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Principled Activists or Entitled Brats? What's Wrong With the Birthright Walk-outs

Birthright’s programs are essentially a gift from the government of Israel and wealthy American Jews. The goal of these protests may be noble: the method – not so much

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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
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 Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

Once upon a time, before 1999, there were no Birthright trips.

Back in the Stone Age, Jewish college students who hadn’t made it to Israel yet and wanted to travel there had to make it happen themselves. That was no mean feat at a time when parents were already shelling out thousands in university tuition. Many opted to spend a semester studying at an Israeli university, so the costs were offset by the fact that no college tuition was being paid in the United States.

Such programs for “overseas students” included Birthright-style field trips – heavily subsidized by the Israeli government – to the Western Wall, Masada and even West Bank settlements, to learn how they were working toward achieving the dream of the Greater Land of Israel. Some participants drank the one-sided Kool-Aid; others questioned and ridiculed the assumptions of old-school tour guides, whose agenda seemed to be to convince participants to drop everything, join the Israel Defense Forces and immigrate to Israel.

Weekends and vacations were used by some students to travel on their own, straying from the official route, exploring the country and its complexities for themselves: From such experiences, many a left-wing American Jewish activist was born. None, however, would have considered marching off of the programs’ trips in protest: After all, the outings were something the students and their families worked and paid for, and had consciously chosen to take part in.

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Then along came Birthright – branded as Taglit (“discovery,” in Hebrew) – the free 10-day trips offered to young Jews from North America (lower numbers come from other countries), born out of the worry that not enough of them were willing to make such trips on their own dime. True to its name, Birthright programs have become so readily available that travelling to Israel is no longer viewed as an expensive privilege: It is taken for granted, and – for some – even as an obligation.

Thus began a decades-long battle over the content of the trips, climaxing in this summer’s two Facebook-dominating, headline-grabbing walkouts staged by the collective IfNotNow, whose stated goal is to end what it sees as the American Jewish community’s support of the occupation.

While the gambit, along with other high-impact tactics, has successfully boosted the organization's profile – the relatively small group scored a lengthy profile in New York Magazine, it is also rubbing many people – including those sympathetic to their politics – the wrong way.

The two walkouts that took place, on Sunday and in late June – both carefully coordinated, Facebook-lived, and publicized across all social media platforms – involved young people reading from a prepared text, decrying the fact that the full story of Israel and Palestine is not provided within the 10-day Birthright “heritage trip” itinerary. Once their declarations were made, they headed off to Hebron or East Jerusalem to hear Palestinian voices. Recorded all the way, their confessions were emotional as they navigated the streets of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, telling viewers what a painful and difficult decision it was to break away from the fellow Birthright participants they had grown so close to. Then they arrived at their destinations to rendezvous with Israeli activists from pro-coexistence and anti-occupation groups, who would then show them – and their Facebook audiences – the injustices against Palestinians that Birthright had left off the itinerary.

The goal may be noble: the method – not so much.

Facebook live of the group's walkout from BirthrightCredit: Hal Rose/Facebook
Live stream of 5 Birthright tour participants leaving the bus in protest

Birthright’s programs are, essentially a gift, a joint gift from the government of Israel and from wealthy American Jewish individuals and organizations that are certainly self-interested: It is presumably valuable and important that the younger generation travel to and build a connection to the Jewish state.

But the trips are still a gift. You can dislike or even hate the person who gives you a gift; you can even criticize the size, shape or nature of it. But accepting and enjoying that gift, only to proceed to hurl it publicly in dumpster while loudly denouncing it, is not an attractive sight. Doing so while tearfully declaring what a “sacrifice” one is making, and praising oneself and others for being “brave” – adds absurdity to what already looks like the act of an entitled brat.

Many Jews are on the same page as some, if not all, of the young idealistic IfNotNow walk-outers and share their criticisms of Birthright. Yes: In an ideal world, organizers of Birthright programs would work harder to educate first-time visitors to Israel about the Palestinian narrative and would not shy away from confronting the occupation. Attempts by the group to lobby Birthright and other Jewish organizations are legitimate, as are its efforts to hand out materials to participants before their departure to Israel in order to raise their awareness and encourage a critical attitude toward what they will experience there.

But even for sympathizers, the disruptive vignettes recorded and posted live on Facebook – then widely distributed – are destined to get old very fast. The shock factor has already disappeared: the second of the two videos, recorded Sunday, provided none of the conflict and drama of the first. The tour guide graciously deferred to the participants and presented no anger or opposition to them: It looked as if he had been trained for this eventuality, even offering to have a discussion of the Palestinian issue later in the day.

The biggest protest IfNotNow members on the trip could conjure up was a rebellious refusal to stick around for 10 minutes and sign release forms (allowing them to leave the Birthright program, and acknowledging the fact that their return tickets would be cancelled and that they might have to pay for their trip themselves) before they headed off to East Jerusalem, which made the guide look eminently reasonable and made them look bad.

So does the skewed claim that they were forced to walk off their trip because otherwise they might never learn about the Palestinian side of the story. The Birthright participants who are students – the vast majority – have a long summer vacation stretching out in front of them, during which they could easily tour Hebron, meet with an East Jerusalem family facing eviction, take part in protests or volunteer for an organization that works against the occupation that they too oppose.

Indeed, organizers of the program encourages extending stays: There have even been add-on post-Birthright trips created for this purpose by advocacy groups, such as the “Extend” program in which participants meet and interact with groups like Breaking the Silence, B’Tselem and Rabbis for Human Rights. Similarly, a right-wing Birthrighter who wants to know more about the settlement enterprise or the building of the Third Temple in Jerusalem and can’t do so in the framework of the trip can do so afterward.

The contention that the entirety of a Birthrighter’s education is somehow limited to what he or she hears in those 10 days infantilizes and insults the intelligence of the participants.

And, of course, for those who oppose Birthright in spirit and in content, there is another option: decide not to accept the gift in the first place, as the hard-left, anti-Zionist Jewish Voice For Peace proposes with its #ReturnThe Birthright campaign.

The JVP solicits young Jews to pledge not to go on Birthright at all “because it is fundamentally unjust that we are given a free trip to Israel, while Palestinian refugees are barred from returning to their homes.” The organization is saying that if you don’t want the Israeli government or U.S. Jewish establishment donors who don’t share your values to pay for your trip to Israel – stay home, or pay for it yourself.

Don’t get me wrong: Like most Israelis, I strongly prefer that all young Jews (all young people, frankly) come see the place for themselves. I would far prefer that young leftist Jews go on Birthright with an open but critical attitude and stay on to broaden their perspective rather than remain home and protest Israeli policies from a place of ignorance. But JVP’s message of “stay away” is a more honest, mature and ideologically consistent approach than the mid-trip walkout theatrics of IfNotNow.

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