The New York Times published a splendid article today about young Jews walking off the free ten-day Birthright trips to Israel, rejecting them as propaganda. It is already attracting pushback from Israel supporters.
The long article, headlined, “Birthright Trips, a Rite of Passage for Many Jews, Are Now a Target of Protests,” is just about everything we would hope to see in a report on progressives’ misgivings about Israel in the Times. Reporter Farah Stockman’s focus is Risa Nagel, a Seattle woman who “agonized” before deciding to walk off the trip last summer with other disaffected travelers when the hosts didn’t show them the occupation and didn’t allow the delegation to hear Palestinian voices.
A measure of the piece’s effectiveness are all the comments it has already gotten from Israel-defenders saying the young Jews shouldn’t have accepted the trip, paid for by Sheldon Adelson and Haim Saban and the Israeli government among others, unless they were prepared to swallow the political agenda gratefully.
IfNotNow, the young Jewish group that organized the Birthright walkouts, is jubilant over the piece. So is J Street U, which is also quoted in the article, and is leading an alternative liberal Zionist trip next month.
A couple of excerpts show how plainspoken the article is:
One of IfNotNow’s founders, Yonah Lieberman, had helped lead a Birthright trip as an outside volunteer the previous year and said he “saw a lot of lies” about Israel . . .
Ms. Nagel walked down [Hebron] streets that Palestinians are barred from using, even if they own a home there. She saw the Star of David spray-painted on the wall, marking territory. “Seeing the Jewish star being used in that way was so hard,” she said.
It goes without saying that the report is Inside Jewish Life, and doesn’t include anti-Zionists or Palestinians. Stockman bends over backwards to Israel supporters when she writes that the walkouts have generated “pain and controversy.” And surely it is a measure of the narrow focus that only about ten people walked off Birthright last summer, by our count, out of 24,500 who got the free trip. Birthright fought back against the initial defections last summer and threatened to claw back the cost of the trip from those who left, and the defections appeared to end (IfNotNow did not respond to Phil Weiss’s query last year suggesting the movement was a “fizzle, and raises questions about the efficacy of organizing inside the official Jewish community”). So the Times is amplifying an important but small trend in the Jewish community. And it will surely help IfNotNow’s effort to get more Birthright walkouts this summer.
The article seeks to “balance” the defectors with the voices of those who disapprove of the walkout, including Ben Fields, a participant who loved his trip and says that anyone who claimed to have been surprised by the absence of Palestinians was not being straightforward: “We all know what we signed up for.”
Author Stockman has asked Birthright veterans to get in touch with her to tell her their stories about the trip. Let’s hope she does more about Jewish dissent, and even meets folks who question the need for a discriminatory Jewish state.
Birthright has sent a total of 700,000 young Jews to Israel, on a trip that non-Jews are not welcome on. It has had an enormous impact, and it’s about time it’s getting scrutiny from the Times.