American born Rabbi Ben Packer’s mission is “to restore the Jewish presence in our historic homeland,” according to his own Facebook page. But according to Judy Maltz, writing for Ha’aretz on Monday, Packer is “an extremist rabbi aligned with radical factions of the settler movement.” Tomayto, tomahto? Could be, except that Rabbi Packer has earned his extremist credentials from Ha’aretz for refusing gentile children to participate in his Birthright Israel-affiliated program.
According to Ha’aretz, The Israel Religious Action Center, which has received its funding from the New Israel Fund, recently sent a letter of complaint to the hostel in Jerusalem’s Old City which is run by Rabbi Packer, because when he packs the place with Birthright enthusiasts he doesn’t allow for bookings by non-Jewish guests.
It is illegal for businesses in Israel to discriminate on the basis of religion, and so, if Heritage House advertises or is being promoted only to potential Jewish guests – they could be sued.
Birthright wants its Jewish youth enjoying their free visit to Israel to stay even longer. So Birthright participants receive free accommodations at Packer’s hostel if they extend their stay in Israel beyond the 10-day trip. The IRAC wants Packer to offer free accommodations to gentiles in a program dedicated to encouraging Jews to come to Israel.
It would be tantamount to suing a synagogue for insisting that their minyan be strictly Jewish, but IRAV is a professional NGO with a successful record in suing pro-Israeli entities.
In the very recent past, this anti-Zionist group went after one of the most fundamental concepts in the history of the Zionist movement in the Land of Israel: Avoda Ivrit – Jewish Labor.
During the Second Aliyah period, when many Jewish immigrants were starved for jobs, the immigrants-turned farmers of the First Aliyah were inclined to hire local Arabs who provided cheaper labor, rather than hire their fellow Jews. The struggle for Jewish labor, for Jews to employ only Jews, signified the victory of Jewish labor in creating a new society. The struggle for Jewish labor defined the development of the Labor movement in Eretz Israel. In 1906, David Ben-Gurion wrote: “Was it conceivable that here too we should be deep in [exile], hiring strangers to guard our property and protect our lives?”
Ben-Gurion and his fellow travelers coined the concept of Avoda Ivrit, and eventually unionized (the Histadrut, the country’s largest labor union, was for Jews only in the beginning), emphasized their Jewish identity and shared nationalist goals to induce the First Aliyah farmers to hire them in place of the Arab laborers. They organized under the banner of “Hebrew Labor” or “conquest of labor.”
But the folks at IRAC would have none of that. Their notion of Avoda Ivrit, as they say on their website, is nothing more than employment discrimination, and they pursue legal attacks on businesses that hire only Jewish staff and help wanted ads for Jews. They filed a lawsuit together with an Arab NGO in civil court against the administrator of a website hiring only Jews and last October a Jerusalem court fined the defendant about $11,000 for discrimination.
One wonders how much the same court would have fined David Ben Gurion.
Back to Ben Packer. Israel Free Spirit, a certified trip provider for Birthright and a project of the OU, has brought thousands of young Jews to Israel over the years – it averages 11% extended trips among the kids they bring over, most of them non-Orthodox, compared with the average – 3%. Israel Free Spirit promotes an extended trip offer of is a week at Packer’s Heritage House. The group stays there for free and partakes in tours, seminars and volunteer projects in Judea and Samaria communities, as well as Jewish clusters in majority-Arab neighborhoods in eastern Jerusalem.
The Ha’raetz story speaks in shocked tones about those volunteering opportunities: picking grapes at Pnei Kedem and Kida, planting olive groves in Esh Kodesh, digging drainage trenches and building foundations for homes in a new neighborhood of Kfar Tapuach, and helping Jewish families move into apartments in the Muslim quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City.
Of course, we took out of the original version of the above paragraph a bunch of “illegal,” “radical,” “extremist” adjectives. We figured you already knew Ha’aretz doesn’t like Jews in Biblical Israel. The report also noted that Birthright, as a matter of policy, does not bring participants on trips over the Green Line.
Now, the Heritage House accommodates only 30 guests, but Ha’aretz quotes Packer as saying that during the height of the Birthright season, “We went for two weeks with people [sleeping] on the floor.” Shouldn’t this mean that even if a gentile guest wanted to take part in programs aimed at Jewish kids from the States, they simply couldn’t get in based just on overbooking?
Perhaps. We would advise Rabbi Ben Packer to rent a few rooms to some Israel loving Christians – because, as Ha’aretz reported, the Israel Religious Action Center said that if it did not receive a quick response to its letter of complaint, it would sue the Heritage House for religious discrimination.