The Conspiracy

Is a 10-Day Trip to Israel Really My Birthright?

Herzl’s grave on top of Mt. Herzl. | CC via Wikimedia Commons

Israel has always been a concept — a country, a culture, a history, a memory —I was always intimate with, but it remained aloof. I grew up surrounded by Hebrew and Israeli culture, singing “Hatikvah” alongside the “Star Spangled Banner.” I’d been to Israel only one time before going on Birthright, and since then, my relationship to Israel has changed considerably.

As has my concept of what is and is not my birthright. To be sure, I came into my ten-day Birthright trip with a mix of skepticism and optimism: I was told that going to Israel would feel like coming home. And, to be sure, by the end of the trip, some parts of it did feel home-like, but those were the parts with which I was already familiar. I came to Israel already knowing the language and understanding many parts of the culture that I’d studied throughout my life.

Yet when we visited Robinson’s Arch, at the Western Wall on the Friday morning of our trip, I felt uncomfortable, like the Judaism that I had come to cherish and the egalitarianism which has become such a prominent part of my Jewish practice was undermined. That discomfort was made of a number of smaller things: its complete separation from the rest of the Western Wall, its much smaller area, and the fact that it was outside of the security for the rest of the Wall all made me realize that, ultimately, Israel was not my home any more than America is.

What, then, is my birthright? Is it a ten-day, free trip to Israel?

I kept returning to this question as we entered Shabbat, and as we visited Mount Herzl, Israel’s national cemetery. There, we visited Herzl’s grave, marked simply by a large black stone with just one Hebrew word on it: “Herzl.” When asked why Herzl, the father of modern Zionism and eponym of the mountain upon which he is buried, did not have a larger monument or marker for his grave, the answer was that, when standing upon the hill overlooking Jerusalem, we see Herzl’s dream come to fruition. That, ultimately, is Herzl’s monument.

And yet, that answer is still somewhat unsatisfying. Ultimately, Herzl’s vision for the Jewish State was the answer to the Jewish question: How can we, as Jews, create a home for ourselves in the world? It is a question to which the State of Israel emerged as a possible answer.

But is the only way for me to connect to my birthright through the State of Israel? I would like to think not. It’s not that Israel is unimportant to me and to my Jewish identity — I don’t think any Jew living today can think critically about their Jewish identity without referring at least in some way to the State of Israel. Instead, it’s that I refuse to see my birthright as just the State of Israel, just that one answer of many to the Jewish Question. I would like to think that, given the option, Herzl could be remembered in other ways, too.

Ultimately, Birthright made me realize that my Jewish birthright is not just a ten-day trip to Israel, or even the State of Israel: it is the sense of belonging that I feel within the Jewish community who all seek to answer the question of how to create a community in a vastly changing world. Israel is just one part of that, one answer. The other answers, however, lay elsewhere.

Ultimately, my birthright lays in the history of the Jews who came before me, the innovators who had worked so hard to get Judaism and the Jewish people where they are today, so that, as I discovered while exploring my Birthright, there was still a home for the victims of anti-Semitism in France. And when I need a Jewish home, there were the Jewish innovators who came before me, who worked to make sure that I would have a Jewish community today. This process of innovation continues today, and is something that we should be proud of, and welcome, not shy away from. It is this need for innovation in response to the Jewish Question that gives us the responsibility, not only to our own people, but to those around us whose questions have not yet been answered. These innovators are the ones not only looking to create change within Orthodoxy, but also to secure the existence of a viable Palestinian state alongside the Jewish one.

Herzl was one Jewish innovator who worked to create a Jewish home. Ultimately, it is not just the State of Israel that is a monument to Herzl’s work, but all of the Jewish innovation that inspired — and continue to inspire —Jewish community-building today. When looking out over Jerusalem, I was not only able to appreciate the fact that there is a Jewish state, but the fact that I can also be at home elsewhere, in America. Our birthright is not just the gratitude to the innovators of the past, but a charge to the future to make sure that we work to create a more just and open society.


Amram Altzman is a student at List College.

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