The Elephant on the Bus

Shortly before I ended my sophomore year of college, I found myself in my advisor’s office with an important question:
“How can I participate in an activity when I profoundly disagree with much of its goals?”
You see, I was just about to leave for my Birthright trip, a free trip to Israel–all expenses paid–intended to strengthen the bond between young American Jews and Israel. I’d signed up because a lot of my friends were going, the Birthright coordinator at my school is one of the sweetest people I’ve ever met, and I wanted to get back to Israel after having been there for a teen tour at the age of 17.
Yet I had a lot of second thoughts. Since my last time there, I’d educated myself about the complex realities of the conflict. I understood that Birthright trips seek to promote an image of Israel among American Jews which, in addition to being dangerously inaccurate, disregards Israel’s democratic character in favor of promoting exclusionary nationalism. I am extremely proud of my Jewish heritage and believe the Jewish people have the right to self determination in our ancestral homeland. However, I find it difficult to reconcile myself with a conceptualization of Jewishness that contradicts both the Jewish values I grew up with and the progressive values I have come to cherish.

My advisor, who studies both Middle Eastern politics and ethnic conflict around the world, gave me a fantastic answer which I definitely should have thought of before (but didn’t due to my agonizing over the ethics of participating in Birthright):

“Try to learn something from it. Ask difficult questions if necessary.”
Needless to say, I followed her advice. On the first day of the trip, our group was hiking in the north of Israel and our tour guide pointed out that the nature reserve we were in was just the top layer of the site’s long history. I took the opportunity to ask what the nature reserve had been before it became a nature reserve. After all, it sat alongside abundant water. A perfect location for a village. My tour guide gave me a non answer, confirming my suspicions. Something had been here that would tarnish the unblemished view of Israel that Birthright wanted to inculcate among participants. Clearly, questions which might lead to the tarnishing of that view were not welcome.
From then on, I decided to keep my mouth shut and my eyes and ears open. Our bus drove by what looked like the ruins of Arab villages in the north left behind by fleeing Palestinians in 1948. We passed the Separation Barrier in Jerusalem. We even walked through East Jerusalem on the way to an archeological site. All presented excellent opportunities for discussion and dialogue about the conflict. What happened at most were empty monologues from the adults in charge about how Israel is the only Jewish state and must be protected from its numerous enemies. The one-dimensional message was an insult to the participants’ intelligence. If Birthright was serious about educating young American Jews about Israel then the program would teach us about Israel’s complexities and contradictions in addition to its’ triumphs. Instead, these became an ever-growing elephant on the bus. We all knew they were there. I don’t think I was the only one who sought them out purposefully. Yet they remained undiscussed.
Other Birthright participants may have had a different experience; their trip may have provided a more nuanced narrative. However, conversations I have had with many other Birthright participants suggest that my experience was the norm rather than the exception.
It’s not only an insult to our intelligence but also incredibly disrespectful to young American Jews to assume that if we discover that Israel is not a utopia we will abandon it. We grew up in communities which emphasized the importance of Tikkun Olam, or healing the world. Since Israel is our own, Jewish, nation state, we have all the more reason to heal it in accordance with Jewish values. However, we cannot begin unless we have a firm understanding of the realities we must confront. Birthright provides an excellent opportunity to introduce us to these realities. We are smart enough and committed enough to handle them.
Let’s take the elephant off the bus. Let’s have a conversation.

2 thoughts on “The Elephant on the Bus

  1. I felt that people that wanted the “truth” or more about the current state asked about it. They took the time to talk to other participants, the Israeli soldiers that joined our trip, the tour guide (later in the night when the tours were over). People get what they put into it. It is a free trip and a blessing for all involved. The purpose of the generosity is to illustrate Israel’s beauty, in hopes that some may stay or serve in the IDF. The fact that they give you a chance to extend for almost no money is another opportunity to learn everything you want and not in a one sided fashion. The opportunities are there for those that want to explore and learn. You get out what you put in…

  2. I wholeheartedly agree. Very well written. I find that same elephant invading other Jewish experiences in the US too – even dinner discussions.

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