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Founder of Birthright Israel, Michael Steinhardt,Thinks American Jews Should Stop Focusing on Religion

Allan C. Brownfeld, Editor
Special Interest Report
August 2017

Michael Steinhardt, the hedge fund billionaire who is the founder of  
Birthright Israel, which sponsors free 10-day trips to Israel for Jewish  
young adults, says that American Jews should stop focusing on religion.  
Steinhardt, an atheist who rejects Judaism as a religion, instead focuses on  
creating an attachment between young American Jews and Israel. In a sense,  
support for Israel has become, for him, a substitute for religion.  
In an interview with the .Jewish Telegraphic Agency (Washington Jewish Week,  
June 15, 2017), he says that instead of focusing on religion, “… we have to  
spend far more energy to the .last 300 years. The last 300 years is the most  
enlightened — it is when Jews really shined. I would use the word superior,  
except people blanch when I use that word. But it’s really what I mean: Jews  
have accomplished so much, so inexplicably out of proportion to their  
numbers, in these 300 years, and it’s one of the great failures of Jewish  
education that that’s not focused on at all.”  
Steinhardt admits that, for him, Israel has become a religion: “The modern  
state of Israel is the Jewish miracle of the 20th century, but it’s the  
secular part of Israel that’s the miracle. It’s the extraordinary  
achievement, it’s the technology, the military, the development of a society  
out of nothing using Zionist ideals, taking people from terrible places and  
making them Israeli citizens. Israel has become, for me, the substitute for  
Mr. Steinhardt declared: “Israel is to me the most moral state on this  
planet, (even) with the occupation, with the differences between rich and  
poor, with the other issues, but it’s really an exceptional place.”  
More than half a million young Jews have visited Israel on the Birthright  
program. Contrary to Mr. Steinhardt’s intention of tying American Jews to  
Israel, the gap between young American Jews and Israel is growing.  
The Times of Israel (June 21, 2017) carried the headline, “Survey Shows Huge  
Loss of Israel Support Among American Jewish College Students.”  
It reports that the group Brand Israel commissioned a large-scale study in  
2010 and a follow-up in 2016 studying the attitudes of American Jewish  
college students to Israel. Fern Oppenheim, co-founder of Brand Israel,  
called the results “devastating.”  
Oppenheim spoke at the annual Herzliya conference in June and reported that  
the 2016 study shows that the current Israeli campaign of depicting the  
country beyond the conflict specifically highlighting high-tech achievements  
is not effective. In fact, the more study participants knew about Israel,  
the less favorably they felt about the country.  
The study shows that since 2010, claimed knowledge of Israel has increased  
14 percentage points nationally (from 23% to 37%). These increases, however,  
have not translated into increased favorability, which is down 14 per cent  
(from 76% to 62%) nationally.  
The key to emphasize, she said, was common values: “Shared values have been  
the bedrock of the American-Israeli relationship. Without this connection,  
the future of the alliance is in jeopardy. And the biggest value gap is  
between core Israeli supporters — basically older, wealthier, more  
conservative, whiter Americans — and those who are labeled ‘at risk’ —  
younger, minorities, liberals.”  
The picture is even more dire, reports Oppenheim, when looking at the next  
generation of potential Jewish leadership. Between the 2010 and the 2016  
surveys, Jewish college students dropped 27 percentage points on the  
question of whether they lean towards the Israeli side. This is explained by  
a perceived lack of shared values between liberal college students and  
Oppenheim declared: “The future of America no longer believe that Israel  
shares their values. This is huge! Devastating!” •

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