Opinion

'One Jewish Life Is Worth More Than 10,000 non-Jews': Why More U.S. Jews Will Walk Off Birthright This Summer

My Birthright guide's supremacist stance was extreme. But the program's claim to be 'apolitical' is not only demonstrably untrue; it frames every critical, inquisitive Jewish millennial who wants to meet Palestinians as Israel-haters

A Birthright group descending Masada
Birthright Israel

As the 405 bus comes over the Jerusalem hills, my phone chirps with another email. "I’m excited to go to Israel on Birthright next month," it reads, "but I don’t want to leave without also speaking to Palestinians."

In my work with Extend, an organization that introduces young American Jews to Israelis, Palestinians, and Palestinian citizens of Israel, I encounter this hope every day. "I’ve been taught it’s part of Judaism to be conscious of all people," an applicant wrote to me last month, "but I’ve never had an opportunity to meet a Palestinian."

These young American Jews who yearn for meaningful conversation with Palestinians are graduates of Jewish day schools, active in synagogues, and leaders in campus Jewish organizations. They speak with courage and conviction of their Jewish values: freedom for all people from the oppression that has plagued Jewish history; equality for all people irrespective of religion, nationality or race; and the obligation of each person to help repair the world.

They have learned well from Jewish institutions that taught them to reach for truth and strive for justice.

These young leaders don’t want to be in conflict with Jewish institutions, but increasingly they feel unwelcome in one of the most significant of them: Birthright.

Tens of thousands of U.S. Jews have yet to depart for their free 10-day trip this year, but already for Birthright it seems a summer of discontent.

On June 18, five Jewish educators affiliated with If Not Now were ejected from New York’s JFK airport after encouraging Birthright participants to ask about Israel’s treatment of Palestinians. "As a trip leader it’s my job to keep people safe," said a Birthright employee as he defended his decision to break up conversations between the If Not Now activists and Birthright participants.

It was a strange definition of security, and the Birthright participants noticed. Ten days later, five participants walked off a different Birthright trip after feeling their questions about the occupation were not welcome. They headed to Bethlehem and Hebron to see the occupation for themselves with Breaking the Silence.

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

Sunday, another group of eight participants left their Birthright trip during a visit to Jerusalem's City of David, to conduct a solidarity visit with a Palestinian family slated for eviction from their home.

Birthright has responded to the frustration of millennial American Jews by emphasizing that it is apolitical, and serves to deepen Jewish identity, not educate about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

But choosing to sidestep the conflict is a political move in itself. And at a moment when American Jews are more divided than ever about Israel’s 51-year occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, it is a stance that is neither sustainable nor inclusive.

While it’s common to hear that younger American Jews are less connected to Israel than any previous generation, data show the opposite: millennial American Jews are more connected to Israel than previous generations, but they are also more critical of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians. Dov Waxman calls this "critical engagement," and it should interest Birthright. It suggests that creating community between Israeli and American Jews is not served by preventing younger American Jews from asking critical questions about Israeli policy.

The distinction between "critical engagement" and hatred for Israel is often lost on those with a more traditional view.

As the five Birthright participants left the trip, their guide yelled after them, "You came to bash Israel. You didn’t come to learn about Israel, you came to learn about Palestine." "We came to learn," one young woman replied. For them, that meant meeting Palestinians as well as Israelis.

A Birthright Israel group tours Masada, the ancient fortress on a plateau in the desert overlooking the Dead Sea in Israel. 2015
Sylvie Rosokoff/AP

Watching this exchange on Facebook Live, I was reminded of my own Birthright experience. In 2012, I headed to JFK eager to join a Birthright program I had been told was designed for curious liberal arts students. It never occurred to me that sincere questions would be treated as a threat.

The first time I asked about the conflict, my guide voiced the old cliche, "The Arabs never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity." Later questions about the conflict, no matter their specifics, received the same answer. When several of our group asked whether we were driving through the West Bank, the trip leader told us, "It doesn’t matter." When I asked an IDF soldier if she had ever talked to a Palestinian, she asked why I was on "the Arab side."

The most disturbing moment of the trip came at the top of Masada. Our trip leader began to describe fond memories of an Italian-American neighbor from Staten Island. "But if I had to choose," he said, suddenly earnest, "between her life and the life of a Jew I have never met, I would choose the Jew. If I had to choose between the lives of my 10 best non-Jewish friends and one Jew I’ve never met, I would choose the Jew."

At this, even the more conservative participants seemed uncomfortable. But the guide upped the ante further. "If I had to choose between 10,000 non-Jews and one Jewish life, I would choose the Jewish life."

Our trip leader’s eyes narrowed and he leaned closer to us, like an overzealous football coach delivering a pep talk. "Do you remember the tsunami in Asia a few years ago? It killed 100,000. If I had to choose between all those people or one Jewish life, I would choose the Jewish life."

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a Birthright Taglit event in Jerusalem, December 2017
Kobi Gideon/GPO

I am sure Yossi Beilin, champion of Oslo and architect of Birthright, would be as appalled by this as our Birthright group was. This episode was extreme, but the Masada speech made explicit the implicit message of our Birthright program: enjoy swimming in the Mediterranean, wandering Ben Yehuda Street, and learning about Israel’s success in high tech, but don’t worry about those who live here who are not Jewish.

It’s an approach Birthright reinforced last November when it ceased meetings with Palestinian citizens of Israel.

Birthright left me eager to meet those who live in Israel-Palestine but were not included in our program. After spending time in the West Bank, Palestinian communities in Israel, and parts of Israel not included in Birthright, I co-founded Extend in 2013. Participants meet Palestinian civil society activists in Ramallah and Hebron. We learn about the civil disobedience movement in Nabi Saleh and Bil’in. We meet with Palestinian citizens of Israel in Kafr Qasim and Lod. We meet with Israeli organizations that don’t make it onto Birthright itineraries, such as Breaking the Silence, Meretz, B’Tselem, and Rabbis for Human Rights.

By openly showing Israelis and Palestinians struggling together for human rights, co-existence, and justice, we are trying to introduce young American Jews to an Israel-Palestine in which they see their own values. Participants leave feeling more deeply connected to Israel-Palestine and more determined to advocate for a just future for all.

After the five Birthright participants left their trip, a Haaretz headline declared, "Between Adelson and BDS, Birthright has become a political battlefield." But Birthright does not have to choose between the hard-right agenda of the Trump-Netanyahu-Adelson alliance or the BDS camp.

It can choose instead to meet young American Jews where they are: deeply connected to Israel, but also concerned for its Palestinian neighbors, who do not yet share the freedom Israelis enjoy.

Sam Sussman is co-founder and director of Extend.