Over the past few years, I’ve been asked by my Jewish peers if I’ve gone on or plan to go on a Birthright trip. I’m 21 years old, so this makes sense, as I’m the age of many participants. But, in its current state, I do not feel comfortable going on a Birthright trip.
My relationship with Israel is complicated to say the least, and I’m certainly not alone. Politically and in general, I approach any issue with an anti-violence mindset. This ranges from fighting gendered violence that I’ve experienced on a college campus, to anti-black police racism, to what I perceive to be excessive force from the Israeli Defense Force.
I’m nervous even talking to people about the latter part. I’ve often been called a “self-hating Jew” and have had my Jewishness questioned after I’ve shared my criticism of Israel’s policies. This confuses me greatly, as I’m just as critical about the United States and its military, but I’ve never been referred to as a self-hating American or had my American identity questioned. I also don’t like being accused of supporting Hamas when I express my support for Palestinians – because I’m not a supporter of Hamas. The two aren’t mutually exclusive.
I’ve always wanted to visit Israel, but, unfortunately, due to costs, I haven’t been able to go. This is a reality for many diaspora Jews. I’ve lightly entertained going on Birthright in the past, but the knowledge that the Israeli government funds a large portion of the trip has dissuaded me each time. I’ve been disgusted with many Israeli policies, like Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s deportation of refugees, when many Jews have died because they were denied refugee status, like during the Holocaust.
Between criticism of Israel to the Birthright trip themselves, I know I’m far from alone from being the only American Jew to feel this way. Many leftist Jewish organizations have launched campaigns over the past year or so criticizing Birthright for its attempt to stifle dialogue about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. J Street launched a #LetOurPeopleKnow campaign to advocate for Palestinian voices and experiences to be heard on trips, Jewish Voices for Peace (who define themselves as anti-Zionist) initiated a #ReturntheBirthright campaign to encourage people not to participate, and If Not Now launched a #NotJustAFreeTrip campaign to encourage Birthright to “tell the truth about the Israeli occupation.”
So did Birthright listen to these criticisms of its trips? Nope, and in fact, recent changes seem to reflect they are moving in the opposite direction. According to the Forward, Birthright recently added a clause against “hijacking a discussion” in its Code of Conduct. This seems to be in response to a series of walk offs from members of If Not Now last summer, one of whom claimed that “#Birthright wouldn’t show us the occupation, so we are going to see it for ourselves.”
Just this past December, three Birthright participants were reportedly kicked off their trip for asking questions about a wall that separated Israel and Palestine. This doesn’t seem logical or very Jewish to me. For my entire life, I’ve always had discussions about Judaism and oppression, mostly how my ancestors had to go through horrors for me to be here today. I don’t see why it’s a problem to discuss current oppression that Palestinians face today in the context of the Jewish state. By stifling conversations, Jews who are critical of the Israel government and IDF like myself are starting to feel disconnected from Israel, which is sad.
When criticisms of Birthright come up, a common rebuttal is that the trip is free, so we shouldn’t complain. Birthright promotes itself as a heritage trip, not a political one. But Birthright is making its trips inherently political by seeking to limit dialogue around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. They should at least be honest.
As a young Jew, I want to be able to visit and learn more about Israel’s history and culture, but only if it’s an accurate representation, not propaganda. Birthright should to more to highlight the reality of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and avoid placing limits on discussion. Until they do, I’ll be sitting this free trip out.