The other day we reported the dramatic Birthright bailout, when five American Jewish women left their “Birthright” trip to Israel near the conclusion on June 28 because they had not gotten honest answers to repeated questions about the occupation. As they announced their decision to their fellow travelers, in a video posted on Facebook, the young women were answered with belligerence by their Israeli tour guide, who warned them about the violence in the occupation, and a fellow Birthright participant told them, “You will get killed. You will get raped.”
One of the Birthright-bolters, Bethany Zaiman, a doctoral student in anthropology, has given an interview to David Kattenburg at Green Planet Monitor and answered some questions re the action.
The action wasn’t planned ahead of time, Zaiman implies. She joined the trip as a critic of Birthright hoping for answers. “I was very fortunate on the trip to meet a few other women who had similar reservations and questions.”
All were stunned that what Zaiman calls the largest Jewish educational program in the world had no ability to deal with the reality, let alone engage Palestinian interlocutors.
Their group left the States for Israel on June 18, and “from the very beginning,” Zaiman asked questions about the occupation. No traction. On the first day of the trip “we drove past the West Bank and the separation wall, and no one even mentioned it,” Zaiman says. “Finally another participant brought it up and the person they were sitting next to… said, Yeah that’s a Trump-sized wall. Which spoke volumes to me about the reality that we were ignoring as we drove by.”
After a few days of adventure– the Bedouin camel ride, the hike, the beach– the group of skeptics asked to have a conversation on the Sabbath about the occupation. “That was actually a disheartening experience.” The guide agreed to have an open conversation, but when the young woman who initiated it said that she was bringing in some Israeli friends to speak, “the tour guide got very angry.”
“You can’t have friends, or foreigners coming in,” he said. The participant responded, “These are Israeli Jewish friends. They want to talk to us about their experience.” Zaiman: “He said absolutely not…. ‘I can’t have anyone coming to contaminate the group’.”
Originally 18 people on the trip showed interest in that discussion. In the end only seven showed up. That’s when the five skeptics decided to leave the trip and join Breaking the Silence for a tour of occupied Hebron.
They didn’t go without making a statement to their fellows. They wanted to engage their Jewish community and explain that it was “morally irresponsible to ignore the occupation” and provide “lies or propaganda.”
“It’s a miseducation and an incredibly problematic one, to be the largest Jewish educational institution in the world, and to not be talking about the occupation.”
When they said they were leaving, the skeptics received various veiled threats about their plans, that they would get killed.
“That speaks volumes about the…. miseducation the young Jewish community is getting about Palestine through Birthright,” Zaiman says.
She elaborated that every time the skeptics had asked about visiting the West Bank, the tour guide had said No. “If I were to walk into the West Bank, I’d be shot in the head.” The skeptics countered, there are illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank, so clearly there are Israelis there.
“Well that’s their choice,” the guide said. “I’d be shot in the head.” He was, Zaiman says, constantly giving the message to trip members that Palestine is “an incredibly violent and dangerous place for Israelis.”
Kattenburg asks, “Were there islands of sympathy in the group?”
“There were not,” Zaiman says.
He also asked her if she saw apartheid in Hebron. Zaiman evades that word, though she notes that she and Israelis are allowed to walk down Shuhada Street, formerly the central street of downtown Hebron, and Palestinians are not.
“I would say that the displacement and emptiness of the area we were in really spoke volumes… speaks to the level of military control… It really was a visceral example of what military control looks like in the daily reality of occupation.”
Why did she go on Birthright and should others go?
She went because she “hoped to engage and make incremental change in the conversations we’re having in the mainstream Jewish community about the occupation.” But as much as the skeptics pushed for that discussion, “Birthright was unwilling to move on their stance…they claimed they were apolitical, all the while selling us propaganda about Palestinians and Israel that was very untrue.” Including a map of Israel without the West Bank marked on it.
“If you are already signed up for a Birthright trip — I know there are tens of thousands of you out there– please, please, please push, ask questions, make Birthright uncomfortable.”
Because “it’s not acceptable in any way, to be the largest Jewish educational institution in the world and not talk about Palestine, and not engage with any Palestinian speakers.”
And if you haven’t signed up for Birthright, “I would strongly consider not going.” Because the program is not willing to address these questions.
Zaiman concludes saying she’s been involved with Jewish Voice for Peace and IfNotNow. “Now I’m going to get more involved.”
Breaking the Silence issued a statement on the dissenters.
This tour single-handedly provoked outrage in Israel and throughout the Jewish Diaspora. MK Yair Lapid (Yesh Atid) said that this was no less than an attempt to harm the state of Israel and the Jewish people!
Meanwhile, right-wing organizations published the names and faces of the participants, and Birthright blocked a Haaretz reporter from their twitter account after she covered the story.
Clearly, they’re panicking….
One single tour in a sea of Occupation propaganda drove the Right-wing crazy.