As a gentile, I learned to think of the Jewish people mainly in religious terms. Reading the Old Testament alongside the New Testament will do that to a goy.
I grasped that the term Jew had an ethnic meaning as well. But it wasn’t until I began writing, if only occasionally, about Jewish-related stories, that it was impressed upon me that the religious and ethnic aspects of Jewish life are hardly one in the same.
Still, I think that sometimes reporters gloss over Jews’ religious identity. Take this Los Angeles Times story by David Haldane.
Haldane writes about a fairly recent program for young Jews: an all-expenses paid trip to Israel. As Haldane describes the program,
Birthright is the brainchild of, among others, Michael Steinhardt, a New York-based investor and philanthropist, who saw what he considered an alarming trend: the increasing disaffection of young, non-Israeli Jews from their culture and community.
“They typically stop their Jewish educations after their bar or bat mitzvahs,” he said, referring to religious coming of age ceremonies performed at 12 or 13. “I decided to focus on the next generation of our people. If there is a miracle in our lifetimes, it’s the birth of Israel. You can be Jewish and not visit there, but you’re missing a lot.”
This passage is enticing. It suggests that the program aims in part to teach the principles and practices of Judaism. After all, bar and bat mitzvahs are religious traditions.
Yet the story never elaborates on whether the trips serve a religious purpose. Haldane merely hints that they do. Early in the story, he writes:
The results have been important to Israel “both ideologically and strategically,” said Gidi Mark, the program’s Israeli marketing director and soon-to-be chief executive. In addition to contributing to the country’s economy and bolstering its support among Jews worldwide, he said, Birthright marks the young nation’s ascension as an “equal partner in taking responsibility for the future of the Jewish people worldwide.”
Later on, Haldane writes:
“There will be no free time, only structured free time,” Birthright staffer Jay Feldman told the soon-to-be passengers of bus 909, which, he said, would be making stops at Jerusalem’s Western Wall and Ben Yehuda Street (“like the Santa Monica promenade”), as well as museums, monuments and the port city of Eilat, to name just a few.
The Western Wall is a distinctly religious site. A place of prayer, the wall is considered the last remnant of the Holy Temple. No wonder that Pope John Paul II prayed there. Yet Haldane does not offer so much as a dependent clause about the Wall.
More broadly, none of the young interview subjects mention religion, not even the young woman who hopes to be a rabbi someday. This criticism is not specific to religion, as no young people talk about Israel’s national or geopolitical significance. But in a story about Israel, the near silence about religion in general and Judaism specifically is deafening. Do they not see Israel in terms of God’s many promises to the Jewish people?
Haldane should have disentangled the strands of Jewish identity in this story. Again, I realize that Judaism is uniquely bound up with religious and nationalistic elements. In Exodus, God promises to Moses that his people will receive Canaan in return for their faithfulness. But this story shows no sign that Haldane tried to disentangle them.