In his charming, candid memoir Distilled, the indomitable Charles Bronfman describes an unlikely partnership with a gruff, self-made billionaire named Michael Steinhardt. Both consider themselves “culturally Jewish.” Together, they helped launch what critics initially dismissed as “Bronfman’s Blunder and Steinhardt’s Stupidity.” The program was Taglit-Birthright Israel, a Jewish-identity-building game-changer, which recently brought its 600,000th participant to Israel.
Imagine 600,000 young Jews – the same number of Israelite men who supposedly wandered the desert after the Exodus, and Israel’s actual population in 1948. Since December 1999, the overwhelming majority of the 600,000 returned from Israel jazzed. As one Bronfman aide wrote in 1992, “What you don’t know, you can’t love. And to visit Israel is to love it.”
My theory, which is confirmed by dozens of conversations I’ve had with Birthright participants in my voluntary role as chairman of its international education committee, is that the hyper-critical media and the blame-Israel-firsters are, ironically, allies in Birthright’s success. Life is often an expectations game. When something exceeds one’s expectations, or when reality forces one to view something more positively than originally expected, one’s enthusiasm soars. Or, to build on the 1992 memo, I would say: What you think you know and expect to hate and fear is easier to love when it proves itself safe and genuinely lovable in its own right.
Even in our global village, most visitors to Israel expect a scary, miserable, angry, immoral place. But most of them end up having fun. They see the 88 per cent of Israelis who recently reported themselves to be happy. They find inspiration in rocks and ruins, and in offices and malls. When people expect Israel to be dysfunctional and see it functioning, when they expect an undemocratic and amoral society but witness a democratic and moral country, most turn downright euphoric.
‘go on Birthright for you, for your soul, for your Jewish journey. Don’t let politics cloud your judgment or deprive you of this opportunity’
Note that they don’t change their politics – and Birthright doesn’t ask them to. Instead, many maintain their personal political stances, but are able to see Israel multi-dimensionally, not just as a political problem.
Although Bronfman’s autobiography teaches many other wonderful life lessons, let’s just draw three, Birthright-born ones.
First, those extremists who urge students to boycott Birthright are guilty of two crimes: unfairly singling Israel out for an obsessive condemnation that no other country endures – not nuclear North Korea nor theocratic Iran, not murderous Syria or sexist Saudi Arabia; and trying to steal an identity-building journey from students by politicizing it.
I say to potential participants: you shouldn’t go on Birthright to learn to bash Israel – or to defend Israel, for that matter. Many other legitimate programs take on that challenge. You should go on Birthright for you, for your soul, for your Jewish journey. Don’t let politics cloud your judgment or deprive you of this opportunity. Israel is yours – experience it with an open mind and an open heart.
The second lesson that we can learn from Bronfman the blunderer and Steinhardt the stupid, is that one can’t succeed without thinking big and taking commensurate risks. This is a lesson that should be applied not only in business, but in charitable and volunteer efforts, as well.
Finally, amid today’s tensions between Israel and the Diaspora, we all should learn from Bronfman, who writes: “I can love my county but have the freedom not to like its government and what it does.… I’ve always believed in cross-pollination between the Diaspora and Israel. It’s the simple concept of ‘united we stand, divided we fall.’ ” Amid that allegedly growing divide, remember the 600,000 new bridges, who make Birthright Israel “a reason for hope.”
In short, we have too much to give to one another to give up on one another. Therefore, let’s start giving, Bronfman-Steinhardt style – creatively, generously, courageously and just a little bit crazily.