Occupying our Birthright?

December 1, 2011 by

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Up until 2011, the word “occupy” had two main connotations in the global lexicon: something that occupies one’s time (a job, a hobby etc…) or Military occupation, the martial control of a territory, a word especially controversial when discussing Israel’s current affairs and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The winds of social revolution blowing in the world, leveraged by massive use of social media, have transformed the collective consciousness about “occupy” into an act of protest, an effort to gain public attention, as a means of achieving change.

What started as “Occupy Wall Street” and “Occupy San Francisco”, has now become an international “Occupy Together” movement which lists Occupy communities in 2,609 towns and cities worldwide. The momentum created by this phenomenon has extended the use of the word “occupy” to groups seeking a social change, including Jewish groups like “Occupy Judaism” and “Occupy Shabbat”, which tied in Jewish and social values, and conducted services at “Occupy Wall Street” on Shabbat, Yom Kippur, Simchat Torah, and Rosh Chodesh, under the provocative slogan: “Finally, an occupation progressive Jews can get behind.”

This week’s Parashah, Toldot, recounts the gestation, birth, and maturation of the Bible’s most famous twins: The smooth-skinned Jacob, who Rebekah favors, and the hairy Esau, who Isaac favors. One day the firstborn Esau comes from the field feeling hungry and faint and sees Jacob with a pot of stew. Esau asks his brother for some lentil soup, but Jacob tells him he must trade him his birthright.

This concept of a birthright, something we are entitled to from the day we are born, is quite foreign to the values of our society nowadays, where one has to work hard to obtain anything, nothing is granted for free, and no one is naturally entitled to anything “just because”. That is why, perhaps, Taglit-Birthright Israel presents a revolutionary approach to Judaism.

Taglit-Birthright Israel provides the gift of first time, peer group, educational trips to Israel for Jewish young adults ages 18 to 26. Taglit-Birthright Israel’s founders created this program to send thousands of young Jewish adults from all over the world to Israel as a gift in order to diminish the growing division between Israel and Jewish communities around the world; to strengthen the sense of solidarity among world Jewry; and to strengthen participants’ personal Jewish identity and connection to the Jewish people.

Funded by the Israeli government, private philanthropists, the Jewish Agency for Israel and Jewish communities around the world, the Birthright Israel program has invested over $400 million on educational trips to Israel. Top educators, historians and tourism professionals were recruited to plan the program, for which demand is very high. Registration is conducted online and each round there are thousands more applicants than spots.

These free trips are granted as a “birthright” to which every Jew is entitled, bringing over 250,000 young people from 52 countries to Israel. The program has been praised throughout the world, enlightening for participants, and proves to be a powerful vehicle to engage young adults in Jewish life.

And yet like every initiative in the “Occupy Era” we live in, Birthright Israel has also been criticized.

The most recent criticisms were expressed by a group called “Occupy Birthright, Un-occupy Palestine”. These young people, who participated in Birthright, disrupted a Birthright Alumni meeting with attacks on Israel, Jewish Agencies and Birthright Israel itself. They claimed that the program lacks a balanced discussion concerning the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and whoever supports Israel also supports “Illegal occupation of Israel in Palestine”.

Are these young adults rejecting their birthright, or is this a phase inspired by the Occupy phenomenon?

How do we approach these voices from within without judging them as ungrateful?

Where does Judaism stand in this Occupy Era?

Both Judaism and the Occupy phenomenon have in common the desire to make this world a better place. It is not about battering with hollow criticism, but rather bettering – pointing out the unsatisfying elements together with possible solutions. Our birthright grants us collective engagement with the Jewish state, entitling us to criticize Israel, but also obligates us to take part in making it a better place.

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