The Romance of Birthright Israel
One night on Birthright we had a cookout at Gvulot, the first kibbutz cum military outpost in the Negev, in southern Israel. We learned the story of Gvulot’s founding—conquest over Palestinians—in the manner of all summer camp lessons: skits with gratuitous cross-dressing. The part of the man who prances onstage with makeshift breasts was played by Yossi Mizrahi, then a goofy 21-year-old Israeli soldier, adored by the entire Birthright group. He’d fought in Operation Cast Lead, and he liked to show us the “terrorist headbands” he claimed to have collected from the bodies of Palestinians he’d killed. The activity came to a close with a round of sweet Bedouin tea. “L’chaim!“—“To life!”—we cheered, raising our glasses, five miles away from the largest open-air prison in the world. We were directed to the kibbutz’s bar, a place so popular with the locals, our Israeli guide joked, that “even people in Gaza are coming to the checkpoint.” Everyone laughed.
My traveling companions were not monsters. Birthright’s overstimulation brings about a deadening of feeling. It’s hard to imagine the suffering of others when you’re having the time of your life. In Tours That Bind, sociologist Shaul Kelner contends that Birthright activities revolve around “fun and good feeling,” meaning “the group’s hedonism is thus one of the most effective checks against a determinedly critical politics.”
It’s pleasure as a medium for Jewish nationalism. In Birthright, dissent is for fun-suckers. “Just enjoy the experience,” a tour mate told me when I denounced the remarks of one Birthright employee, Gia Arnstein, who had said, apropos Palestinian suicide bombers, “If I impose a holocaust on them, what can I do?” In American discourse, the logic of Jewish victimhood and Israeli militarism is rarely articulated so clearly. A California native with a lone Jewish grandparent, this tour mate, like almost everyone in my group, was a self-described liberal. “Don’t focus on disagreeing,” she said.
To be sure, several tour mates told me that the Israel they saw on Birthright troubled them, even using words like “segregation” and “apartheid.” One fellow critic, Kelsey Alford-Jones, toured East Jerusalem with me afterward, through the Israeli Committee Against Housing Demolitions. But most of my tour mates experienced what Kelner calls “guide worship.” Voting on the design for our commemorative Birthright T-shirt, one faction favored a massive portrait of Shachar.
A few of my fellow travelers started out supporting a binational state but became convinced on the trip of the necessity of a Jewish state “to protect Judaism.” “Haven’t Jews been through enough that we can just have this sliver of the world?” Josh Schlesinger, then 26, asked me after visiting the Holocaust Museum. “Don’t we deserve it?” By the final night’s sharing circle, nearly everyone said they felt “more Jewish” and vowed to raise their offspring within the tribe.
After the trip, we all became Facebook friends. I was soon tagged in a photo album titled “Thank you, Thai Worker!” Many of my tour mates joined groups in support of Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier captured by Palestinian militants in 2006 and held prisoner in Gaza ever since, and “Israel’s defensive actions against the flotilla” (the IDF assault a year ago against the aid ship Mavi Marmara, in which nine civilians on board were killed).
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“Buy Ahava products,” Megan McLean, an American Birthright support staffer, instructed over the PA. “They’re lovely.” Our Birthright bus was approaching the Ahava factory in the West Bank settlement of Mitzpe Shalem, which our Israeli guide led us to believe was a “kibbutz.” Mitzpe Shalem collectively owns 37 percent of Ahava, which enjoys annual profits of $150 million by illegally exploiting Palestinian Dead Sea resources.
“We have checked it a lot of times. It’s not against the international rules,” Ahava board chairman Arie Kohen assured me over the phone. These days, having up to 10,000 Birthrighters patronizing Ahava each year is no small thing. “When they visit the factory they feel and they take with them the benefits of the Dead Sea,” Kohen said. “Of course it will also make money.”
In the factory gift shop, my tour mates bought armloads of Ahava (“love” in Hebrew) products from the Orthodox settler sales force. Leaving, I bumped into the Birthright guard and banged my shin on her rifle.
We spent the afternoon on the Ahava factory’s private beach, laughing and floating in the Dead Sea, the waters warm and crystalline. Couples slathered each other with mud; women painted smiley faces on their chests. As the Birthright bus pulled out of the Ahava parking lot and onto settler-only roads, the sound of steel drums drifted out over the PA. It was Bob Marley’s “One Love.” We swayed to the music, bound for Jerusalem.