The young Jewish group IfNotNow demonstrated outside Birthright headquarters in New York this morning, demanding that Birthright start telling the truth about the occupation to Jews it takes on free propaganda trips to Israel. The demonstrators blocked the office entrance before police broke up the protest after 90 minutes, arresting 15 youths who refused to leave.
The action brought in hundreds of participants from across the country, organizers said. Several demonstrators said (on the live-stream on Facebook) that Birthright was blinding itself to a crisis in the Jewish community that has been brought on by the denial of human rights to Palestinians under occupation.
They called on the organization to choose the young generation and social justice and the truth over its donors. Among the slogans: “Birthright, confront the crisis.” “It’s time for Birthright to choose, us or the occupation.” “Stop lying to young Jews.”
The action was highlighted by wrenching testimonials by participants. Here are some of their stories.
A young woman said that she was told on her free trip to Israel that trip was not political. Then Birthright staged a celebration in Jerusalem with leading donor Sheldon Adelson at which the “white nationalist donor to Trump” said that Donald Trump would be great for Israel, she said. “It’s absurd” to maintain that the trip is not political. “We know that we can’t let Sheldon Adelson speak for us.”
Rachel, a 19-year-old sophomore at the University of Pennsylvania, said, “The Jewish communities I grew up in taught me love for all humans.”
This past summer she went on Birthright. Before her trip she had never been concerned about Israel’s actions. “But I experienced such an affront to my values that I thought doing nothing was morally unjustifiable.”
The group’s visit to the Holocaust memorial Yad Vashem was a critical moment. “I cried the entire time.” When Rachel walked out she told other students she was inspired to become a human rights lawyer. They told her she had “the wrong reaction. My reaction should have been to stand with Israel. I was shocked. This went against everything Judaism had taught me.
“I blame Birthright. It cultivated an environment on my trip that cultivated fear and nationalism.”
Another young woman described being silent on her trip to Israel. In her mind, two words kept occurring to her, though they were never said on the trip: Palestinians and occupation. “Those are the words holding people back.”
She was afraid to ask questions because she didn’t know about the situation. At last she asked her tour guide some general questions.
“The tour guide answered in circles.” His explanation about Palestinians always came back to the thought, “But look at the rest of the Middle East.” And she would nod and say, “Oh yeah.”
She issued a challenge:
Today I am no longer afraid of asking questions. I will not take any more indirect, convoluted answers. Birthright, will you confront the occupation?
A young man named Yonah also told of his frustration with the tour.
“I wanted to ask questions. I quickly realized my tour guide was very very right wing. He called himself he was a realist… He was actually a racist.”
The group was in occupied Silwan in East Jerusalem when Yonah pointed it out to other participants and said there was “debate” over the land, and it was a Palestinian neighborhood. “He looked me in the eye, and said, There is no debate, this is part of Israel.”
Yonah kept raising questions. The tour guide finally sat him down in the bus a week into the trip. “If you keep pulling this shit, I’m going to have to report you.”
“I was terrified in that moment,” Yonah said. “I stayed silent for the next few days. How many hundreds of people have sat silent on Birthright… or didn’t even ask questions… worried about being intimidated for doing so. There are thousands of them.”
Yonah was given his Jewish identity on a silver platter, he said, but Birthright told us, The only way to be Jewish was to have unquestioning support for Israel and the policies of the state of Israel. “I say no to that now.”
A university student said that her father always explained to her, The Arabs are just trying to kill us. She understood that “being Jewish” meant unconditional support for Israel. “So I just put my head in the sand.”
She was urged to go on Birthright by friends and family. “It’s a magical opportunity to see a land that was a utopia, and all of it was meant for the Jewish people.”
Then she watched a video from the Palestinian perspective. She learned that the birth of Israel was a catastrophe for another people. She asked her father about the video and he said, it was antisemitic and full of lies.
This young woman will not be moved. She is the head of her Hillel chapter and plans on being a rabbi. Listen to her:
“I love my family and my Jewish institutions. I’m not going anywhere. We are the future of the Jewish community. Palestinians deserve to live with freedom and dignity. Birthright, make the right choice. We deserve to know the truth. Because hiding the story of what is happening in Israel is keeping us from our true humanity.”
Another witness who was among several people kicked off a trip last summer said that when her group saw the separation wall, the tour guide explained, “Because of all the violent Palestinians we need the wall.”
I felt angry and disconnected. This was an easy story for him to tell. They’re bad, we’re good. But it wasn’t the whole story…. We never heard the word occupation. We only heard about Palestinian violence.
Becca from the Upper West Side of New York spoke of her growing frustration with Birthright as she learned that a major donor was Michael Steinhardt. It troubled her because she had heard many stories about his insisting that Jewish women should have children, and allegations about inappropriate conduct with women.
The last straw came when she went to Birthright headquarters with a letter demanding that they acknowledge the occupation is a crisis, and that they must describe it to participants. She was told if she handed over the letter, they would arrest her.
“The community is so threatened by the truth that it would have us arrested before they would even read a letter. All of us together will be a force that they will finally have to listen to.”
Another young man speaks:
The reason I felt I needed to walk off– I remember the exact moment…I was on the bus, we were driving from the north to Jerusalem, and we passed by a separation barrier. I was waiting for my tourguide to say anything. I could see the settlement beyond the wall. Nobody on the bus has any idea that we are right next to occupied West Bank right now. That’s what Birthright does… they hide the occupation.
The young man stood up and said, “Isn’t that the West Bank, isn’t that an Israeli settlement?”
His response was basically to tell me that the West Bank is no different than Haifa or Tel Aviv. I simply knew that that was a lie. The 40 other participants who didn’t have the privilege of going to Jewish day school had no idea that [this was not true] in the rights that people have and whether they can vote… their access to water and freedom of movement… It would be the same as saying that New York City is exactly the same as the segregated south in the Jim Crow era.
When he got home, he found that one of his friends would no longer speak to him. “Because we had different ideas about what was true. I thought that the occupation was a moral crisis, and he didn’t.”
The young man issued the challenge to Birthright:
“We’ve given Birthright so many chances to confront the occupation. This is their last chance to confront the crisis… because this is what the Jewish future needs.”
Thanks to Dave Reed and James North.