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Wednesday, July 21, 2004

Ethics Redux

I must say I was a little surprised at some of the comments on yesterday’s post. Not that I disagreed with them, mind you (I didn’t)… but because everyone seems to have glossed over the central ethical issue that had been troubling me.

The word ‘Birthright’ is the root of my ethical dilemma. If this ‘Birthright’ trip is, in fact, an inherent right of every person who is born Jewish (as the name of the program implies) … then it seems somewhat unethical to place conditions upon any Jew’s participation. Unlike, say, the terms of a legal will, or some other form of inheritance which is given or withheld at the whim of the benefactor, a birthright is, by definition, a right that one is due exclusively because of their birth.

Of course the Bible contains plenty of precedents for revoking, selling, or otherwise diverting a birthright… but in almost every case, a terrible price in enmity or regret is paid. I also would hesitate to place myself on the level of the biblical Patriarchs and Matriarchs who had the wisdom to toy with their children's birthrights.

Those of us who live in democratic countries consider things like voting and civil liberties to be a portion of our own ‘birthright’. Do we exclude anarchists and people who actively oppose the policies of our governments from the free exercise of their birthright, or the protection which that birthright is supposed to afford? Even though these poeple seek to destroy the system that protects them... the answer is obviously 'no'.

Perhaps the name of the program is the root of its problem. It is a lofty ideal… this assumption that simply being Jewish is a basis for a potential lifelong bond with Israel. But in reality the people who put together the birthright program didn’t consider the possibility that a small minority of the people eligible for the program would be truly unworthy of it.

I suggest that they would have been better served naming it ‘Yerushah’ - a Hebrew word much more closely associated with inheritance than birthright. That way, like a parent who finds cause to disown a wayward child, there is a remedy that does not fly in the face of the original premise.

And of course, if that child should ever discover the error if his/her ways (as I truly hope people like Max and Jessica do), one can always write them back into the will.

On a completely unrelated note: I am heart-sick at the latest news over at the normally witty Chez Miscarriage. I can't even talk about it. Suffice it to say that if I had a uterus... I would offer to carry her baby.

Posted by David Bogner on July 21, 2004 | Permalink

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There is an ambiguity here. It seems to me as though you are taking the name of the program as saying that it is the birthright of every Jew to get a free trip to Israel. I took it as saying that it is a program which seeks to connect Jews to their birthright - the relationship with G-d, Torah, and Israel.

Posted by: Russell Gold | Jul 21, 2004 1:11:36 PM

David

When these creeps sign up for Birthright, they are taking advantage of a program that has a very specific agenda and using it for their perverse and destructive political purposes. This, in halacha, is called g'neivas ha'da'as, and is completely unethical.

While it is true that the importance of freedom of speech is paramount in a democracy, there is no such right afforded (by any nation) to people who are not even citizens of the country and merely infiltrate the country on false grounds solely to cause trouble. We don't exclude anarchists who live in the country...we do exclude them from ENTERING the country.

Posted by: MO Chassid | Jul 21, 2004 5:16:32 PM

I would argue that, since it not something that comes free of charge, and someone does actually have to pay for it out of pocket, it's not a literal birthright. More like a selective birthright. Am I incorrect in assuming that they don't give the trip to everyone who requests it? (I do agree with your idea that the name of the organization could stand to be changed, tho.)

As for your reply from yesterday, I think Birthright, and Israel in general, have every right to be heavy-handed. These people are not just generally unpleasant. They're advocating and supported by an organization that kills people. Kills people who could easily be these kids' cousins or uncles or grandparents. (Kills people purely because of the birthright you're talking about, Judaism) They don't deserve pity or sympathy, and they certainly don't deserve the trip.

Posted by: Tanya | Jul 21, 2004 6:59:27 PM

David,

You wrote: "Do we exclude anarchists and people who actively oppose the policies of our governments from the free exercise of their birthright, or the protection which that birthright is supposed to afford? Even though these poeple seek to destroy the system that protects them... the answer is obviously 'no'."

The answer ist not quite as obvious as you seem to think. During the 80ies (when I was studying in Germany) there was the “Radikalenerlass” which indeed limited the democratic rights of registered members of parties which in their program were found to contradict the German constitution. These people could not longer be state employees and also lost the right to be elected to any pbulic office.

When I was a student (and of course influenced by far-left positions) I joined demonstrations against these laws. With the wisdom of hindsight I concede, however, that the Federal Repbulic of Germany was quite within its rights and certainly did not cease to be a democratict state during this period.

Posted by: Ruth | Jul 22, 2004 9:38:09 AM

Russell... I agree. But where there is ambiguity, there is trouble...and that's what is troubling me. Unfortunately, we aways have to maintain the high ground or else we are accused of being fascists!

Tanya... Same goes for you. We are on the same page as far as ISM's politics goes. But what to do to make sure Birthright is completely ethical, but protects itself from cynical abuse?

Ruth... The question I would ask you is: Do you feel Germany was more or less democratic when those laws were in force? On the answer to that one question rests the entire argument.

Posted by: David | Jul 22, 2004 10:44:06 AM

Mo... The question I would ask you: Is it ethical to take advantage of a tax loophole that the goverment never intended to allow? If so, why would it be unethical to do what Max and Jessica did? I am obviously playing 'Devil's advocate', but this is the crux of my ethical dilemma.

Posted by: David | Jul 22, 2004 10:47:31 AM

David,

I have never developped a diagram showing progess from "dictatorship" via "somewhat democratic" to "most democratic" and therefore cannot answer your question.

Germany has a constitution and demands of all people in public positions to respect this constitution. With the "Radikalenerlass" they just took some people by their word (party program) and drew the obvious consequences. Because of this Germany was no less democratic than before or afterwards. Obviously, the parties in question adapted their party programs to avoid open enmity to the constitution and some persons adapted to the situation by ending a party membership which might have existed only for sentimental reasons (like my own leanings as a student). The situaion never got anywherer near the espionage on personal thoughts and beliefs as associated with McCarthyism.

Posted by: Ruth | Jul 22, 2004 11:44:34 AM

Thanks for your insights, Ruth. As a typical American, I am painfully unaware of the internal political machinations of other countries. Now I know just bit more about Germany.

I always appreciate coming out the back end of a conversation a little smarter than when I went in the front. :-)

Posted by: David | Jul 22, 2004 11:57:30 AM

Well, let me challenge you to rethink this...."this ‘Birthright’ trip is, in fact, an inherent right of every person who is born Jewish".... how about those that weren't BORN Jewish? Like say..... ME for example? Does that make me less of a Jew? Less passionate? Less Jewish? Therefore less deserving of a trip?

I chose to convert almost 2 years ago now, and not because I was marrying a Jewish man (which seems to be the common reason). I chose it because I have a great and deep love for the people, their struggle, their history, culture and land. I felt a bond and I wanted to solidify it. Now I am the most informed in my group of friends when it comes to Israel. In fact, I can tell you that not one of my Jewish friends could actually tell you what's going on in Israel at any given moment. A fact that I find tragic and sad. They were born into this people and don't care, *I* had to fight to "join the club" and now surpass their interest a million fold.

Do I deserve a trip? I think so. But by Birthright standards my age of 29 (almost 30) is too old. To me, I'm only 2 years old. :-)

Posted by: celestial blue | Jul 22, 2004 2:31:19 PM

Ouch! Celestial...you are so right. I was so fixated on the classic definition of the word 'birthright', that I really slapped converts (like yourself) in the face. I'm sorry... of course, that was not my intention.

I don't doubt your statements regarding your knowledge, and commitment to Judaism /the Jewish State. As someone who only became observant as an adult, I understand your feelings of frustration at Jews who treat their heritage like a pair of last year's shoes.

You are not less of a Jew for being a convert (G-d forbid anyone should ever make you feel that way!). In fact, unlike those of us who were born into 'the club', the Torah commands several times for us to take special pains to love the convert and not make him/her feel uncomfortable about their non-Jewish origins. I guess I blew that one, eh?

I like your reasoning about actually being two years old... I'm surprised that didn't work with the birthright people!

Keep trying to find reasonable airfares... I would be happy to research free programs and tours for your to participate in once you are here. Play your cards right and you might even get to listen to my kids fighting with one another over dinner at our place!

Posted by: David | Jul 22, 2004 2:54:05 PM

Unfortunately, we aways have to maintain the high ground or else we are accused of being fascists!

You're accused of being fascists even (especially?) when you do maintain the high ground. In for a penny, in for a pound. ;)

Posted by: Tanya | Jul 22, 2004 6:06:11 PM

"Play your cards right and you might even get to listen to my kids fighting with one another over dinner at our place!"

You made me laugh outloud with that one.... thanks, I needed a good laugh while at work.
Where in Israel do you live? (or should I stop being so lazy, and go back into your archives to find out)

Posted by: celestial blue (aka Celestial Jew) | Jul 22, 2004 9:17:48 PM

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