The Western Wall, one of the holiest sites in Judaism’s holiest city, exudes a power unlike anything I have ever experienced. Whether that originates from a truly spiritual source, an appreciation of the structure’s cultural importance or the excitement of the hundreds of people around me as I prayed before it—I am not sure. What I am sure of is that visiting Jerusalem was one of the most profoundly spiritual experiences of my life, one that will stay with me until the day that I die. It is one in which every Jewish person should have the opportunity to share.
Birthright Israel, a non-for-profit Jewish organization started in 1999, provides free 10-day trips to Israel for young Jewish people from all around the world. Their goal is to lessen the divide between vastly disparate Jewish Diaspora and Israel. Since its founding, the organization has sent over half a million young adults from 66 countries to Israel. (Birthright Israel, “FAQ”).
My particular trip, organized through Mayanot Israel, an organization that works closely with Chabad, provided us with a rounded view of the country that included visiting religious sites, interacting with the culture and exploring nature. We also engaged in frank discussions about the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. We met with a Palestinian man who described his treatment by the Israeli Defense Force (IDF), as well as spoke with retired Colonel Miri Eisin, a former IDF spokesperson and political advisor to Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.
As of late, Birthright Israel has come under fire by If Not Now (INN), a Jewish organization devoted to ending the Israeli occupation of the West Bank. Unlike the explicitly anti-Zionist Jewish Voice for Peace and Students for Justice in Palestine or the in-name Zionist anti-occupation organization J-Street, INN avoids definitive stances on Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS), Zionism or Palestinian statehood. Instead, INN operates as a big tent—it’s inclusive of anyone who opposes war and occupation (If Not Now, “Our Principles”). Recently, they have been gaining some support, in part because of their appealing “we’ll take everybody” approach to activism that lets the organization mitigate concerns of extremism among moderates while also allowing them to serve hardcore anti-Zionists.
INN accuses Birthright Israel of deliberately hiding the occupation and erasing Palestinians in its presentation of Israel and the Jewish experience. They also take issue with its funding source, accusing it of largely being bankrolled by Sheldon Adelson, a conservative billionaire known for his support of Donald Trump and other right-wing causes (If Not Now, “When Did You Realize Birthright Was Not Just a Free Trip”). INN seems to have overlooked the fact that there are over 14,000 donors who support the program and that most of the money comes from a variety of Jewish agencies, not just from Sheldon Adelson (Birthright Israel, “Partners”). Adelson is little more than an especially generous contributor, and although he donates a lot of money, he is only one of many people who has given to the program.
Some INN activists have gone so far as to stage walkouts in opposition to Birthright’s narrative about the occupation. Rebecca Oliver, who participated in one such walkout, said of the experience, “This is a real rare opportunity for us to listen and learn and take a stand against endless occupation and for freedom and equality” (The Times of Israel, “8 left-wing activists stage 2nd Birthright walkout in less than a month,” 07.15.2018). The narrative was that these activists had stood up to the establishment norm that was hiding the Palestinian narrative and took matters into their own hands, risking their safety (and forfeiting their $260 deposits) in order to do so.
This is a warped narrative. It does not at all match my own personal experiences with Birthright. During my visit, we engaged head-on with difficult conversations about the occupation. As I remember the difficult and uncomfortable questions that we posed to Israelis whom we met as well as the IDF soldiers who accompanied us on the trip, it is not only baffling but also insulting that these activists suggest that Birthright was merely trying to indoctrinate us. It seems to me that, had they been on my trip, they could only have reached that conclusion by refusing to actively engage with the material they were confronting. According to The Times of Israel, the activists on the second major walkout did not meet serious opposition from the staff or other participants, and the tour guide clearly explained to them the security concerns that prevented the entire group from traveling to East Jerusalem. They were even encouraged to seek out other narratives after the end of their Birthright experience, which they declined to do in favor of a walkout (The Times of Israel).
Birthright students also challenged the narrative of those who left in another major walkout. They wrote, “The rhetoric flowing from select group members…quickly became unreasonably aggressive and directed at our tour guide, who never avoided the topic, silenced their speech, or seemed to take offense at their disregard for his perspective. He answered each question calmly, patiently, and to the best of his ability, providing an extraordinarily neutral view of the conflict and acknowledging his bias as a former IDF soldier when necessary” (Haaretz, “IfNotNow Hijacked Our Birthright Trip,” 08.08.2018).
The tour guide even scheduled a geopolitical discussion with a Middle Eastern history professor, specifically to challenge traditional views of Israel and the occupation. But because of the walkout, the students were never able to engage with this professor (Haaretz). The activists did not merely walk out of a free trip; they walked out of a valuable conversation. And in doing so, they deprived themselves of the opportunity to better understand the conflict.
Therein lies the issue with If Not Now and their opposition to Birthright. These activists aren’t unhappy with Birthright because they silence left-leaning perspectives on the conflict—they’re unhappy that Birthright is not blindly validating the narrow-minded, pre-set worldview of a few uneducated activists. I’m not going to sit here and pretend that Birthright is perfect or that there are no possible ethical issues with the program. There is an ethical dilemma in our ability as Jews to return to the Jewish homeland while Palestinians or others with roots to this land are denied the same opportunity. However, the difference between INN and me is that I showed up for the conversation.
When I brought up these issues—which I did on more than a few occasions—Birthright always addressed my concerns in an open and honest way. I didn’t always like the answer, but I was present to address it. I didn’t come to Birthright with an agenda and then walk out because the trip didn’t entirely validate my worldview. With a political climate surrounding Israel that is based on bitterness and division, I fail to see the logic in trying to shut down the conversation.