One of the highlights of the J Street conference was a panel on Birthright, the program that sends young American Jews to Israel for free, sponsored by rightwing Zionist Sheldon Adelson. The mood of the panel, whose title was “J Street U Presents: Unpacking Birthright,” was critical, typified by Harpo Jaeger of Brown University (at left above) who marveled at the fact that a fellow student on his trip did not know who was occupying who, the Palestinians or the Israelis.
“Loving Israel is a very hard concept for me, to be honest,” Jaeger said.
I was most moved by the comments of Rabbi Danielle Leshaw, second from the left, above. The Hillel director at Ohio University in Athens, Leshaw sends 30 students a year on Birthright; and she said that in the last few years, these students have changed. They are interested in “solidarity” with Palestinians, and the program is disserving them. “Birthright is doing wrong by our students,” she said, by refusing their requests to meet Palestinians and to see the separation wall and checkpoints. Leshaw said she has declined to be a Birthright guide because she disapproves of the program.
Here is her speech, on September 30. (I turned on the video camera a couple minutes in when I realized how powerful her words were).
I’ve been sending students on Birthright trips for ten years, averaging about 30 students per year. I’ve spent time looking at Len’s studies [Professor Leonard Saxe of Brandeis is sitting at her left, above, wearing dark jacket] and I’m grateful for them. And those students who I sent in my early years on campus, those who I still keep in touch with, or follow on Facebook, fit very neatly into the findings of the studies: more likely partnering with Jewish partners, more likely to join Jewish communal opportunities, more likely to light Shabbat candles. Their lives are changed, their lives have more meaning due to Birthright.
In part, some of my students are experiencing these things because they’re from the Midwest. Many of the students have natural, deeply-engrained, culturally-expected leanings to earlier partnership and strong communal identity, remaining in their communities of origin, Cleveland for example.
It’s the more recent students that I’m seeing, however, without data yet to support this, the students we’ve sent in the past four years or so that are asking different questions than their predecessors…. So why are students now in the very recent years more interested in learning about Palestinians, more interested in solidarity with the Palestinian people, more interested than they were eight and ten years ago? I only have anecdotal evidence, but it’s absolutely happening. I do know that in my interviews with students that more and more are now asking questions that they never used to ask:
Will we be meeting with a Palestinian family? Will we travel into the West Bank? Can we see the separation wall? A checkpoint?
Yes, students want these experiences.
So I sit in my office, in southeastern Ohio, far away from many, many things and I wonder, Do the shifts, do the new questions, do the new expectations– what do they have to do with? Why? Something to do with the economic downturn in 2008, the Democrats’ return to the White House, the arrival of Twitter, the Arab Spring, the 1 percent? How does their millennial experience inform how they see the Palestinians?
To all of their questions, Will we meet with Palestinians or see the separation wall or spend time in the West Bank, I shake my head and say, No. No not this trip. But I’ll help you build your next trip, or I’ll help you extend your trip, and together we’ll figure out how to make your mission and vision for your time in Israel line up with your values.
I long for the day when I’ll get to say Yes to their questions. I often tell students that there are six things that they are mandated to see when they are on a Birthright trip. This should be a quiz for everybody. Everybody has to see a Jewish historical site, a Zionist history museum, a Holocaust remembrance site, a state national site, an arts and culture event, and of course the Western Wall.
Certainly a contemporary artist would tell us that the separation barrier, our new wall, is perhaps an arts and culture event, as it has become a place for progressive and radical street art. Or perhaps a contemporary historian could make the claim that the separation barrier is already a Jewish historical site. It is in some ways a monument that pays tribute to a particular time period and to particular events. It is also somewhat permanent, not easily removable. I bring this up because our Birthright tours aren’t telling the contemporary narrative of the Jewish people. And shame on us for not telling the story. And for not meeting Palestinian people and for not hearing their narrative in the context of our own.
I feel that Birthright is doing wrong by our students.
I often see myself as simply the gatekeeper, the interviewer, the person that sits with pen in hand and checks boxes about if and when a student went to Jewish day school, or became b’nai mitzvah, or has any food allergies or physical limitations that would prevent him or her from walking up or, worse, down Masada.
I make notes on different sheets of paper if a student has inquired about the Palestinian people or the conflict in general. If they’ve asked more than just questions about what they’ll be eating or whether they’ll get to meet extended family while on this trip.
Which brings us to the question about mission and vision for Birthright. There is no concern that the students aren’t having an amazing time, and don’t fall in love with all sorts of people and things and their own Jewishness. This is an absolute constant. But there’s a new tug on the heartstrings of the young people. I say again that I only know this anecdotally. But this is also my own empirical truth as a Hillel director in the field now for 12 years. Something is missing. We owe it to them and I see it as my birthright to help them ask and answer the questions they’re now articulating, this new generation.
My students ask me if I’m joining them on their Birthright trip and I tell them No. What I don’t say is that I don’t want to go on a Birthright trip in its current incarnation. Yet I’m one of the most qualified in the Hillel field to actually lead a trip– introduce the hard stuff, talk with passion and truth and knowledge about the current crisis. In fact I do have these conversations every summer when I spend five weeks leading a study abroad trip to Tel Aviv University. One day a dream that I have is to be part of the team that observes, assesses and completely reimagines the next ten years of Birthright. Trips that involve both Israeli and Palestinian people, trips that focus on the crisis, trips with qualified staff, trips with mandated pre-trip educational expectations and post-trip educational expectations. It’s time to refuse most– not all, but most– of the trips that have no pre- or post-contact with their participants. This is absolutely irresponsible.
If we can’t unpack it together and help them grow in their new Israel relationship, then it likely won’t happen, it will not flourish, and it will not develop. We need a smarter Birthright. A Birthright that recognizes that students can hold the tension, that they can hold the crisis, that they are mature enough and bright enough to understand that this is theirs to own.
We talk about love, we talk about connection, we talk about Birthright as a first date– and we need to move beyond this language. Birthright can and should be something with greater depth, clarity and meaning.
Over and over again the assumption is made that young people won’t love Israel if they have a true understanding of the political landscape. We say all too often, that students need to ease into it, we have to be careful, not too much all at once. We don’t want anyone deciding that they don’t love Israel. Well again, shame on us.
Let’s give our young people the opportunity to be smart, unpack it all and fall in love because of the complexity of the situation. Birthright is not a smart enough trip for our incredibly smart students.
And further we need to stop assuming that they are not interested in the situation. We’re really good at telling ourselves that young people want to see the cultural landscape not the political landscape. We tell ourselves that students aren’t interested in politics. Yet 900 students are here at this conference, and hundreds more go to AIPAC. Students are interested in politics. And they’re interested in Palestine.