Midway through my 10-day tour of Israel with Birthright in June, our trip leaders handed out a map of the country to each participant. The map clearly showed Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, and the winding Jordan River, but it had no demarcation for the West Bank, the Palestinian territory that Israel has illegally occupied for more than 50 years. Looking at the map, I was taken aback by the blatant way this supposedly apolitical trip was making such a political decision as to erase the existence of Palestinian people and their land. I felt something inside of me break, and I knew I needed to do something.
A few days later, four other women and I decided to walk off the trip to protest how Birthright supports the occupation and hides it from young Jews. Little did we know that we would inspire eight more Birthrighters to leave their trips to meet with Palestinians a few weeks later.
My path to going on Birthright was similar to that of many of the nearly 50,000 young Jews who will take the trip this year. I grew up in an interfaith home and have always felt drawn to Jewish community, culture, and practice. I felt especially moved by Judaism’s commitment to social justice. As I’ve become an adult, I’ve wanted to develop a deeper connection with my Jewish community and forge a Jewish identity. One of the opportunities most frequently presented to me was Birthright, a free, 10-day educational trip to Israel for diaspora Jews.
I decided to go on the trip after much thought and reflection. With all the violence in the region this spring, when Israeli soldiers killed more than a hundred nonviolent Palestinian protesters and injured some 17,000, it felt crucial to engage with my own community about Gaza, the occupation, and other complexities surrounding Israel. Birthright seemed like an excellent opportunity. But when I got there, I quickly realized that Birthright was not open to conversation about the recent violence or the ongoing occupation.
While Birthright promises an apolitical chance to connect with both Israel and one’s Jewish identity—in 2012, it described itself to Haaretz as “a mainstream, nonpartisan, apolitical organization”—it does not deliver. This is unsurprising, since there is no way to engage with Israel, or any place, without exploring its political realities. Politics are always present, no matter how hard you try to avoid them. They are in the language people use, the facts they choose to tell, the stories they weave in and the stories they leave out—and the language, facts, and stories, both spoken and unspoken, that we heard during our trip all pointed toward a troubling, pro-occupation interpretation of events.
If, for instance, I or another participant asked a question about the West Bank, our tour guide would respond by calling it “Judea and Samaria.” (The phrase “Judea and Samaria,” which harks back to the Bible, has its roots in the settler movement and effectively—linguistically—claims the region as Jewish.) When he revisited the story of the founding of Israel, he claimed that “quote-unquote Palestinians” didn’t exist back then and instead “created a nation that was never there” after the fact. And when our bus drove for miles alongside the separation wall that locks Palestinians in an open-air prison, our guide ignored it, only acknowledging it on the second-to-last day, after we pressed him to identify it. Throughout, he refused to answer—or certainly did his best to avoid answering—basic questions about Israel’s military control over an entire people, instead justifying settlement expansion on terrorism and the biblical presence of Jews in the region.