When I signed up to go on Birthright this summer—a 10-day fully funded program for Jews to tour Israel—I hoped to learn more about Israel/Palestine from multiple perspectives. Besides seeing the Western Wall and celebrating Shabbat in Jerusalem, I hoped to speak with both Israelis and Palestinians, to hear their stories and get a complete picture of Israel in 2018.
But instead, Birthright offered me one-sided political propaganda, refusing to let me learn about the experiences of Palestinians living under occupation. That’s why I walked off the trip.
Going in, I hoped to hear at least some of the truth about the occupation, and I was disappointed to learn that Birthright would carefully, meticulously sidestep the occupation—even going so far as to drive past the West Bank without saying a word about it. I was also disheartened to see Birthright explicitly exclude Palestinian perspectives from their programming. For many young Jews, Birthright is an entry point to identifying with Judaism and their first interaction with Israel. And yet 50,000 young Jews go on Birthright each year and return not having talked to a single Palestinian—and often not even knowing that the occupation exists.
The truth is, Birthright pushes this pro-occupation agenda because it’s mostly funded by the Israeli government and far-right American donors. Sheldon Adelson, a right-wing philanthropist who has given $200 million to Birthright, also gave the singlest biggest political donation to a presidential inaugural ceremony ever when he contributed to Donald Trump’s in 2017. Birthright won’t show us the occupation and take a stand against this violent system because Birthright is literally invested in maintaining the status quo.
It’s because of this backing that Birthright pushes its ideology, a tactic I observed firsthand. Birthright handed out maps that referred to the West Bank as “Judea and Samaria.” And not only did Birthright not allow us to visit any Palestinian sites or homes—Birthright has a policy of not allowing Palestinians to speak to their tours. When I expressed concern about this, I was told that our bus driver was Bedouin—as if that were somehow sufficient representation.
I was raised in a Jewish tradition that is founded on asking tough questions and confronting difficult truths. As a leader in the Progressive Jewish Alliance at Harvard, I helped push for Harvard Hillel to host an anti-occupation Seder, because I believe Passover—like so many other Jewish traditions—calls on us to seriously grapple with the meaning of freedom in justice in our world today. In Boston, I have found a community of Jews who are guided by principles like tikkun olam and who actively gather to question the status quo and speak out.
That’s why I made the choice to walk off the trip, along with seven other participants spanning two different Birthright trips. We needed to see the reality of the occupation and hear a Palestinian perspective, and because we needed to stand up and make it clear that the one-sided political agenda Birthright was pushing was not our Judaism.
Our peers on the trip were supportive of our decision to walk off, applauding us as we went to meet with the Sumarin family. The heads of Birthright, on the other hand, immediately canceled our flights and called us threatening to sue. Their reaction to our efforts to see the truth about the occupation shows just how out of touch they are with their own participants.
After walking off the trip, I saw a side of Israel that Birthright would never have allowed me to see. I traveled to Khan al-Ahmar, a Bedouin village that is facing demolition. With Breaking the Silence, a group of anti-occupation former Israeli soldiers, I took a tour of Hebron, the largest Palestinian city, in which 850 settlers live protected by 400-500 soldiers and police—and in the name of security, Palestinians are subjected to military law (while Israelis are under civilian law) and are even banned from traveling on certain streets. While there, I was subjected to harassment and intimidation by settlers—one man stood over us and filmed us, calling us dogs, and adults actively encouraged a child to throw paint in our tour guide’s face. The soldiers who stood around us as we were being harassed were unable to stop the settlers: They can only enforce military rule on Palestinians, and not Israelis. If Birthright had had its way, I would not have known about demolitions, settlements, or Israeli military control of Palestinians.
I came to Israel-Palestine for the first time on Birthright, and like the thousands of other Jews visiting the region for the first time on Birthright trips, I wanted to see what’s really happening in Israel, and that includes the occupation. Young Jews, who are increasingly questioning the damaging and violent acts of Israel, deserve the truth.
Birthright has a responsibility to educate its participants about Israel. That means telling us the truth about the occupation and the daily nightmare that is Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.
All of us can make the simple choice to stand up and hold Birthright accountable, whether by researching Birthright’s donors, asking tough and meaningful questions on a Birthright trip, or walking out if Birthright refuses to show its participants the honesty we deserve. All of us can start here and now, by adding our names to the petition calling on Birthright to tell the truth about the occupation. You can sign at actionnetwork.org/forms/not-just-a-free-trip.