Culture, Identity, Israel, Religion

The Birthright Readjustment

Martha, my friend from a well-loved past life, went on a Birthright trip this past June.  We met up on her way through New York from Boston to JFK. She was anxious about her impending adventure, anticipating propaganda and a space closed to multiple and alternative narratives. “Ask your questions,” I said, as we waited for her airport shuttle near the Sbarro’s on 34th street,  getting drizzled on from above by what we both hoped was an air conditioner. “Don’t pressure yourself to feel a certain way.’ Then she got in the van, and I got on the subway. In the time Martha and I had known each other, we’d talked about Israel a lot,  I’d told her my experience with Birthright (at this point, I’d been once or twice and had yet to staff a trip, now I’ve been five times and staffed three trips), we’d evaluated what we perceived to be its merits and challenges, and I suggested a trip provider for her, the one she was about to travel with. For the sake of our relationship and the next 10 days of her life, I hoped she was going down a path that would be right for her. Since she came back, we’ve been talking a lot, mainly about how hard it is to return and process things like politics, identity, and Zionism when the experience is still so raw, and what it means to be in relationship with a place that makes you crazy.
Martha:  Why does no one talk about how amazingly difficult the first week back is? Everyone I’ve talked to from my group is having a hard time.  None of us are sleeping well and we’re all waking up in the middle of the night confused.
Me: I told someone once when I came back that it’s like losing your luggage, except your luggage is your brain and your heart. It’s interesting that you’re not explicitly prepped for how emotional the reentry can be. I never want to make people feel like they’re not feeling the “right” things in Israel, or about it, so maybe that’s why I’ve never talked about it when I staffed. I mean, I talk about how I feel, but I don’t want to create pressure for others to feel that way, but perhaps that’s not possible. Do you think your shock/adjustment stuff has to do with your politics being influenced? Or is it largely emotional? 
Martha: The political is emotional. For other people it might be more just about emotions, but everyone goes on Birthright for different reasons and for me it was in large part because I wanted to understand the politics better. That has meant that for me a lot of what I am processing is political. I had a pretty good feeling that the trip would influence my spirituality and Jewish identity and I was able to think about it ahead of time — not that those haven’t also been an adjustment, but they didn’t surprise me. I went into the trip wanting to be open to letting my spiritual and cultural identity get shaped. I think the trip is designed to create emotional response and even though I had my guard up and was trying to keep a critical lens, it did affect me emotionally, though I didn’t start to realize that until we were in Jerusalem at the end of the trip. Still, I don’t think I cried as much as other people and I don’t think I cried as much as I would have if I wasn’t trying to be so analytical .
Me: Do you think this is a culture shock? How is it different from the way you’ve felt after returning from other places?
Martha: I don’t feel culture shock about Israel in the same way.  I’ve traveled a lot and I know what culture shock feels like for me,  but this is completely different. What I’m feeling now is more confusion, like how can I love somewhere that’s so messed up, but still so amazing and beautiful? I loved the places I saw and the people I met.  How do I integrate Israel’s policies with my own very liberal politics? How can I support Israel while also condemning some of its government’s policies? What does it mean to support Israel and be a liberal American? How can I learn more about Israeli politics and history when everything I can find is contradictory? What does this experience mean for my spiritual identity and cultural identity? Should I just join go and join J date?
Me: Okay, I have to ask about your relationship to Zionism.
Martha: Has it changed? I’m not sure. When I was in college my very wise Hillel director {that well loved past life I mentioned above was when I was the Jewish Campus Life Lady at Oberlin, M’s alma mater} told me that Zionism  doesn’t mean that Palestine shouldn’t exist, it just means Israel should. I still think that. I wanted to be able to go on Birthright and learn without changing who I am and what I care about.  I don’t support everything the IDF is doing, but based on conversations I had with people, I understand more about why they feel it is necessary. But as a fairly (uber?) liberal, my Facebook friends are more likely to post statuses in support of the Flotilla than they are about the housing crisis in Israel. (Our interview took place before the housing protests had reached the pitch of the past few weeks and before they’d breached the ears and eyes of the American media.) It’s not like I’m uncritical of Israel’s government and policies now, but to a certain extent I feel like I can now discuss things better. I think that’s one of the biggest tangibles out of the experience; while I don’t necessarily support the politics and policies, I can better understand why they exist and I’m better prepared to admit that I don’t know everything and that there’s nothing black and white about the entire situation. This is the case with everything I’ve been processing, not just Zionism. I actually think that my relationship to Zionism has been one of the easiest piece of the trip to process because it hasn’t really changed.
Me: You and I have talked about our difference in experiences with the Israelis on the trip, I’ve said that I haven’t really felt that closeness with the soldiers on the trips I’ve staffed. I usually attribute that to being a staff member, and also, how freaked out I am about how bad my Hebrew is.  Talk about why you think it was different for you.
Martha: I think there are two pieces to that. First off, I barely knew any Hebrew before the trip and didn’t set any expectations for myself about learning any. Given my past experiences with people whose dominant language isn’t one I speak, I’m also pretty comfortable figuring out ways to make things work linguistically. Our Israelis’ English was impeccable though, and they were really good about giving us recaps and then including us when they would occasionally would switch to Hebrew.  The second part is that our Israelis were incredible and just like the Birthright information says, having them with us was a highlight of the trip. They became fully-integrated into the group and after they left the bus felt much emptier. I miss them and wish it was as easy to make plans to see them as it is with the American group members. My trip was also 25+, so most of the Israelis were students or graduates and no longer involved with the IDF. I don’t know if perhaps being in more similar places in life may have also made it easier to get to know each other.
It’s now been two months since her trip, and we continue to process. As a friend of ours said, “Welcome to the Israel-Fucks-You-Up-Club.” (We have very smart friends.) Martha had planned stay in Israel after the trip was over, to travel around the country and to the West Bank, but because of plane schedules, she couldn’t. “When I realized I wasn’t going to be able to stay, I practically broke down,” she told me. Every day there’s something in the news, it seems, and the intellectual, emotional and political work of being engaged with Israel is relentless. exhausting and complicated, to say the least. Martha said, “It’s easier for me to focus on the political situation, because it’s more external. The spiritual and the identity pieces are a lot harder to figure out because they take soul searching and an internalized focus. “

5 thoughts on “The Birthright Readjustment

  1. None of us are sleeping well and we’re all waking up in the middle of the night confused.
    That’s not surprising. If this was the 25+ group we’re probably talking about a group of people that includes not a few lawyers, doctors, grad. students, social workers, teachers and financial sector employees(if this group is representative of the American Jewish community).
    How could such a group handle a ten-day trip to Israel, in which they weren’t exposed to Israel’s myriad of problems? My heart goes out to them; most will probably need long-term counseling to recover from this brainwashing.
    Thank God, I never went on Birthright, so I’m still able to pick up the New York Times and read about all of Israel’s shortcomings–that’s something a Birthright grad. will never have the emotional strength to do after getting his free glass at the Golan winery.
    When we’re talking about the larger American Jewish community, a community that’s produced a disproportionate amount of professors, writers, movie makers, doctors, lawyers, journalists . . . and not to mention 12 US Senators (I think) and 3 Supreme Court Justices . . . how could such people stand a chance when exposed to the 10-day-Birthright experience?
    I guess it’s up to the rest of us to try to find some truth in this world.

  2. Wow, A 10-day trip, and people are freaked out like that? There must be some pretty serious mind-manipulation going on.
    I did a year program with a Zionist youth group 40 years ago, and while they did some indoctrination, they were very open with us about teaching us and showing us the various social problems in the country. I think it was because they were encouraging us to make aliyah, and they wanted us to be able to do it with our eyes open, so we wouldn’t get disillusioned and return home. Sure it was a life-changing experience for me, but then, it was my first experience in being in a foreign country, and on my own a lot of the time, at that.

  3. I went three years ago. I am probably close to Martha politically, maybe a smidge to the left. I felt confused for a couple months, but once you get back into real life and aren’t being forced through emotional experiences or being denied sleep, your sense of reality comes back. My opinions didn’t change, when all is said and done.
    It was pretty weird that some of my busmates got pretty worked up about moving to Israel and joining the army… I couldn’t help but feel they had been brainwashed. Some of them were downright militant by the end of the trip.

  4. for many generations- i think (project) that being a jew was a pretty central part of people’s daily life and conception of themself… In our generation and culture for most Birthright participants- it’s not. Then for ten-days it is… I know it’s brainwashing and all that stuff too… but it’s also facing a lot of real stuff. Most people process things by wavering from the extremes- so it seems natural and i don’t think its all in all the worst thing to raise these questions to folks. I’m generally a big critic of the whole enterprise- but reading martha and me’s conversation felt like a rich, real important and good thing, b’zchut birthright

  5. “Everyone I’ve talked to from my group is having a hard time. None of us are sleeping well and we’re all waking up in the middle of the night confused.”
    Well, millions of Americans and other foreigners have visited Israel and returned unscathed and cognitively functional. Maybe she should find some of these people and ask them how they did it.
    Also, adequate sunlight exposure is said to be a good remedy for jet lag and it doesn’t induce confusion as a side effect.
    “As a friend of ours said, “Welcome to the Israel-Fucks-You-Up-Club.”
    Hmmmmm…. with due respect to these friends, maybe it should be “Welcome to the Israel-is-a-Real-Country-That-Doesn’t-Fit-Into-My-Prebaked-Ideology-Club”?
    It’s a real country with millions of real citizens with real lives. If you feel “F****d up” maybe the issue that needs to be addressed is within you and not the trip or society you’re visiting….
    “Every day there’s something in the news, it seems, and the intellectual, emotional and political work of being engaged with Israel is relentless. exhausting and complicated, to say the least.”
    I’m sure Martha’s emotions are earnestly felt, but please — there are millions of Israelis and others who are “engaged with Israel” every day, and manage to live lives and have relationships that (gasp!) look normal!
    How do they pull of this astounding feat of being “engaged with Israel” while retaining the energy and mental resources to study, work, innovate, give charity, cook food, have children and go to the gym??? Are they superheroes?!
    With due respect, I think there’s a bit of melodrama here that needs to be overcome before Martha (and others of this supposedly flabbergasted Birthright group) can get outside of their heads and have a real relationship with the place.

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