As we approach winter break, many Jewish Vassar students, along with Jewish young adults around the world, are considering taking advantage of what seems like an amazing opportunity: a completely free trip to Israel as a part of the Taglit-Birthright program.
This program, using hefty donations from both the Israeli government and private Zionist organizations, offers an all-expenses-paid trip to Israel for Jewish people between the ages of 18 and 26.
Once in Israel, students are treated to a wide variety of experiences, including nature excursions, visits to holy sites, and chances to meet and hang out with members of the Israeli Defense Force their own age.
On the Taglit-Birthright Israel website in the FAQ section, a question many of you may have now is posed: “This gift sounds too good to be true— what’s the catch?”
Unsurprisingly, Birthright’s answer is simple: there is none. In reality, the answer is a bit more complicated than that. The phenomenon that is Taglit-Birthright is part of a huge body of policies relating to and instituted by Israel which afford rights based solely on ethnic and religious grounds. Not only are Jews around the world allowed to take advantage of Birthright, but those wishing to become Israeli citizens need only to prove that they are Jewish to be welcomed into the country.
At face value, this seems like a great thing–a no-questions asked safe haven for an ethnic group that has been repeatedly marginalized and attacked throughout history. But these rights and opportunities are only available at the cost of the rights of others. During the Israeli War of Independence in 1948, about 750,000 Palestinians were forced out of their homes and fled the country as refugees.
Today, the number of Palestinian refugees has ballooned to about five million and their existence has been referred to by the UN High Council on Refugees as “the largest of all refugee problems in the world today.”
While Jews such as myself, who have no direct connection to Israel whatsoever, may “return” to the land deemed to be that of their people, these refugees may not.
Young adults in Gaza, the West Bank and refugee camps across the Middle East pine to return to their parents’ homeland and struggle to survive and flourish in a world where they do not have freedom of movement and self-determination, while we, as young American Jews, are literally being paid to take their place.
This is the catch Taglit-Birthright fails to mention, and this is the system you are taking advantage of by participating in their program. I know that many of my Jewish peers, including those who are sympathetic to the plight of the Palestinians, feel a strong urge visit Israel.
To you, I say this: travel to Israel in a different capacity. There are many different types of Taglit-Birthright trips to go on, but all are funded by the Israeli government and consequently will show you a biased picture of the situation in historic Palestine.
I understand the desire to visit Jerusalem, to swim in the Dead Sea, to slip your prayers into the cracks of the Western Wall. But it is our responsibility as informed, conscious young adults, who have only gotten to Vassar because of our capacity for critical thinking, to find the more complete and nuanced reality in experiences that seems too good to be true.
Taglit-Birthright will show you the wonders of the state of Israel, but they will not show you its ugly side. You will not see the occupied territories. You will not see the millions of refugees. It is a crime to travel to one of the most conflict-ridden spaces of the modern world and see only the lives of the privileged. If you must travel to Israel, it is crucial that you get a more complete picture than Birthright will offer–options of trips that will allow you to do this include Birthright Unplugged, Interfaith Peace-Builders and Extend.
Birthright Unplugged’s mission statement reads, “Israel has denied Palestinians the internationally recognized right of return for refugees… thereby excluding millions of Palestinians from living in the land in which they were born.”
Over the past several years, we have focused our work in order to support Palestinian led non-violent campaigns that seek to pressure Israel to comply with international law. As Jews, we feel a strong pull to join our people in a country where we are welcome and feel like we belong. As college students, a free trip to the Mediterranean over winter break is nearly irresistible. But as Vassar students, I think we are smart enough to know better. Jewish young adults did not ask for this birthright, but we are granted it nonetheless. All we can be held responsible for are our own actions and decisions. In taking values of anti-racism and anti-imperialism seriously, I encourage fellow Jews to consider the implications of accepting this “gift.”
The folks at renouncebirthright.org have an open letter to Taglit-Birthright that I encourage you to sign, and in doing so, renounce your racist birthright. If you are not ready to do this, please at least learn more about the program being offered and what you support by taking part in it.
—Noah Myln ’19 is a student at Vassar College.