Are you thinking about attending a Birthright trip? If you’re a Jewish college student, you’ve probably heard about the ten day free trip to Israel. Since 1999, Birthright Israel has organized trips for young Jews with the intention of, “ensur[ing] the future of the Jewish people by strengthening Jewish identity, Jewish communities, and connection with Israel.” This year, members of Jewish Voice for Peace are choosing to #ReturnTheBirthright, and refuse a Birthright trip in protest of Israel’s oppression of Palestinians. JVP is also protesting outside Birthright’s 18th anniversary gala in NYC on December 3, where far-right Republican megadonor Sheldon Adelson will be given the ‘Guardian of the Jewish Future’ award for his work funding Birthright trips.
As a Birthright alum, I welcome this campaign, and encourage people to attend this action. When I attended a Birthright trip in 2008, I didn’t see the harm in signing up. I was skeptical about the trip as propaganda, but I thought there was nothing unethical about going as long as I didn’t volunteer for the IDF or visit settlements. I even thought the trip could give me valuable context to help shape my political analysis. What could be the harm in attending a trip that could be informative, even fun? If this is how you’re thinking about Birthright, then I am writing from the future to tell you, “Don’t go!”. Here are three reasons to #ReturnTheBirthright, and to protest on December 3rd.
1. Birthright Israel downplays Israel’s occupation of Palestine and discrimination of non-Ashkenazi Jewish citizens. Over the course of your Birthright trip, it is unlikely that you will see anything that feels off. You probably won’t witness Palestinians being detained or stopped at checkpoints. You probably won’t see demonstrations by right wing groups that incite violence against Palestinians. When you do see non-Jews in Israel, you probably won’t interact with them except as props in a tourism scene. You may see a Palestinian shopkeeper in a market or stay in a Bedouin tent, but you probably won’t engage with them on a deeper level.
Birthright Israel carefully constructs its encounters with non-Jews to frame Israel as a diverse democracy while avoiding information and conversations that reveal unsavory aspects about the state. These encounters are often shallow and do not shed light on the systems of discrimination that affect Palestinians and other non-Jews in Israel on a daily basis.
Not seriously engaging with Palestinians prevents trip attendants from understanding fundamental political context for the place they’re visiting. 20% of Israelis are Palestinian citizens of Israel. In addition, nearly 4 million Palestinians and Syrians live in areas controlled by Israel via annexation and military occupation. This is a significant proportion of the population directly and indirectly governed by Israel, yet Palestinians are mostly erased in Birthright’s framing of Israel.
As a graduate student at the University of Michigan, I think of it this way: The population of metropolitan Detroit is 20% African American. Imagine a 10 day tour of the Metro Detroit area that avoided visiting areas that were majority Black or perspectives that centered the Black experience in Detroit? What would you think of this trip? Do you feel like your understanding of Detroit’s politics and history would be comprehensive? Do you think your experience in the area would be authentic? I think many people would call a trip like this irresponsible and significantly imbalanced, if not racist.
Birthright trips also gloss over inequality and racism toward non-Ashkenazi Jews. Your trip may celebrate the diversity of Israeli Jewry, but it will likely not acknowledge the history of brutal tactics to assimilate and marginalize Mizrahim. It will also likely not learn about Ethiopian Jewish struggles with racism, including police brutality and wage discrimination.
After I went on Birthright, I went back to Israel-Palestine and lived in East Jerusalem for four months. During that time, I became keenly aware of how my Birthright trip strategically avoided areas of Jerusalem that would have complicated an otherwise positive and uniform portrayal of the city. I realized that we were often feet away from settlements in the Old City, Mount of Olives, and East Jerusalem, but never knew it. When I realized the extent to which my trip hid the theft of Palestinians’ homes through violence, intimidation, and legal maneuvering, I felt angry and betrayed by Birthright. I thought my trip was dishonest in not showing me these facts when I was in Jerusalem. If Birthright wants Jews to engage with Judaism and Israel in a meaningful way, it needs to do so by presenting the truth.
I recognize that not all Birthright trips have the same itinerary. Some do address social and political inequalities in Israel and the occupation. However, this is not the norm, and it’s not a priority for Birthright Israel. When asked how Birthright Trips can provide an Israeli narrative without giving an Arab viewpoint, Birthright Israel CEO Gidi Mark replied, “For better or worse we only have 10 days…we have to take something out.” If Birthright is trying to show an accurate depiction of Israel, it should be able to find some time within 10 days to center perspectives from a group that comprises 20% of the population. Birthright’s recent decision to suspend trips that provide experiences with Israeli Arabs provides further evidence of the organization’s disinterest in honestly confronting political realities in Israel-Palestine.
2. Palestinians don’t get to go on a trip like Birthright even though they have direct connections to the land within Israel’s borders. This point rings especially true for me when I think of a colleague from a previous job, Raed Jarrar. Raed recently traveled to Israel-Palestine in order to attend his father’s funeral. Israeli officials questioned Raed about his work with Amnesty International and denied him entry. Israel prevented Raed from grieving for his father while simultaneously allowing entry for his non-Palestinian colleague crossing with him.
There are countless stories like Raed’s for Palestinians trying to enter Israel. Meanwhile, experiences like these for Jews are incredibly rare (though they happen). This is because Palestinians are not recognized by the state of Israel in the same way Jews are. Palestinians in Israel face a plethora of discriminatory laws. These include: not recognizing Bedouin villages, prohibitions on Palestinian residency in Israeli communities, perception of Palestinians as a “demographic threat“, and laws that criminalize public recognition of Palestinians’ forced displacement in 1948. This is to say nothing about those living under occupation in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem, or the annexation of the Golan Heights.
The existence of a program like Birthright — and the absence of a Palestinian equivalent — is one manifestation of a deeply inequitable power dynamic between Jews and Palestinians. As a Jewish state, Israel fundamentally privileges Jews over everyone else within its boundaries. The same is true for any state that centers one ethnic or religious group over all others. I realize that this is an uncomfortable statement for many in the Jewish community to read. In making it, I want to stress that I do not think Jews have no legitimate connections to the land of Israel. Jews absolutely have deep religious, historical, and personal connections to the land–historical and contemporary. However, fostering those connections should not come at the expense of Palestinians, who also have incredibly deep connections to the same land.
3. Forfeiting a Birthright trip is recognizing the difference between intent and impact. Whether a Birthright participant has intentions to join a settlement movement or the All That’s Left anti-occupation collective, their participation in the program reinforces the interests of the state and right-wing organizations that shape Birthright programming.
As a student of social work, I’ve learned about the concept, “intent vs. impact.” People with the best of intentions can still act harmfully, even if they don’t mean to. This concept is invaluable for informing how people can act compassionately and justly towards one another.
Looking back, I realize my participation in Birthright had a negative impact. The attendance of hundreds of thousands of Jews on Birthright trips gives legitimacy to state-based discrimination and violence in Israel by not meaningfully engaging it. Birthright Israel can point to the number of Jewish young adults attending their trips and conclude nothing needs to change about their trips. Regardless of any one participant’s intentions in attending Birthright, in the end we all have the same cumulative impact. We all contribute to the program’s covering up Israel’s oppressive policies toward Palestinians. The most powerful thing we can do to challenge things about Israel we don’t agree with is vote with our feet. It’s more powerful to refuse a free trip than to hold an intention of critical engagement while attending.
As you think about plans for winter break, please think twice before you sign up for a Birthright trip. Instead, sign the pledge to #ReturntheBirthright, and join JVP in protesting Birthright’s gala on December 3. I know it’s hard to turn down a free trip to a country in a Mediterranean climate when it’s getting cold outside. I know it looks fun. I know that without Birthright, travel to this part of the world can be cost-prohibitive. But please, think twice. Look for other ways to support your travel if it’s important for you to go. And if you do go, seek out trips that center critical Israeli and Palestinian organizations. Or, consider a trip to another place connected to your Jewish history and identity. While it may be more difficult to turn down a trip like Birthright, know that you’re making an ethical decision, one that you can look back on and not feel conflicted about. Take it from me. If I could go back in time, I absolutely would #ReturnTheBirthright.
Daniel Kaplan is a member of Jewish Voice for Peace and a graduate student at the University of Michigan School of Social Work.