The former congressman Brian Baird once said that when you criticize Israel even privately to Israeli officials, they flip out on you, even if you’re a congressman; and this is the most important takeaway of the wonderful Birthright walkout that happened yesterday and that is now all over the Jewish press. A group of five young American Jewish women on their free propaganda trip to Israel kept demanding information about the occupation, and at last left the trip to join a tour of occupied Hebron by the Israeli dissident group Breaking the Silence. And the Israelis went crazy.
The irrational belligerence of the Israeli response to this mild form of dissent by American Jewish women is staggering, and it’s on film.
When Bethany, a dissenter, announces the walkout on the bus, the Birthright tourguide berates her and the other walkers-out in a disgraceful manner, shouting at them that they are trying to “bash” Israel and did not come with open minds or clean hearts, they are tyrants who tried to impose an agenda, and his grandfather fought the Nazis, and no Palestinian is going to force him out of here. Later he warns the women to be mindful of their security, their lives could be at stake. When all these young women did, they say calmly, was to ask questions.
And an American member of the Birthright group, who describes himself as a “teacher,” taunts the women: “Just go. Go to Palestine. Because guess what’s going to happen. You will get killed. You will get raped.”
The Israeli newssite YNet is offering characterizations of the young Jews as the pawns of “radical” anti-Israel forces, and stating that the non-Zionist group IfNotNow, which encouraged the protest, is an “extreme left” organization. IfNotNow is surely leftleaning, but it does not oppose Zionism outright, and it works earnestly inside a framework of “Jewish values,” and Jewish religious practice.
The Birthright-deserters proceeded over the last week in a collegial, if adversarial manner. Notice Danielle Raskin’s characterization of their decision:
So much of what’s powerful about
#birthright is the first hand experience. After the “Israel update” talk I realized that it’s not enough just to talk about the occupation, although that’s important, but to see it for ourselves. I just wish that birthright would include that.
The Birthright dissenters announced the walkout on the tour bus in an arresting video they posted on Facebook. Bethany takes the microphone to explain their decision to the rest of the group as the bus arrives at the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange.
There’s a group of us on this trip who have been asking questions and trying to engage. And we have not been able to do that, and as a result, the five of us will be leaving, as we get off the bus. We’ll be going on a trip with Breaking the Silence to learn about the occupation from the perspective of Palestinians and IDF soldiers.
Bethany makes a point of thanking Golan, the tour-leader, and saying that his comments about Shabbat earlier on the trip had resonated with “my Jewish values” and hope for change. “I’m really appreciative of that moment, Golan.”
But Golan breaks in on her statement to the others:
This is not fair to me and the rest of the group… This is going to the heads of Birthright Israel right now… You pulled a fast one. You are trying to impose your opinions on the entire bus, on the entire trip, and this is not acceptable. End of story. Period. You cannot be a tyrant on this bus, not when I’m here.
He continues as the group gets off the bus:
You came here with a clear agenda from the beginning. You did not come to learn about Israel. You came to learn about Palestine. You should have gone to Breaking the Silence from the beginning.
Take my picture and quote me. Anywhere you want. You think I’m afraid of some body? I live in Israel. This is my country. I’m a Jew and this is my country and I’m not leaving anywhere. No Palestinian is going to send me away from here. My grandfather fought the Nazis and after 2000 years of Jews waiting to come back home. This is exactly what it’s all about.
If you watch this tape, no one has threatened Golan in any manner. And he responds with this violent rage. This is the same Israel where 95 percent of Jews applaud the killings of nonviolent protesters at the Gaza fence, and Benjamin Netanyahu announces that flaming kites from Gaza will be answered with an “iron fist.”
Guide Golan attacks the dissenters:
You do not come with a clean slate. You don’t have a clean heart to Israel. You came to bash Israel. You came to bash Israel on purpose and in public and in front of all your friends.
[We came to learn, one says]
No you didn’t come to learn. Whoever comes to learn has to have an open mind. You don’t have an open mind. You have a clear agenda against Israel. You tried to impose your opinion for the last ten days and that’s not acceptable…
You try to provocate me to say seomething I don’t want to say… IfNotNow gave you an agenda…
A young man holding an American flag, evidently a participant on the trip, comes up to the group of dissenters and says that, “From a teacher’s perspective, you guys are the reason that the world doesn’t change, you know that?” He then berates them. “Guess what. Just go. Go to Palestine. Because guess what’s going to happen. You will get killed. You will get raped.”
An older woman also scolds the young women, saying “It’s wrong” for them to just walk off a trip after they came under Birthright’s auspices. Another young person, evidently a participant, browbeats the dissenters saying, What did you expect on this trip to Israel? This trip is about celebrating 2000 years of Jewish connection to this land.
Then a young Israeli member of Breaking the Silence comes up to the group and congratulates them on their decision. A calm moment at last.
Birthright is a program offering free trips to Israel for Jews under 26 who live in other countries. It is aimed at preserving American Jewish support for Israel and is heavily funded by rightwing Zionists, notably Sheldon Adelson and Michael Steinhardt, but also liberal Zionists too. In April, Birthright critics held a protest outside a dinner for the program in New York and Steinhardt famously gave the protesters the finger.
The walkout is further proof of what we have been advertising here for years, the coming divorce between American Jews and Israeli ones over the character of the Jewish state and its political scaffolding here in the States, the Israel lobby. Though from the looks of this confrontation, we’re moving past divorce to a war.
The young women posted a statement on leaving the Birthright trip. On the Facebook tape, the women speak freely about their decision.
Bethany says, “I want to be part of a Jewish community that can wrestle with the reality of occupied territories…. It feels morally irresponsible to take part in an institution that’s not willing to deal with the reality of occupied territories.”
Danielle says they gave Birthright an opportunity over nine days to show the whole picture. The point of the trip is for Jews to fall in love with Israel. But “If you were dating someone, you would never show them just the good parts of yourself,” she says. You’d tell them the bad parts too.
A young woman identified as Sophie Lasoff by Ynet says on the tape that the dissenters had a “transformative experience” in Israel. But
“We… have been really disappointed on a number of occasions about the way that Birthright has completely erased the effects of the occupation or avoided our questions, or spun things in a way that we felt were extremely biased. we feel like this education has not been what we were looking for. We came all the way across the world in order to see what they keep telling us is our homeland. And to me, grappling with what a homeland means to me, means grappling with it in all of its complexity, and they haven’t allowed us to do that. And we can talk a lot more about the different ways that’s happened on this trip. And we’ve been documenting it.”
“It’s a big deal” for them to leave, she goes on. But that’s why the dissenters acted.
“The world should know. The American Jewish community and the youth– the young people of the American Jewish community should know that the birthright is not providing the kind of education that we really need in this time of complex and entrenched politics, and Birthright is telling a one sided story. And it’s not fair. And we deserve the truth.”
Near the end of the tape, Golan warns the women about their safety.
“Be careful… Our life is the most important asset we have. OK. The rest follows after that. So first of all beware where they take you. If you have security….”
In Ynet, Amit Deri, founder and CEO of Reservists on Duty, said in response:
“In recent months, we have been following with concern the attempt made by radical organizations in Israel and in the US to turn young Jews against Israel.”
Danielle Raskin, a Birthright walkout, has tweeted about the disssenting trip to Hebron, seeing the “complexitities.” I must say, it’s unfortunate that someone witnessing apartheid cannot say, This is apartheid; but these people are young, and they are moving.
Here are reports that Birthright is blocking people on twitter for asking questions about the occupation.
This drama has also been unfolding at JFK airport. A week ago, IfNotNow urged the Birthright travelers to get the whole truth, the sixth time IfNotNow has sent off Birthrighters in the last year. Steven Davidson reported in the Times of Israel:
Standing next to a handwritten poster on a folding chair that said “Birthrighters ask us about the Occupation! Travel Tips/ Info/ Snack,” IfNotNow members offered granola bars and information-packed folders with “facts and stats to think about” regarding Palestinians and the Israeli military occupation, links and materials for further reading.
That package included a letter from “Alyssa,” who had gone on her Birthright trip in March, urging the participants to see both sides of the story.
I wish I had pushed back more on the half-answers. I wish I had asked about the Occupation. I wish I hadn’t felt guilty for asking questions because the trip was free. So I encourage you, ask all of your questions. Read this packet without guilt. Read other histories and narratives online. Talk to your new friends. Think critically and openly. Have fun, let it be complicated…
Please, cry at Yad Vashem, as I did. Cry at the cemetery, cry at the Western Wall, cry when you say goodbye to new friends. But if you can, go to the West Bank afterwards. Go to East Jerusalem. Cry when you see the separation wall. Cry at the statue of the key in Aida refugee camp. Cry that your Palestinian tour guide cannot walk on the same street as you in Hebron.
Two days ago IfNotNow launched a campaign against Birthright’s propaganda.
The settler group the Hebron Fund has also now angrily pushed back against the young people as friends of Jihadists. Rabbi Daniel Rosenstein:
I hesitate to give attention to misguided students who, had they decided to hear the narrative from their own people, could have had a chance at learning something; however, when they slander Israel and Hebron specifically, I have to say something. These students staged a mutiny on a (free) Birthright trip to Israel, choosing to believe the Jihadists and their apologetic supporters. Therefore, we commit here and now to increase our efforts to provide educational tours to young people in the upcoming year.
The intensity of this battle over profound philosophical differences will only heat up in months and years to come. Simply put, the two Jewish communities have incompatible views of the world. IfNotNow has commented on the action:
“Wow. These Birthright participants just walked off their trip and onto a Breaking the Silence tour to Hebron. They are refusing to continue to engage in a biased Israel education that omits and obscures the Occupation, and are going to see and wrestle with the truth themselves. This is an inspiring, courageous, and brave act of resistance to the Occupation. This is why IfNotNow launched its #NotJustAFreeTrip campaign this week, because we can no longer allow a free trip that hides the truth about the Occupation be synonymous with being a young Jewish person in America.”