Birthright Held Hostage

December 26, 2013

It is a fact of political life that an adept politician will zig then zag, halt and then advance, in an effort to reach a particular goal. That process is not always smooth. And sometimes, politicians stumble. In the Israeli government, political leaders and erstwhile allies, Treasury Minister Yair Lapid and Economic Minister Naftali Bennett, have become engaged in just such a complicated yet delicate dance. In the process they have been playing a dangerous political game with a crucial connection between Diaspora Jews and Israel.

In the United States, Taglit-Birthright is considered a uniquely successful program that everyone can get behind. But in Israel, it appears to have become another political bargaining chip in the budget debate.

The Birthright program is funded through a historic partnership among private philanthropists, the Jewish Federations of North America and the government of Israel. Each contributes significantly to the program, and each relies on the other in order to sustain ongoing support. The Israeli government has budgeted $51.3 million for the program. For its investment, Israel gets, among other things, thousands of young Jews every year who develop strong ties to Israel and to the Jewish people and an interest in Israel’s well-being.

Recently, though, funding for Israel’s portion of Birthright became trapped in a tug of war between Lapid and Bennett and their respective political parties. Funding for Birthright was held up by Nissan Slomiansky, chairman of the Knesset Finance Committee and a member of Bennett’s Bayit HaYehudi party, Haaretz reported. Under an agreement between Lapid and Bennett, Slomiansky will release Birthright’s funding in exchange for Lapid’s treasury restoring $13.7 million in funding to haredi yeshivas to subsidize their overseas students if they adopt Zionist programming.

Attempting to bring haredi yeshiva students closer to the Zionist camp is a laudable goal. But leveraging the funding for that effort on a threat to withhold funding for Birthright is simply wrong.

Birthright is good for the Diaspora, and that’s why the Diaspora supports it. Birthright is good for Israel, and that’s why Israel supports it. That being the case, funding for the Birthright program shouldn’t be used as a political bargaining chip.

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