Aren’t Birthright trips apolitical? What’s wrong with taking a fun, free trip to meet other Jews and connect with your heritage?
Birthright is not apolitical. For starters, Birthright’s largest funders are the state of Israel and far-right Republican megadonor Sheldon Adelson (who will be honored at Birthright’s upcoming gala). Accordingly, Birthright trip agendas are carefully constructed to present an imaginary, propagandized portrayal of Israel, to erase the existence of Palestinian life, and to shore up support for Israel’s occupation, apartheid and denial of the right of Palestinian refugees to return.
The absence of substantial Palestinian encounters or perspectives on Birthright trips reflects the degree to which the program constructs an impression of Israel not grounded in reality. 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. Yet Birthright trips never expose Jewish participants to Palestinian life or perspectives. The Detroit metropolitan area is 20% African American. Can you 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? Many of us would call a trip like that irresponsible and significantly imbalanced, if not racist.
So what do the trips leave out?
Most Birthright trips gloss over Israel’s half-century-old occupation of the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem, by denying, downplaying or avoiding entirely all evidence of the occupation during the trip. For example, one Birthright participant wrote that “when I lived in East Jerusalem for four months, 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. When I went back, I realized that we were often feet away from settlements in the Old City, Mount of Olives, and East Jerusalem, but never knew it.”
In addition, Birthright trips never address the plethora of apartheid laws within Israel that discriminate against Palestinians in nearly every aspect of life. 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. Palestinians also face a fundamentally different experience traveling to Israel, including humiliating security screenings and a significant chance of denied entry.
Nor do the trips acknowledge the millions of Palestinian refugees who are barred from returning to their homeland. Like most of the American (and Israeli) Jewish community, the assumption behind the vast majority of Birthright trips is that the land of Israel was once ‘a land without a people for a people without a land’. It is hidden from participants that, in fact, over 750,000 Palestinians were ethnically cleansed from present-day Israel during what Palestinians call ‘al-Nakba’ in 1948.
A just peace requires recognition of the harm done over decades of displacement and dispossession. Birthright moves Jewish communities farther from this recognition, by obscuring the reality of past and present Palestinian dispossession and promoting, instead, the idea that Jews around the world have privileged ownership over the land and state.
For more testimonies, from participants, of how Birthright trips erase the existence of Palestinian life and Israel’s occupation, apartheid and denial of refugee rights, see here and here.
Why is it problematic that Birthright is designed specifically for Jews?
Palestinians don’t get to go on a trip like Birthrighteven though they have direct connections to the land within Israel’s borders. This is because the state of Israel privileges the rights of Jews around the world to immigrate there, while denying the rights of Palestinian residents or those in diaspora.
Palestinian refugees, and their descendants, who were driven from their homes during the 1948 Nakba, the 1967 War and the waves of Israeli settlement activity since then, should have the right to return, to visit, and to live in the places their families lived in for centuries. It is fundamentally unjust that Israel’s Law of Return extends a ‘right to return’ to any Jew around the world, regardless of their personal familial ties to Israel, while denying the right to return to Palestinians, whose families have lived there for centuries.
Ultimately, the existence of a program like Birthright is one manifestation of Israel’s fundamental privileging of Jews over everyone else within its boundaries.
Why boycott Birthright entirely? Why not go on Birthright, but be careful to ask tough questions and maintain a critical perspective? Or why not go, and then go visit the West Bank and protest the occupation?
Forfeiting a Birthright trip is a direct challenge to privilege built on dispossession and injustice. Whether or not a Birthright participant has intentions to be critical on the trip, or to protest a settlement or join an anti-occupation collective after their trip, their participation in the program reinforces the interests of the state and right-wing organizations that shape Birthright programming. The most powerful thing we can do as individuals is vote with our feet. It’s more powerful to refuse a free trip than to participate.
There are other ways to visit Israel/Palestine and act in solidarity with Palestinians. Here is a list of alternative trips to Birthright.
Do you really think Birthright trips will end anytime soon?
We believe that a seismic shift is taking place in the American Jewish community. Numerous reports have shown that around the country, Jewish college students and young Jews across the religious and cultural spectrum are becoming increasingly alienated from Israel for a number of reasons, including frustration with Israel’s unending oppression of Palestinians and its rightward drift on social issues.
Now is the time to demand that our communities act in accord with Jewish values of justice, and end their support for the oppression of Palestinians. Our #ReturntheBirthright campaign opens vital conversations we need to have, amplifies calls for justice for Palestinians, and weakens the hold that mainstream institutions like Birthright have on Jewish identity.
And now is the time to envision and build a future where Palestinians have equal rights, and where American Jews can travel to the holy land without reinforcing power dynamics of privilege and oppression.
If not through Birthright, how else can young American Jews foster Jewish identity and community?
On campuses and communities across the country, young American Jews are building vibrant alternative Jewish communities aligned with our vision of a just world. From JVP chapters, to ritual and community spaces like Alt-J at Tufts and Nishmat at the Claremont Colleges, these communities show how we can build joyous, liberated Jewish identities and communities, grounded in ritual, culture and action, here in America where we live.
Instead of giving millions to Birthright, American Jewish philanthropists could support Jewish life here in America, including Jewish communities that have a critical orientation to Israel, or no orientation at all. They could support powerful, meaningful education and engagement with Jewish history, spirituality and culture in all its depth and breadth, free from a right-wing agenda. They could support heritage trips to historical sites in the Jewish diaspora, or progressive Israel/Palestine immersion programs, like Achvat Amim, that have lost funding from the Jewish establishment for their co-resistance work.
The task of fostering a meaningful Jewish identity in 21st century America is complex. But one thing is clear- American Jews deserve better than a trip funded by ultra-right wing donors, on stolen Palestinian land, to help us build a strong Jewish identity.
What about a Jewish religious connection to the Land of Israel?
We are not asking Jewish people to renounce the rich breadth of cultural and spiritual relationships we have held to the land of Israel for millennia. We are asking Jews specifically to boycott the Birthright Israel program, in light of the present-day state of Israel’s ongoing occupation, apartheid, and denial of refugee rights.
Israel is a modern nation-state, and the ideology of Zionism which undergirds it springs from a modern political movement. Both are distinct from such concepts as Eretz Yisrael (the Biblical land of Israel) and Ahavat Yisrael (love for one’s fellow Jews) that have animated our people’s religious experience for centuries. Rejecting the idea that we have a special right to travel for free to this land, while others who have family & history there cannot, does not negate those relationships.