A deafening silence from the Jewish Federation

Los Angeles Jewish Federation building

For at least the past half century, Los Angeles has had active Jewish community organizations that often spoke with one voice, took stands, ventured into politically risky territory and helped mark Jews as a force to be reckoned with on the community relations and political scenes.

Today, that is not the case.

The Jewish community’s umbrella organization, the Jewish Federation, remains deafeningly silent on an issue that is high on the list of major concerns of most Jews—the actions and words of the Trump administration.

We know that if there is any group in society that should be wary of a leader who exhibits the traits of Trump, it is us. The history of the twentieth century sets off our antennae and ought to make action natural, reflexive and immediate. 

Over past decades, the authors of this piece were active participants in meetings, demonstrations, legislation, community events and forming alliances that were meaningful benchmarks on the path to Los Angeles becoming the diverse, vibrant and accepting environment that it is. Avoiding tough issues, running from controversy, or fearing internecine backlashes were not how we operated.

Whether it was engaging minority communities in contentious, but civil, debates over affirmative action and preferences in the 1970s or reaching out to neighbors and allies to cobble together opposition to police abuse and the resurgent Klans and Aryan Nations in the 1980s and 1990s, or creating roundtables and coalitions with Muslims, Latinos and African Americans in the 1990s and 2000s—we knew that our fate was intertwined with those of others; parochial self-absorption was not the prevailing ethos, for us, or for others.

It was not without thought that in the early 90s, as Operation Desert Storm began, Jewish leaders (at a time when passions related to the war and Muslims were high) spoke out against potential hate that “might” be directed at our Muslim neighbors. Some in our community were unhappy (“what’s the need?”) but it was the right and proper thing to do and we did it; to remain silent was seen as an abdication of our leadership responsibility.

There is little doubt that were a politician to have surfaced over the past forty years who pilloried minority groups, maligned immigrants as racists and thugs, promoted conspiracy theories that historically were the stock-in-trade of racists and bigots, and scorned reason, data and facts—-protests from the Jewish community would have been thunderous in warning of the danger to our democracy, to the fabric of the community and to ourselves. The non-profit leadership of this community would have been vocal, visible and busy organizing in opposition. 

Today, the absence of a unified Jewish community leadership protesting President Trump’s incendiary comments on myriad topics, including his targeting of minority groups and immigrants, is shocking.

The Jewish Federation in particular, the community umbrella, has remained appallingly silent on Trump’s order restricting the admission of refugees [ironically, they answer critics by pointing out what they did on behalf of Jewish refugees] and his manifest contempt for civility, reasoned arguments and facts.

Whether it is due to Trump’s perceived support for Israel’s prime minister, or a fear of angering conservative major donors, the silence is inexplicable (nearly ¾ of Jews supported Clinton nationally, considerably higher locally).

Leadership demands that one take a stand on vital issues that may not be perceived as essential to one’s mission—protesting on core issues is easy; that’s self-preservation, not leadership. Leadership asks that you recognize threats where others may not see them and then act, even if at a cost.

Where is the overarching community voice willing to condemn the blatant lying, paranoia, undermining of decency, consorting with bigots and bigotry, and targeting of minorities that will, ultimately, harm us all? Do we get lulled into indolence because we are not today’s target? Why are LA’s Jews compelled to start new grass roots organizations to protest Trump (such as Jews United for Democracy and Justice which garnered over 2,200 supporters in just a few weeks) when the armatures for action already exist?

The silence from “6505” is deafening especially in a week when three leading conservative pundits have all parted company with the prevaricator-in-chief and described him as either “irrational bordering on mental illness”(Bret Stephens of the Wall Street Journal), or as the “most reckless, feckless, and malevolent president in the country’s history” (Andrew Sullivan, New York Magazine), or admonished Republicans to not “define lunacy down” (Michael Gerson, The Washington Post).

Stephens, Sullivan and Gerson all have readers, long-time admirers and fee-generating organizations that they have angered and alienated because of their courage—but they spoke out nonetheless.

In Los Angeles there is no over-arching Jewish community voice speaking clearly and unambiguously about the all too obvious dangers, just a troublesome silence. The warning signs are everywhere, where is the leadership?


David Lehrer is president of Community Advocates Inc., a Los Angeles-based human relations organization, and headed the Anti-Defamation League in L.A. from 1986 to 2002. George T. Caplan was The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles president from 1988 to 1990. Steven Windmueller, professor emeritus at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, headed Federation’s Community Relations Committee (CRC) from 1985 to 1995. Rabbi Laura Geller, rabbi emerita of Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills, was director of the American Jewish Congress in Los Angeles from 1990 to 1994. Michael Hirschfeld headed the CRC from 1994 to 2003.

Responses to 20 of the president’s arguments for the nuclear deal

There are many reasons the Israeli political left is opposed to the American nuclear deal with Iran, just as there are many reasons that Haim Saban, one of the Democratic Party’s and Barack Obama’s leading fundraisers, has come out against the deal. It is terrible for America, terrible for Israel, terrible for the Middle East and for the cause of peace. 

To its credit, the Los Angeles Jewish Federation came out against the deal. Open-minded Jews who support the agreement owe it to themselves — not to mention to their fellow Americans and to their fellow Jews in Israel, both of whom, by a great majority, oppose the deal — to at least learn why.

Here, then, is a list of 20 arguments made by President Obama on behalf of the nuclear agreement — followed by my responses. 

At American University last week, Obama gave a vigorous defense of the Iran nuclear agreement. In the belief that every student who was present — indeed, all Americans — should hear the other side, here are responses to assertions the president made. 

1. President Obama: “With all of the threats that we face today, it is hard to appreciate how much more dangerous the world was at that time [when John F. Kennedy gave his peace speech at American University during the Cold War].” 

I lived through the Cold War and studied the Russian language and the communist world at the Russian Institute of Columbia University’s School of International Affairs. I do not believe the world was “much more dangerous at that time.” 

First, in the 1960s, when JFK gave his speech, the Soviet Union was headed by people who valued their own lives, and even those of their fellow countrymen, incomparably more than the Islamic leaders of Iran do. They therefore had no interest in nuclear war, which is why the doctrine known as Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) worked. In regard to Iran’s Islamist regime, however, MAD does not necessarily work. The Islamist fanatics who rule Iran might actually welcome a nuclear exchange with Israel. Iran has almost 10 times Israel’s population and nearly 80 times its landmass.

Second, the Soviet Union never seriously or repeatedly called for the extermination of another country, as the Islamic Republic of Iran does with regard to Israel. It is preposterous to compare Khrushchev’s promise, “We will bury you” to the Ayatollah’s aim to “annihilate” Israel. It was simply a rhetorical flourish about communism’s eventual triumph over democratic capitalism.

Third, almost no one in any communist country believed in communism. The biggest believers in communism tended to be Western intellectuals. And communists in the West weren’t beheading people or plotting mass murder. On the other hand, at least 100 million Muslims believe in imposing — by force, if necessary — Sharia on other people. And although communists in Western European countries posed an electoral threat to democratic capitalism, more than a few Muslims in European countries pose life-and-death threats to Europeans.

2. Obama: “In light of these mounting threats, a number of strategists here in the United States argued we had to take military action against the Soviets, to hasten what they saw as inevitable confrontation. But the young president offered a different vision.”

If there really were “a number of strategists” who called for “military action” against the Soviet Union during Kennedy’s presidency, that number was so tiny and so irrelevant that the president’s statement is essentially a straw man.

3. Obama: “After two years of negotiations, we have achieved a detailed arrangement that permanently prohibits Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.” 

This might be the whopper of the speech. Only an academic audience could find this statement persuasive.

To begin with, Iran has been “permanently prohibited” from obtaining nuclear weapons since 1970, the year Iran signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. So this arms deal prohibits nothing that wasn’t already prohibited more than 45 years ago. 

Even more important, the statement is utterly meaningless. It is like saying, “The United States has permanently prohibited murder.” It’s true, but so what? Iran’s behavior clearly indicates that it wants to develop nuclear weapons, and being “prohibited” from doing so did not and will not stop it. Again, it would be like saying, “Nazi Germany was prohibited from attacking Poland.”

4. Obama: “It cuts off all of Iran’s pathways to a bomb.”

The only question is whether Obama believes this. 

There are two types of falsehoods — those one knows to be false and those the person believes. The former is more immoral. The latter is more dangerous.

Even if one believes the agreement to be effective, it does little or nothing to prevent Iran from making nuclear weapons in 10 years.

Furthermore, the agreement enables Iran to cheat the whole time. There is no inspection “any time, anywhere” — which is the only type of inspection that matters. 

a) If the International Atomic Energy Agency suspects cheating, it gives Iran up to a 24-day notice. If Iran objects, the issue goes before the P5 nations, which, of course, include Russia and China. Charles Krauthammer quoted comedian Jackie Mason as observing that New York City restaurants get more intrusive inspections than the Iranian nuclear program.

b) The United States is prohibited from ever sending in its own inspectors.

c) No military sites can ever be inspected. Iran therefore can establish or move nuclear facilities to whatever area it wishes and label those areas “military.”

d) How are Congress and the American people supposed to trust the president’s claim, given the existence of two secret appendices to the agreement?

5. Obama: “It contains the most comprehensive inspection and verification regime ever negotiated to monitor a nuclear program.”

In light of all of the agreement’s fatal weaknesses in preventing Iran from cheating, “most comprehensive ever negotiated” means nothing.

6. Obama: “Congress decides whether to support this historic diplomatic breakthrough or instead block it over the objection of the vast majority of the world.” 

Since when does “vast majority of the world” matter to making America — and, for that matter, the world — secure? President Ronald Reagan put Pershing missiles in Europe “over the objection of the vast majority of the world.” Good thing Reagan did. Israel knocked out Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi nuclear reactor “over the objection of the vast majority of the world.” Good thing Israel did.

7. Obama: “Between now and the congressional vote in September, you are going to hear a lot of arguments against this deal, backed by tens of millions of dollars in advertising.”

There can be only one reason the president mentioned “backed by tens of millions of dollars in advertising” — to imply that there is something nefarious about such ads. The president and the rest of the American left are beside themselves over the fact that their views are not the only ones that Americans get to hear. In Europe, this is not a problem for the left. There are essentially no paid ads for alternate political views, no talk radio, no Fox News, no Wall Street Journal opinion page (or at least none with anywhere near the clout of the American edition), no huge nonleft intellectual and activist presence on the Internet, etc. 

The left has the presidency, and dominates education from pre-K through post-grad, and mainstream print, electronic news and entertainment media. But that’s not enough. Paid ads that differ with the left must be delegitimized. Of course, there are also millions of dollars in advertising favoring the agreement — but somehow that’s legitimate.

But there is an even more sinister aspect to the president’s comment.

He doesn’t say it outright, but the left does. Those “tens of millions of dollars” are assumed to be Jewish dollars. This is now a major theme on the left — that the “Jewish lobby” and its money are the primary reasons for the opposition to Obama’s Iran agreement. 

A good example is a piece published this past weekend in the Huffington Post by a left-wing Yale University professor of English, David Bromwich. He labels as “treason” an address given by the Israeli prime minister to the annual meeting of the Jewish Federations of North America on reasons to oppose the Iran nuclear agreement. That’s the oldest of anti-Semitic libels — that Jews are disloyal to the countries in which they live.

And the title of Bromwich’s article — “Netanyahu and His Marionettes” — exemplifies another age-old anti-Semitic libel — of Jews pulling the strings of the world’s major nations: 

The president’s reference to “tens of millions of dollars” has only helped reinforce those libels.

8. Obama: “Many of the same people who argued for the war in Iraq are now making the case against the Iran nuclear deal.”

Many of the same people — such as John Kerry, Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden — who voted for the war in Iraq are now making the case for the Iran nuclear deal. So the point is just an ad hominem attack on the deal’s critics.

Moreover, whatever one thinks of the war in Iraq, the reason Islamic State has taken over large parts of Iraq is not the war in Iraq, it’s that Obama, against the advice of his military advisers, removed all of America’s troops from a pacified Iraq, creating the vacuum Islamic State now fills. 

9. Obama: “There will be 24/7 monitoring of Iran’s key nuclear facilities.”

This is a sleight of hand. There is no 24/7 monitoring of anything Iran doesn’t want monitored 24/7, and no monitoring at all of any facility Iran labels “military.”

10. Obama: “If Iran violates the agreement over the next decade, all of the sanctions can snap back into place.”

“Can” is the operative word here — as in “a third party candidate can be elected president.” It theoretically can happen, but it won’t. Does the president believe that Chinese and Russian sanctions will “snap back” if Iran cheats? If he does, he is frighteningly out of touch with reality. Nor will European sanctions likely snap back. French and German companies are already negotiating deals with the Iranian regime.

11. Obama: “Unfortunately, we’re living through a time in American politics where every foreign policy decision is viewed through a partisan prism. … before the ink was even dry on this deal, before Congress even read it, a majority of Republicans declared their virulent opposition.”

As usual with Obama, opposition to his policies is “partisan.” But support for his policies is nonpartisan.

12. Obama: “The bottom line is, if Iran cheats, we can catch them, and we will.”

That is not the bottom line. The bottom line is that Iran will cheat, we won’t always catch them, and the Obama administration will likely have little inclination to call Iran out on it. In fact, the Iranians are already cheating. As Bloomberg reported last week:

“The U.S. intelligence community has informed Congress of evidence that Iran was sanitizing its suspected nuclear military site at Parchin, in broad daylight, days after agreeing to a nuclear deal with world powers.”

There are so many loopholes that we will awaken one day to find out that Iran is testing nuclear weapons just as North Korea did after signing its nuclear agreement with the United States.

13. Obama: “Third, a number of critics say the deal isn’t worth it because Iran will get billions of dollars in sanctions relief. Now, let’s be clear. The international sanctions were put in place precisely to get Iran to agree to constraints on its program. That’s the point of sanctions. Any negotiated agreement with Iran would involve sanctions relief.”

If the United States had held firm for anytime/anywhere inspections, Iran would either have agreed to such inspections or, if not, sanctions might well have remained in place. Our European allies were on board. As recently as June, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius was warning that “a possible nuclear deal with Iran risks sparking a nuclear arms race in the Middle East unless the agreement grants international inspectors access to Iranian military sites and other secret facilities. … The best agreement, if you cannot verify it, it’s useless.”

But the U.S. is led by a president who wanted any agreement, even a useless one.

14. Obama: “Our best analysts expect the bulk of this revenue to go into spending that improves the economy and benefits the lives of the Iranian people.”

Even if that is what happens, this money massively strengthens the Iranian regime. But everyone knows that much of the $40 billion to $140 billion to be released will go to Hamas, Hezbollah, the Houthis in Yemen and other pro-Iranian terror groups.

15. Obama: “Contrary to the alarmists who claim Iran is on the brink of taking over the Middle East, or even the world, Iran will remain a regional power with its own set of challenges.”

Every country — whether free or a police state — has “its own set of challenges.” That point is meaningless. But it is hardly “alarmist” to fear Iran seeking to dominate the Middle East and helping to prop up anti-American regimes around the world. It is already doing so in Latin America.

16. Obama: “We will continue to insist upon the release of Americans detained unjustly.”

Well, that’s reassuring. If the U.S. president and secretary of state couldn’t even get Iran to release four illegally imprisoned American citizens in exchange for the ending of sanctions and a porous nuclear agreement, how will he get them released now?

17. Obama: “Just because Iranian hard-liners chant ‘Death to America’ does not mean that that’s what all Iranians believe.”

This comment is noteworthy — for its naiveté. Of course not all Iranians believe in death to America. But the Iranians who don’t believe in it are irrelevant in Iran, just as good Germans were irrelevant in Nazi Germany and good Russians were irrelevant in the Soviet Union. All that matters in a police state is what the regime believes.

18. Obama: “It’s those hardliners chanting ‘Death to America’ who have been most opposed to the deal. They’re making common cause with the Republican caucus.”

Likening Iranians who chant “Death to America” with Republicans may be a new low in American presidential rhetoric. 

And it’s not just mean-spirited. It’s factually wrong. If anyone is “making common cause” with the Iranian hard-liners, it is Obama and his supporters. The hard-liners in Iran want sanctions dropped and to be able to continue their pursuit of nuclear weapons. Now they can. 

19. Obama: “As members of Congress reflect on their pending decision, I urge them to set aside political concerns.”

So do those of us who oppose the Iran nuclear agreement. But it’s the Democrats who cannot set aside political concerns. Let’s be real: If a Republican president had negotiated this deal, the vast majority of Democrats would oppose it — and so would the vast majority of Republicans.

20. Obama: “My fellow Americans, contact your representatives in Congress, remind them of who we are, remind them of what is best in us and what we stand for so that we can leave behind a world that is more secure and more peaceful for our children.”

On that, we agree.

For the edification of my readers, I made a five-minute Prager University video on the agreement that garnered 5 million views on YouTube and Facebook in its first week. Americans are clearly concerned about this issue.

Dennis Prager’s nationally syndicated radio talk show is heard in Los Angeles from 9 a.m. to noon on KRLA (AM 870). His latest project is the Internet-based Prager University (prageru.com).

Social justice group brings Birthright youth to South Tel Aviv

One muggy afternoon in December, a tour bus carrying a football team’s worth of young Los Angeles Jews pulled up to a dirty curb in South Tel Aviv. It was their fourth day of Birthright, and they were scheduled for a tour of Tel Aviv’s notorious bottom half. 

After they exited the bus, one petite L.A. woman in head-to-toe sportswear grimaced and held a tissue to her nose, blocking the neighborhood stench. “I feel like there are a lot of homeless people here,” her friend whispered.

BINA Secular Yeshiva’s director of international seminars and communication, Elliot Glassenberg (right), led a Birthright group from Los Angeles on a tour of South Tel Aviv on Dec. 18.

“Anybody know the name of the neighborhood we’re in?” asked their guide, Elliot Glassenberg, director of international seminars and communication for the BINA Secular Yeshiva, a Jewish school and social action center in South Tel Aviv. The yeshiva is funded in part by The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.

“The name of the neighborhood is Neve Shaanan, which means ‘oasis of serenity,’ ” Glassenberg said. “You feeling it?”

The group laughed nervously. Their tour of South Tel Aviv — one of about a dozen Birthright tours scheduled at the BINA Secular Yeshiva throughout the program’s current winter season — had been arranged and financed not by the umbrella Birthright organization but by The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, one of Birthright’s many partners. (Another two-dozen Birthright tours of South Tel Aviv were scheduled for summer 2014, but were all canceled because of the war.)

“There are a lot of moving parts” to the Birthright funding structure, Birthright spokeswoman Pamela Fertel Weinstein said in an interview. When Federations from different U.S. cities put money toward a Birthright bus, she said, they have the option to include a couple of stops in the itinerary that correspond with “things The Federation is supporting” — in this case, the BINA Secular Yeshiva.

For security reasons, Birthright groups are not allowed to travel into the West Bank or Gaza — not even the Muslim quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City. But what is perhaps Israel’s second most controversial demographic conflict — the government’s struggle to expel 50,000 undocumented African immigrants — is easily accessible from within the confines of Tel Aviv, Israel’s sexiest, most contemporary city.

Weinstein said BINA’s tour of South Tel Aviv is “an approved site visit under the Talmud/Torah educational category,” but is not one of the “certain places everyone must visit,” such as the Western Wall or Masada. 

However, Birthright’s policy toward these offbeat tours appears to have shifted in recent months. According to Sarah Austin, head of Birthright programming for the L.A. Federation, the BINA tour — which had been supplemented by Birthright in past seasons — is no longer covered.

“It’s not supplemented within our normal visit,” Austin said. “Seasons before, we didn’t have to pay for the visit. I don’t know why, but something changed.”

Weinstein said she was not aware of this change.

The L.A. Federation was willing to pay for the tour itself, Austin said, because it felt strongly about the value of visiting South Tel Aviv. “It’s important that people see there’s a bunch of different ways to be Jewish — that Israel is not just a tourist country,” she said.

On the Dec. 18 tour, Glassenberg tread carefully while telling his abridged history of the neighborhood. “In 1921, there were, um, well, riots — er — tensions between Jews and Arabs in Jaffa,” he said.

So a group of a few hundred Zionists, he explained, moved north to the lower outskirts of Tel Aviv, where they founded Neve Shaanan — an idyllic agricultural village with streets in the shape of a menorah. Their vision was for Neve Shaanan’s crops to feed the middle classes up in Tel Aviv proper. But “as an agricultural experiment, it quickly failed,” Glassenberg said, and Neve Shaanan soon became known as an immigrant neighborhood — not unlike “the Lower East Side of New York or the South Side of Chicago.”

“It’s almost a microcosm of Israel,” Glassenberg told the Birthright group. “A little piece of every wave of immigration has come to this neighborhood.”

He pointed out architecture left behind by each wave of immigrants. The first wave was of European Jews, post-Holocaust. Then, in the 1970s, Middle Eastern Jews arrived from countries such as Morocco, Syria and Iran. In the 1990s, around 1 million Russians — some Jewish, some not — escaped to Israel after the fall of the Soviet Union. And later on in the ’90s, following the First Intifada, migrant workers flooded in from Asia and Eastern Europe — arriving to fill blue-collar posts formerly filled by Palestinians. By 2008, there were approximately 300,000 foreign workers in Israel.

But the most recent influx of around 50,000 Eritrean and Sudanese work migrants and asylum seekers has been one of the most dramatic. It has transformed the area surrounding the dilapidated Tel Aviv Central Bus Station, where most of them came to live, into what locals call “Little Africa.”

Neve Shaanan’s street signs are written in a mishmash of Hebrew, Russian, Arabic, Amharic (Ethiopian) and Tigrinya (Eritrean). Cafe windows steam with fragrant African stews and breads. Groups of unemployed Eritrean and Sudanese men — and some women — cluster in South Tel Aviv’s central Levinksy Park, lining benches and sitting or sleeping in the grass. Many of the neighborhood’s homes are barely standing, covered only with sheet metal or tarps to protect them from the weather.

Walking down Neve Shaanan Street, some Birthright kids looked bewildered, others inspired. “It reminds me of L.A. in some ways — certain parts of L.A. where you’ve got the Blacks, the Mexicans, the Asians all in one place,” participant Erik Knipprath said.

Oren Peleg, a Disney employee (and occasional contributor to the Jewish Journal) who was on his third Birthright trip working as a staff member, said he’d “never done anything like this” on prior trips. “I was talking to the [Birthright] soldiers and they were saying, ‘It’s a grimy neighborhood, we never come here,’ ” Peleg said. “But I see a lot of character.”

When the group reached a free community library in the middle of Levinksy Park, set up by Israeli volunteers and featuring books in 16 different languages, Glassenberg delved further into the debate.

“Israel in 2011 realized this was becoming a major problem,” he said of the African influx. “So they did a few things: First, they built a fence along the border with Egypt so people are no longer entering. So there are now about 50,000 asylum seekers in Israel, but nobody else can come in. But they decided that now — instead of getting a free bus ticket and a visa — they would now be considered illegal infiltrators and they would be given three years in prison.”

Glassenberg then gave the floor to Birthrighters, asking them how they felt about so many foreigners moving into an Israeli neighborhood. “It’s an ongoing discussion,” he said. “What does it mean to be a Jewish state? How can you have, in the Hebrew city of Tel Aviv, 50,000 foreigners? That’s a significant chunk of the population, in a country of 8 million people. What does it mean?”

One participant responded: “It’s tough if everyone meets this [refugee] requirement. What can you do?” Another asked: “Maybe they could make aliyah?”

As the group continued to discuss, an elderly Israeli resident of South Tel Aviv pulled a couple of Birthright boys to the side, telling them in a hushed voice about how dangerous the neighborhood had become since Africans moved in. 

A few more blocks into the tour, Glassenberg ran into his friend Walyaldin Suliman, a Darfuri refugee who now runs a barbershop in Neve Shaanan.

Somewhat reluctantly, Suliman tried to sum up one of Israel’s most complex issues in a five-minute pitch: “I have 2 1/2 years in Israel,” he told the group. “I’m living, but I didn’t get the status of refugee. I only have a visa to stay. And now the visa is not a solution, because the government made a new decision to take everybody for 20 months in the Holot prison. This is a big prison in the desert. They take people to the desert prison because they come from Africa.

“More than 2,000 Sudanese and Eritreans are now in prison,” Suliman said. “In prison, they push you to go back to your country. But when you go back, and you arrive at the airport, the security men of the government of Sudan catch you.”

After the walking tour, BINA organizers told the Journal that their tours’ most educational moments often come when an Israeli or African approaches the group.

“We don’t want to be this foreign element just wandering through their neighborhood,” said Dan Herman, director of the Tikkun Olam post-college volunteer program (a joint project of BINA and the Daniel Centers for Progressive Judaism). “We want to be responsive to the neighborhood, not to force our solution or force our ideals.”

Multiple participants on this Federation-funded Birthright trip told the Journal that South Tel Aviv turned out to be the highlight of their itinerary.

“This is the most interesting thing we’ve done,” said Ariel Thomas, a 23-year-old Hawaii native with Jamaican roots. “I was looking forward to it — especially because we couldn’t stop talking about what happened at customs.”

According to Thomas, she and a handful of other Birthright participants from minority racial groups had been interrogated for hours at Tel Aviv’s Ben-Gurion International Airport — an experience that made them question whether they were welcome in Israel. “They didn’t believe we were Jewish,” she said of airport security officers. “I thought they weren’t going to let me in. So I thought, ‘I wonder if they’re racist because of the immigrants.’ ”

Avila Santo, 23, a Los Angeles artist, said he was “surprised but happy” that Birthright had allowed the BINA tour. “I think it’s very important because it allows you to question Jewish identity, what it means to be a Jew and what it means to care about your neighbor, right here in Tel Aviv — it was great to see.”

But Santo realized that the visit might not work with every group. “Even in this group, which is very secular, it’s very sparked,” he said.

Indeed, during a discussion session following the South Tel Aviv tour, a 22-year-old Israeli soldier accompanying the trip called the Africans ungrateful. “I know it’s hard to live here, but it’s such a better place for them than in Sudan and Eritrea,” he said. “In Egypt, they shoot them. In Europe, in a lot of countries, they put them in jail. In Israel, they can live. So I think they just need to thank Israel.”

The soldier added: “They can cry about it and say Israel is stupid, but … they have such a better life here.” 

A male L.A. participant sitting next to him, who wished to remain anonymous, agreed with the soldier. “We still haven’t addressed the fact that they’re not citizens, though,” he said. “Shouldn’t our obligation be toward the people who are citizens first? The fact that they can make in a day here what they can make in two months in their country — it’s infinite times better than what they already have. Is that enough, or are we required to give more?”

Santo thought for a moment, then responded: “It’s kind of hard to have a cookie-cutter avenue for everyone to go through. Because some people can’t go back to their countries.” 

The group’s Israeli leader, Nadav Dori, said afterward that he believes more Birthright groups should come see South Tel Aviv. “[Glassenberg] has an agenda, and it’s obvious,” Dori said. “But it’s important that people bring up this subject to public opinion, because people who aren’t from Tel Aviv, it’s important that they see this. And it’s a very good subject to bring up specifically with Americans, because they’re dealing with the same thing in America.”

America’s own immigration debate did come up many times in discussion. “Sometimes I feel like they get more than we do,” Sasha Santos, 26, said of undocumented immigrants in the U.S. who are eligible for college scholarships. “As Americans, we’re not getting the resources that we should be getting, and they’re getting them before us.”

Glassenberg told the Journal that simply starting this discussion was half the point of the tour, and fits into Birthright’s mission of engaging young Jews.

“If you open up a conversation and invite the participants to understand and take part, they respect that and they appreciate that, and they’re able to engage more positively in the conversation,” he said.

And most importantly, as a result, he added, “They feel more connected to Israel.”

BINA leaders, and others within the social Zionist movement, believe visits to the area might offer a way to modernize Birthright’s reputation in the eyes of politically aware Jewish youth — and help with Birthright registration numbers, which the organization has been attempting to increase.

A Haaretz news story from before the summer war dissected Birthright’s recent attempts to expand its PR reach. The piece cited a Birthright-commissioned survey finding “less affiliated Jews had not enrolled in Birthright amid concerns it would be too religious for them or push pro-Israel propaganda. More than half the respondents cited these two issues.” 

Although Birthright participation increased overall between 2011 and 2014 — from 33,000 to 43,000 participants — new registration hasn’t kept pace with rising donations and projected growth of the program.

Weinstein said Birthright is an “apolitical organization” that does not oppose trips to areas like South Tel Aviv. “We consider it a job well done if people come home and have more questions,” she said.

However, multiple other sources involved in organizing Birthright tours said they felt more resistance to exploring the area in recent months.

“I think there’s a natural fear of airing the dirty laundry,” Herman said. “A fear that if you show people [South Tel Aviv], you’re going to scare them off or be unfairly critical of Israel.”

However, he said, “Our generation was brought up learning to question things and be critical. You can’t ask them to put that on hold here. Because if you do, they’re not going to trust you.”

Herman’s program, Tikkun Olam, is one track available within the monthslong study abroad and post-college program Masa, known as an extended Birthright for the quarter-life-crisis crowd. Masa has been very public about its work with African immigrants, and has been sending young American Jews deep into dirty, messy South Tel Aviv through various programs for six to seven years now.

A 2013 study conducted by the Jewish Agency for Israel on the effects of longer-term programs such as Masa found that “exposure to Israel’s challenges and problems in the context of service work did not weaken participants’ commitment to and interest in the country. On the contrary, connection to the country and its people seems to have been consistently intensified by exposure to some of its most challenging realities.”

In the words of Noga Brenner Samia, deputy director of the BINA Secular Yeshiva: “Love is what’s left after you’ve seen the complexity and understood the reality.”