We write this op-ed as Jewish students who went on Taglit-Birthright. In sharing some of our experiences we hope other students may begin to question Birthright. Birthright exposed us to the facts on the ground in Israel/Palestine and forced us to confront and reject the Zionist ideologies we grew up with. It showed us that Israel is doing the exact opposite of what our Jewish values teach us. Birthright led us to stand in solidarity with Palestine.
Julia’s Experience (Summer 2012):
“Tzedek, Tzedek, Tirdof: Justice Justice, you shall pursue” were the words I was taught to live by growing up as a Jewish-American. I was also taught I had a “Birthright” to Israel–that I should connect to, travel to, and even live there, simply because I am Jewish. My Birthright trip and the two months I spent in Israel/Palestine after transformed me into the anti-Zionist Jewish woman I am today. Somehow I saw through Birthright’s propaganda and learned to apply my Jewish values to all people, especially those oppressed in my name. If I had not gone on Birthright, I do not know if I would be in Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP). However, knowing all that I do now, I would never have made the decision to participate in Birthright in the first place.
During my Birthright trip we stayed in a settlement. When I asked about it, I was told that it was not a settlement, because under Israeli law the settlement was legal, and the word settlement implies illegality. In reality, any settlement in the West Bank is illegal under international law. To get to Jerusalem from the illegal settlement, we had to pass through a checkpoint. We were told it was a tollbooth. When I asked why we did not pay the toll, I was told we had an E-ZPass. We did in fact have an E-ZPass, but not like the one we have on cars in Boston. Instead, it was our Jewish privilege, embodied by the Taglit-Birthright sign on the front of our bus. As Jewish tourists, we passed right through the checkpoint, while Palestinians attempting to cross it to get to work or the hospital were stuck in hours long queues. In five years, sixty-seven Palestinian babies were born at checkpoints. Thirty-six of them died. That doesn’t happen at toll booths.
The only experience we had with Palestinians on my Birthright trip was visiting the fake Bedouin tent in the Negev. We sat under the stars, ate on the floor, and rode camels. These Bedouin tents are an exploitative part of the Israeli tourism industry, attempting to create a utopian view of Bedouin life in Israel. When I extended my trip, I visited an actual Bedouin village, unrecognized under Israeli law. This means Bedouin in these villages cannot get permits to fix their rundown homes and that the whole village could be demolished at the drop of a hat by the Israeli government. Most Bedouin, including the laborers at the fake Bedouin tents, live in unrecognized villages.
The mission of Taglit-Birthright is to “create solidarity with Israel” through a free 10-day trip. Instead, Birthright made me into a Palestine solidarity activist. I saw a small sample of the violence enacted by Israel in my name as a Jew and I knew I could not stand idly by any longer. I had to extend the pursuit of justice that Judaism taught me to the Palestinian people. Occupation and apartheid are not my Jewish values. When I stand in solidarity with Palestinians, I am doing exactly what Judaism teaches me to do–to seek justice and stand with the oppressed.
Chase’s Experience (Winter 2014):
Going on Birthright always seemed like it was a given–why wouldn’t I take a free trip to Israel, a land that is supposed to mean so much to me as a Jew? The last few years, and particularly last summer during Operation Protective Edge, I began to question the relationship between my Jewish identity and Israel. I found that Israel’s behavior–their military occupation of Palestine and discriminatory laws against minorities–was in opposition to my Jewish and human values. I learned more about Birthright’s funding: Sheldon Adelson, a strong financial supporter of Republican ultraconservatives, is also the largest single benefactor of Taglit-Birthright. I became skeptical, and even opposed to the whole premise–that as a Jew I have a right to visit Israel/Palestine, while Palestinians are not only denied the same opportunity, but also have restrictions on their travel to and within Israel/Palestine. Knowing I was not the only one with reservations, I found numerous testimonials about the trip, including those offered in Birthright? A Primer. In spite of my serious doubts, I felt that in order to have a more fully informed opinion, I needed to “see it for myself.” My decision, however, came with one condition: I would extend my stay and travel in the occupied West Bank.
My childhood friends who had gone on Birthright all returned no more educated about the issues, but certainly more fervent in their support for Israel. My experience was different. I expected to feel alienated by the organizers, but instead they expressed support and appreciation for my contrasting opinions. Additionally, we went to a peace center to talk to an Israeli anti-war activist, Lydia, and a Palestinian lawyer living in Israel, Amir. There, we learned in-depth about how Lydia’s experiences of anti-Semitism as a child in Wales led her to fight racism and injustice in Israel/Palestine, and about Amir’s life as an oppressed minority in Israel. However, this all-expenses-paid trip was not without serious problems.
While our conversation with Amir at the peace center was very educational, our organizers seemed to not give him the credibility he deserved. They recognized not believing his claims about discriminatory Israeli laws as much as if he were an Israeli Jew. After looking up the laws in question, I found that his statements were entirely true. Later, in Sderot, a city about a half-mile from Gaza, we were taken to a bunker that doubled as a children’s playground. We were shown an incredibly disturbing video that attempted to demonstrate, using graphic imagery and incendiary text, what life is like in a city vulnerable to homemade rocket attacks from Gaza. Instead, it expressed numerous anti-Arab sentiments, completely removing any context from the attacks. This video was never discussed after its presentation.
Perhaps the most absurd part of the tour was the Mega Event. I was caught completely off-guard by the spectacle of it all. Walking in felt like entering a beaming, boisterous rave–albeit one that was highly organized, with metal detectors and security at every turn. Large plumes of theatrical fog ushered in Prime Minister Netanyahu, who just arrived from France after the Charlie Hebdo and Kosher market attacks. Netanyahu pressed that it was not safe for Jews to live anywhere outside of Israel, hammering in to “Make Aliyah! Make Aliyah!” While I felt this attitude completely delegitimized my Jewish experience in the diaspora, most of the other three-thousand Birthright participants applauded his statements. I suppose it is not surprising I was the only one to boo him.
Even in the best case scenario, Taglit-Birthright is an fundamentally problematic program attempting to conflate Judaism and Zionism. It would be hypocritical for us to tell you not to go on Birthright, but we urge you to think long and hard about it. Before making any decision, you must understand that engaging with Birthright is an inherently political choice. Please recognize the pain Palestinian students on campus feel when they see a Birthright advertisement. Remember that Palestinians cannot return to their homes, but that you, as a Jew, have a constructed “right” to go to that same land. Birthright is only possible because of Israel’s violence toward the Palestinian people.
Just as your support for or critique of Israel is not related to your Jewishness, going on Birthright is not an essential Jewish rite of passage. Our Jewish values are what led us to SJP and JVP. If you go on Birthright, we hope that you will have a transformative experience and learn to honor your Jewish values and the legacy of your ancestors by standing against oppression enacted in your name.
An earlier version of this piece appeared in the Tufts Daily.