Slate: 'Birthright killed Max Steinberg'a different planet.
What else happens on those 10-day trips? There is a lot of hooking up and plenty of, as Feldman writes, “reinforcing the Zionist claim to the land” (Feldman’s tour guide identified everything they saw out of the bus window as “in the Bible,” and her group was given maps that identified the West Bank as “Judea and Samaria”). And, “at some point during their all-expenses-paid ten-day trip to a land where, as they are constantly reminded, every mountain and valley is inscribed with 5,000 years of their people’s history,” there is “the moment”— the moment when participants realize just how important Israel is to them, to their fundamental identity, and how important they are to Israel.
According to Steinberg’s parents, that is exactly what happened to Max. His mother told the Washington Post that, initially, he didn’t want to go on the Birthright trip, but once he did, it changed him. It was on his group’s visit to Israel’s national cemetery at Mount Herzl that Steinberg saw the grave of an American “lone soldier” who died fighting for Israel and “decided that Israel was where he wanted to be.” He joined the IDF, his father said, because he saw it as an obligation were he to stay in Israel.
Birthright says that aliyah—the immigration of diaspora Jews to Israel—is not one of its goals, but like Steinberg, many participants come away with the feeling that Israel is where they belong. Birthright estimates that 20,000–30,000 of its participants have acted on that feeling by moving to Israel. I have known many young American Jews who have made the same decision—who at 18 decided that they belonged in Israel and, though they’d never considered joining the American military, moved across the ocean to join the IDF right after high school. People say Birthright is “just like camp,” and it sure sounds like a very condensed version of the Jewish camp I attended as a kid, whose purpose was, at the very least, to foster a connection to Israel in young Jews—and at best, to get us to move to the country and fight for it. My camp, filled with the children of liberal American Jews, did this by presenting a very simplistic picture of the political situation in Israel and the threat to Jews worldwide, all within the context of helping to fix the world while having the time of your life. Birthright does a form of the same.
On Tuesday, Birthright issued a statement from its CEO, Gidi Mark. “We are deeply saddened to inform you of the tragic loss of one our Taglit Birthright Israel alumni Max Steinberg,” Mark wrote. “His life—a life filled with promise cut short far too soon—will live in our hearts forever as a reminder of the sacrifices he and so many before him have made to keep Israel safe.”
What makes an American kid with shaky Hebrew and no ties to the state of Israel suddenly decide he is ready to make this sacrifice? Maybe Max was especially lost, or especially susceptible, or maybe he was just looking to do some good and became convinced by his Birthright experience that putting on an IDF uniform and grabbing a gun was the way to do it. That serving and protecting the Jewish people was the moral thing to do, and that the best way to accomplish it was to go fight for the Jewish state. It turns out that it’s not that hard to persuade young people to see the world a certain way and that Birthright is very good at doing it. You spend hundreds of millions of dollars to convince young Jews that they are deeply connected to a country that desperately needs their support? This is what you get.
By the way, 30,000 people attended Max Steinberg's funeral in Jerusalem last night. Even John Kerry was moved (check out the link). And another 6,000 attended the funeral of French lone soldier Jordan Simon in Ashkelon, where the biggest concern was that too many people would show up and there would ba rocket attack during the funeral.