This summer, groups of young Jews have been staging walk offs from their Birthright trips, leaving in political protest. The wave of walk offs began on June 28, when a group of five women affiliated with the group IfNotNow walked out on the last day of their Birthright trip.
Birthright, as you may know, is an organization that provides free trips to Israel for young Jews that began in 1999. Philanthropists founded the trip to “address the growing divide between young Jewish adults in the Diaspora and the land and people of Israel,” and the goal is, according to Birthright’s website, to “ensure a vibrant future of the Jewish people by strengthening Jewish identity, Jewish communities and connections with Israel.”
We’re here to break down what these walk offs mean, and what the varied reactions have been from the Jewish community.
Walk offs 101
The first walk off happened in late June. Live-streamed on Facebook with the caption, “#Birthright wouldn’t show us the occupation so we are going to see it for ourselves,” one woman, Bethany Zaiman, can be heard saying, “I just wanna let you know that there’s a group of us on this trip who’ve been asking questions and trying to engage, and we have not been able to do that. And as a result, the five of us will be leaving. As we get off the bus, we’ll be going on a trip with Breaking the Silence to learn about the occupation from the perspective of Palestinians and IDF soldiers.” (Breaking the Silence is a group founded by IDF veterans who have “taken it upon themselves to expose the public to the reality of everyday life in the occupied territories.”) Becky Wasserman, one of the women who walked out on the first trip, told Newsweek that Birthright’s “lack of nuance and omission of so much” are what led her to walk off.
Some of the participants in the walk offs were involved with IfNotNow, an organization dedicated to ending American Jewish support for the Israeli occupation of the West Bank. For IfNotNow, the walk offs are part of a recently launched campaign, “Not Just a Free Trip,” which aims to show that Birthright “hides the truth about the Occupation.” Sarah Brammer-Shlay, rabbinical student and IfNotNow spokesperson, told Alma, “the walk-off participants reached out to IfNotNow when it was clear they weren’t going to get the truth from Birthright, and IfNotNow helped support these Birthright participants by connecting them with Palestinian communities and Israeli organizations committed to showing them what Israel’s 51-year long Occupation of the Palestinian people has done to deny both Israelis and Palestinians freedom and dignity.”
Formed in 2014, IfNotNow has become a political force. As New York Magazine points out, “especially in the wake of the Birthright walkout, IfNotNow has become perhaps the most-talked-about activist group in Jewish American politics.” Brammer-Shlay told Alma, “The thirteen individuals who walked off their Birthright trips all were seeking the same thing: an honest education about what’s happening in Israel/Palestine, which simply must include education about Israel’s military rule over millions of Palestinians. Each of the thirteen people wanted to learn more about the occupation and to let other young Jews know that while Birthright claims to be an apolitical organization, their right-wing political agenda is clear. Birthright trips do not honestly grapple with the occupation nor do they take a stance against this immoral violent system.”
In a video that went viral on the “Now This News” Facebook page, a Birthright participant, Elon Glickman, who was part of the second group of walk offs, confronts his tour guide. He starts by saying, “It feels like the equivalent of like going to the Jim Crow South during segregation and like not talking about segregation.” He asks why the West Bank is not shown on the map. (It actually is shown and labelled, just not very clearly.) The tour guide responds that “the West Bank is part of the state of Israel.”
Another walk off participant, Risa Nagel, wrote in the Huffington Post about her decision to leave her trip. “While I was learning about the occupation’s role in destroying the lives of innocent Palestinian children and families,” Nagel writes, “Birthright was teaching young Jews a rosy narrative intended to obscure the Israeli government’s military control over millions of Palestinians.”
Many are tweeting using the hashtag #NotJustAFreeTrip (again, organized by IfNotNow), sharing their Birthright experiences and opinions on the walk offs. (The fire emoji, 🔥, in someone’s handle seems to mean they are affiliated with IfNotNow.)
Interesting that out of touch Jewish “leaders” care more about courageous young Jews who walk off @birthright waisting Sheldon Adelson’s $$$ than they care about Palestinian lives.
One of the many moral catastrophes from our community around the Occupation.#notjustafreetrip
— בער 🔥 (@bear_peretz) July 16, 2018
when I asked my tour guide during Birthright if we would meet Palestinians he said that "wasn't the point" of the trip bc it was about our Jewish identity & culture, not the "conflict" (AKA the occupation)… #NotJustAFreeTrip https://t.co/ghAiDZ97fb
— Jocie S (@Jocie63) July 17, 2018
Social media is key to these walk offs. They’re expertly staged, with the activists reading from prepared statements, and the viewer sees the reactions of the other Birthright participants. The second walk off was also live-streamed on Facebook:
In tandem with the walk offs, IfNotNow — along with partner organizations like Na’amod (British Jews Against Occupation) — is organizing “Birthright sendoff” gatherings at airports, where they attempt to educate participants about the Occupation.
— Na'amod: British Jews Against Occupation 🔥 (@NaamodUK) July 15, 2018
These walk offs are not the first to protest Birthright. Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) mounted a campaign called “Return the Birthright” late last year (with a corresponding hashtag, #ReturntheBirthright), where they encouraged young Jews to reject the free trip to Israel. Notably, Birthright co-founder gave JVP protestors the finger outside a gala dinner. JVP, according to their website, “opposes anti-Jewish, anti-Muslim, and anti-Arab bigotry and oppression,” and they are a leading advocate of the BDS movement.
In a statement to Alma, a Birthright spokesperson said, “We respect the ability of all participants to formulate their own views and opinions, and engage in productive and respectful dialogue. However, we will not tolerate any attempts to use this experience to promote ideological agendas. Our program provides educational enrichment and embraces thoughtful discussions on many subjects. We will not allow this effort to be taken over by those motivated to engage in a political campaign given our commitment to providing a non-political educational experience.”
Birthright rescinded the participants’ flights back to America, as per their policy for anyone who leaves the trip before it ends, causing the walk off participants to crowdfund their way home.
The wider Jewish community’s reaction
Many wonder if it’s Birthright’s responsibility to show participants the realities of Israel.
As one writer, Allison Kaplan Sommer, opines in Haaretz, “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 a dumpster while loudly denouncing it, is not an attractive sight.” Another writer, Bethany Mandel, agrees: “The campaign’s hashtag betrays just how entitled and oblivious they and the walk-off participants are about the nature of Birthright. Despite its inclusive name, Birthright is not obligated to provide bespoke Israel trips to Jewish Americans tailor-made for their unique political points of view.”
Basically, these critiques revolve around the idea that the activists are “spoiled” and “entitled” and do not need a Birthright trip to spoon-feed them their own political beliefs.
On the other hand, as Batya Ungar-Sargon writes in the Forward, “The vitriol surrounding the walkouts is stymying. How can one ‘steal’ a gift? Isn’t one entitled to wish for a complete picture of Israel, even on a free trip?” Ungar-Sargon further points out that the real anger behind the Birthright walk offs is the larger schism between the American Jewish community: “Terrified that liberal Jews are abandoning Israel, the pro-Israel community found a perfect scapegoat: young Jews turning away a gift.”
Similarly, Benjy Cannon writes in Jewish Currents, “If you don’t think walkouts are an effective tactic, fine. But arguing that they’re ethically wrong because they rely on the ‘misuse’ of philanthropic dollars is obsequious. One of the purposes of the activists’ actions was to disabuse anyone of the notion that this money is just a ‘free gift.’ These protesters used their comparably limited power to redirect these dollars, quite literally, from helping to uphold the occupation into a critique of it. Protesting Birthright effectively means protesting the system that created it, and that requires challenging the donors directly, on their own turf.”
Criticism from the Left
Yet another criticism revolves around why they even went in the first place. The Boycott, Divest, Sanction (BDS) movement — a movement intended to isolate Israel from the global community, but often unfortunately swerves into anti-Semitism — resoundingly critiqued the activists.
Many criticize the participants for “crossing the picket line” (by which they mean Israel).
Cool but how about these activists stop crossing the picket line all together and boycott this blatantly discriminatory trip in the first place? You really don’t have to go “see the reality of the occupation for yourself” to believe it. https://t.co/I1a8pod2vs
— Tamara Nassar (@TamaraINassar) July 15, 2018
I am not convinced that IfNotNow is allied with our liberation. These protests do not centralize Palestinian stories. Palestinians are featured, but the narrative centralizes white, privileged Jews NOT MARGINALIZED PALESTINIANS, not those who SUFFER DAILY under occupation, https://t.co/xqLQZHDNhP
— Alice Awad (@revolutionartsy) July 17, 2018
People will continue to go on Birthright, protestors will continue to protest, and the Jewish community at large will have many, many opinions. In other words: business as usual.