Birthright Says It Won’t Vet Applicants Despite Recent Walkouts Protesting Israeli Occupation

The program that offers free trips to Israel reiterates that it does not inquire about its applicants’ political views

Eight American Jewish Birthright participants who walked off their tour to visit the Sumreen family, under threat of eviction from their home in Silwan, east Jerusalem. July 15, 2018
Olivier Fitoussi

Despite several highly publicized walkouts on its program, Birthright does not intend to introduce a vetting procedure that would weed out potential troublemakers from the free trips it offers to Israel.

In recent weeks, Jewish-American participants have filmed themselves walking out of three separate Birthright trips to protest the occupation and the absence of discussion of it on the program. In response, Birthright has forced them to pay for their return flights to the United States and has notified them that their deposits will not be refunded.

The protesters were all affiliated with IfNotNow, an anti-occupation organization that is fiercely critical of Israel.

Asked by Haaretz whether Birthright intended to implement any measures to prevent walkouts and whether it planned to bar IfNotNow activists from trips, a spokeswoman said in a statement: “As stated in our website, Birthright Israel does not inquire about the political views of its applicants and will continue welcoming all Jewish young adults from around the world, so long as they do not disrupt the experience of other participants or intentionally divert from the tour’s itinerary.”

>> Between Adelson and BDS, Birthright has become a political battlefield | Analysis

To qualify for Birthright, an applicant must have at least one Jewish parent. Initially, the program was only open to applicants who had never visited Israel before, but in recent years, the organization has lifted this restriction. It has also expanded the age range for eligibility so that more post-university applicants can register.

As part of their campaign against Birthright, launched earlier this summer, IfNotNow activists have also been ambushing Birthright participants at the airport and handing them material about the occupation before they embark on their trip.

The videos of the walkouts have been shared widely on social media. The latest video depicts a Birthright participant challenging his guide for providing participants with a map that does not distinguish between Israel and the West Bank. The guide responds that the West Bank is an intrinsic part of Israel.

Asked whether this response reflects Birthright’s official position, the spokeswoman said: “As an apolitical organization Birthright Israel has no official position on Israel’s borders. We constantly work with our tour guides to ensure they illuminate the broader context and full complexity of the geopolitical issues at hand, without any partisanship. Birthright Israel will reiterate its overall educational framework with the entire guide body, as part of our routine protocol.”

To finance the costs of the return flights and forfeited deposits of its members, IfNotNow launched a crowdfunding campaign last week aimed at raising $10,000. After reaching the goal within three days, it has now raised the sum to $18,000. Part of the money raised, the organization said, will be distributed to needy Palestinian families in the West Bank and Jerusalem whom its members visited after walking off their Birthright trips.