For Second Time in Two Weeks: U.S. Jews Walk Off Birthright Trip to Join Anti-occupation Activity

Eight young Americans leave the trip during a visit to Jerusalem's City of David Park to visit family slated for eviction by right-wing organization that manages the park

American youths visit the Sumreen family home in Silwan, on July 15, 2018
Olivier Fitoussi

A group of eight young Americans who are visiting Israel as part of a Birthright-Israel trip left the tour during a visit to Jerusalem's City of David, choosing instead to conduct a solidarity visit with a Palestinian family slated for eviction from their home by the Jewish National Fund and Ir David Foundation (Elad), a right-wing organization.

The group streamed the event live on Facebook. 

Facebook live of the group's walkout from BirthrightHal Rose/Facebook

The Sumreen family home that was visited by the group that walked off Birthright is located in the middle of the City of David national park. City of David, which Birthright-Israel took the group to visit, is managed by Elad, which is also engaged in Jewish settlement in Silwan and wants the house for that purpose. The organization is expected to receive control over the property if the family is evicted, just as it has in other cases.

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Two weeks ago another group walked off the Birthright trip in favor of a tour of Hebron led by anti-occupation army veterans' group Breaking the Silence.

On Sunday, two Birthright-Israel tours arrived at the City of David National Park in Silwan. At the entrance to the park, eight tour participants announced that they were leaving the group and joined left-wing activists Uri Agnon and Peace Now activist Hagit Ofran for a visit at the Sumreen family home in the neighborhood of Silwan.

The Sumreen family has been facing eviction notices by the Ir David Foundation and the Jewish National Fund since 1991. Israel declared the family home absentee property and later sold it to the Jewish National Fund, which has been seeking the family's eviction. The family's filed its own suit, but was rejected for failing to prove they had purchased the property.  

According to Birthright regulations, those who leave the tour cannot return to it. The group of eight who walked out intend to continue the trip touring the West Bank and East Jerusalem. They plan to visit Khal al-Ahmar, the Bedouin village slated for demolition, and to join Breaking the Silence for a tour of Hebron.

Some of the eight people received a message that Birthright intends to cancel their return tickets.

"We think that part of the story is the occupation and unfortunately Birthright will not show us this reality, they try to leave the occupation out of the story," said one of the people who left the Birthright tour. Becky Wasserman, 26 from Boston, said that "we tried to point during the tour to the fact that they won't speak to us about the occupation, but we got no answers. They gave us a map of Israel that doesn't have the West Bank borders depicted on it. It's really unfortunate because Birthright is often the only opportunity for young Americans to learn about what's going on."

According to Wasserman, she did not plan to leave the tour when she first arrived, but decided to do so once she realized she was not going to receive honest answers about the occupation or hear the perspective of the Palestinians. Therefore, she got in touch with Israeli activists.

Birthright Israel said: “50,000 young Jews from all over the world have taken part in Birthright so far and it is the leading educational initiative in the Jewish world.”

“Birthright believes in the ability of the participants to formulate their views and opinions themselves. That is why Birthright will not allow groups with any political agenda to sidetrack the plans for the tours. Participants who interfere with the experience of their friends in the groups for any political objectives will forfeit their deposit and their plane ticket.”

"More young Jews are joining the protest against Birthright's attempt to cover up the occupation, and instead choose to see what we did as soldiers in the Occupied Territories," Breaking the Silence said in a statement. "It's time for our right-wing government and Birthright to understand: a prolonged occupation will widen the gap between the Jewish diaspora and Israel."

Peace Now also put out a statement, saying: "We were glad to meet today the young Americans who left the Birthright tour to hear about the situation in Silwan and the story of the Sumreen family, who is in danger of being evacuated for the benefit of settlers." The group vowed to "continue and present… the complex reality that created by the occupation, especially in Jerusalem."