. As always, please play nice and be respectful of other people's opinions.

Read the article… give it some thought… and let me know what you think.

Posted by David Bogner on July 20, 2004 | Permalink


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First of all, you might be interested to read Smooth Stone's post on this as well, he discusses it in great length: http://smoothstone.blogspot.com/2004/07/ism-activists-use-birthright-israel-to.html

And I will same the same thing as I did on his blog; it angers me if for no other reason than the fact that I am too old now to take advantage of the Birthright trips, and I would be going for all the very right reasons. I am desperate to find an extremely economical way to get to Israel, and have written (read: begged) many different organizations for help, with no luck. Yet THESE little snot-nosed, self-loathing punks use and abuse the system to do harm to the country they should love. It makes me sick and it makes me angry. I want to go to Israel more than I can describe, consider aliyah all the time, and have no way to make the journey due to financial constraints (the plane ticket alone, from Canada, is $1500!). These brats want to go to Israel with the sheer intention of lying and deceiving their own people in order to protest and harm Israel and it's future. It makes me boil with rage (and hey...maybe even a little envy that they at least got to go to one of the most beautiful places on earth).
I guess we just have to hope that they one day see the severe error of their ways.............

Posted by: celestial blue | Jul 20, 2004 2:17:09 PM

Celestial (may I use your first name)... thanks for the link to smooth. I had never been to his blog before. His use of the word Capo to describe Max and Jessica initially gave me a knee-jerk negative reaction. I almost always object to people co-opting Nazi era terminology in modern context because it tends to devalue the terminology, and it desensitizes people to the power of it's original meaning. However, in this case I think he is justified.

I echo smooth's anger that these undeserving individuals are essentially sitting in your seat.

Posted by: David | Jul 20, 2004 4:10:52 PM

I doubt you'll see anyone here disagreeing with you, David. I think Birthright should include a clause in their contract that says simply "If you abuse our kindness and use this trip for anti-Israeli activism, all monetary support and protection will be rescinded." In other words, you can find your own way home. Oh, and good luck with those IDF soldiers you pissed off yesterday. Buh-bye.

Celestial, out of curiosity, I just checked Orbitz for a round-trip flight from NYC to Tel Aviv in November, and it's $578. I'm sure that's not even the best rate possible, but I can't check flights leaving from Canada. Don't give up!!

Posted by: Tanya | Jul 20, 2004 4:47:15 PM

I discovered that the ISM was taking advantage of Birthright in December and it didn't surprise me in the slightest, given their track record of lies and deception. There is no ethical dilemna in my opinion..it is plan wrong. I think any Birthright participants found to do such a thing should be made to reimburse Birthright for the trip.

Have you heard of nefesh b'nefesh? They pay in the region of $15,000-$25,000 to help you relocate if you want to make Aliya. I know you are dying to come live here. So why not contact them?

Posted by: Dave | Jul 20, 2004 5:19:28 PM

I don't understand the question - how could it NOT be unethical to take a Birthright trip when you intend to support anti-Israeli causes? At the very least, participants who abuse the system this way should have their full names and home towns publicized. Consider it the tame equivalent of blowing up the homes of suicide terrorist's family homes...

Posted by: Russell Gold | Jul 20, 2004 5:31:31 PM

In my completely unpolitically inclined opinion.
Naughty children should be sent home immediately.

Posted by: Lisa | Jul 20, 2004 7:50:22 PM

in the article, both students admitted to being deeply affected by the experience. one of them used the term "family" to describe it. is it possible to imagine that these students and the other participants came away from the trip more open-hearted and open-minded than they were before? is it possible to be pro-palestinian and pro-israeli? how do we plant seeds of peace?

Posted by: Prunella | Jul 20, 2004 8:43:01 PM

Tanya... I'm a tough man with whom to agree, because I keep changing my mind. :-) I am having trouble seperating my hate for their politics from the ethics issue.

Let's de-politicize it for a second. Let's say you go to an 'All-you-can-eat' buffet and fill up a big tupperware container with food to take home after you finish. One could argue that you are being unethical. There is probably no sign that says 'No containers', or 'food must be eaten here', but anyone sneaking in a container understands they are doing something wrong.

Birthright has fairly loose, unwritten screening rules about this kind of thing... but it becomes very sticky trying to codify ethics into a contract. Like a buffet owner who posted the signs I mentioned earlier... Birthright (and by association; Israel) would come off sounding heavy-handed.

Dave... same goes for your idea. Legally it makes sense to follow your advice. But for an organization that is supposed to make people feel warm fuzzies towards Israel...such a threatened penalty would be about as conducive to warm fuzzies as a pre-nup to a couple in love.

Russell... you are arguing logic, not ethics. If you have houseguests that abuse your hospitality, you can refuse to invite them again... but it is bad form (not to mention halachically forbidden) to bad mouth them to the community.

Prunella... they said they were affected, but it is my humble opinion that this pronouncement was actually an affectation. We are not talking about two points of view that have some degree of overlap. If they were truly moved by the Birthright trip, they would not be working to make it easier for terrorists to attack Israel. They are not lobbying for dialogue or coexistance. They are actively working to remove the meager protection / deterrents that Israel has put in place to protect its citizens. In this case, the "why can't we all get along?' question might be a bit premature.

Posted by: David | Jul 20, 2004 10:03:39 PM

Good idea Lisa...Hold on while I go tell the Palestinians that you said to go to their rooms! Why didn't I think of that?

Posted by: David | Jul 20, 2004 10:06:59 PM

I am by no means an expert here, and I have not read the entire article. I can completely see why you are in an ethical conundrum. One consideration to make is this: if a Jew is anti-Israel, perhaps the best thing for them to do is spend some time there. The anti-Israeli sentiment held by Max and Jessica is likely based on ignorance and propoganda (what college student's political opinion ISN'T?). Israel should open their arms *further* to these kids. Show them the best of Israel, give them a real education, and let the conundrum fall on them--not you.

Posted by: Jim | Jul 20, 2004 10:53:51 PM

I know at this point it seems like I am jumping on the bandwagon, but I gotta say, those studens have some chutzpah. The program was set up for a specific reason, and is funded as such. If you have a different agenda then spend your own damn money, buy a freakin ticket, and demonstrate. I think it irks me that these students who are 9perhaps unknowingly) being supported by the PLO are Jewish. Dude, have some pride! arghhhhhhh!

Posted by: faye | Jul 21, 2004 3:35:03 AM

There is no question--it is completely unethical.

Posted by: beth | Jul 21, 2004 7:09:01 AM

Here's a way Birthright could get around it:

They could do essentially what Nefesh B'Nefesh does. NBN has everyone sign a contract that says "I have to pay back this money UNLESS I am still living in Israel in 3 years."

They could have each participant sign a contract that says "I am purchasing a trip to Israel from the Birthright program, valued at (say) $2,500. At the time of my return to the USA, I will be obligated to pay Birthright the full value of the trip UNLESS I have not broken any Israeli laws while in Israel. If I haven't broken any laws, Birthright will waive their right to be paid for the trip."

This way, if anyone sells drugs, shoplifts, or puts themselves in front of a bulldozer, then Birthright will be reimbursed for their efforts.

Posted by: Sarah | Jul 21, 2004 10:43:58 PM

Dave and Celestial--

Just to clarify, Nefesh B'Nefesh gives *UP TO* $25,000 to each *family unit* who makes aliyah from the USA or Canada AND fulfills various other requirements. There is a long application process and they don't promise money to everyone. Also, if you are single, you don't get anywhere near $25,000. Not even $15,000, and not even close to it, as far as I know.

Still, they are VERY helpful and it is VERY worth contacting them and finding out how they might be able to help you. www.nefeshbnefesh.org

Good luck!

Posted by: sarah | Jul 21, 2004 10:48:33 PM

There's an interesting opinion piece in today's JP David, - think it addresses the question quite well.

Posted by: Gil Ben Mori | Jul 22, 2004 11:32:26 AM

Thanks Gili... for those who what to read Barbara Sofer's well-written op-ed, the link is http://www.jpost.com/servlet/Satellite?pagename=JPost/JPArticle/ShowFull%26cid=1090380221823

Posted by: David | Jul 22, 2004 12:03:44 PM

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