TEL AVIV – Billionaire Sheldon Adelson made a surprise announcement at the 18th annual Birthright Israel gala on Sunday night by pledging a $70 million donation to the group in honor of Israel’s 70th anniversary.
The Birthright Israel project brings young Jewish people from around the world to Israel on educational 10-day trips. Since it was launched in 2000, the group has brought more than 600,000 young adults to the Jewish state.
“Before Israel was founded, my father always said he wished there was a place where Jewish people could live. He always wanted to go, but by the time I could send him, he said he was too old and too sick. I don’t want any kid to say they were too old or too sick to visit Israel,” Adelson said in a speech to the 650 people in attendance at the gala hosted at the Ziegfeld Ballroom in Midtown.
Some $125 million was raised at the event in New York.
To date, Adelson, who is one of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s most prominent backers, has contributed more than $400 million to Birthright Israel.
A group of Jewish anti-Birthright protesters gathered outside the gala in New York Sunday night holding up signs that said, “We are the Jewish future” and chanting, “No free trips on stolen land! Boycott Birthright that’s our plan!” The protesters were also handing out symbolic plane tickets under the slogan “return the birthright.” The group was mostly comprised of Jewish youth from the radical anti-Israel group Jewish Voice for Peace.
— JewishVoiceForPeace (@jvplive) April 16, 2018
Michael Steinhardt, 77, one of the founders of Birthright Israel, called the demonstrators “left-wing, stupid young Jews” and flipped the bird at them.
“I passed this group of protesters behind a barrier and it was clear these were young Jews,” Steinhardt said later. “Birthright is such a warm, welcoming, non-political enterprise you’d think they could find better things to protest. They were screeching something and I gave them the finger, and that was that,” Steinhardt said.
“I find it really peculiar that so many Jews are supporting BDS and events like their protest,” Steinhardt told Haaretz. “I don’t really understand it, but that’s my age catching up with me, I guess.”
— Mairav Zonszein (@MairavZ) April 16, 2018
Ben Lorber, JVP’s campus coordinator, told Haaretz that his group believes, “Birthright offers a Disney-fied portrayal of Israel-Palestine and it’s simply unjust that we get a free trip while our friends – Palestinian refugees – are unable to visit, much less return to their homes.” Lorber added, “We think the Palestinians deserve the right to return to their homes and an end to the occupation.”
Israel holds that the so-called Palestinian “right of return,” in which Palestinians would return to the ancestral homes they fled during the establishment of the state in 1948, would spell the end of the Jewish state.