Birthright Killjoys

By Tracy Naschek

Growing up as an American Jew, I did not question that I would one day travel to Israel with Birthright and was not taught that there was anything to question about Israel itself. As I grew older, I came to understand that one of Birthright’s main intentions was to spread Israeli propaganda to young Jews like myself, although I was still not sure what the propaganda consisted of. Meanwhile, I remained tempted by the free trip to a country in which I could celebrate my Jewish culture and heritage with fellow Jewish people, especially as someone living in a country with a growing rate of anti-semitism and surrounded by a shrinking number of Jewish people upon leaving my hometown. 

Although I am no longer religious, Judaism remains inextricable from my life. When I’m not with my family for the holidays, I play dreidel with my non-Jewish friends during Hanukkah. I have been brushing up on my Yiddish because it has some hilarious vocabulary. Upon meeting new observant friends, I regained my appreciation for the religion’s tradition of questioning and discussing complexities. And I have increasingly been inquiring about the history of my great-grandparents’ immigration, determining at what point the anti-semitism in Europe was too great to remain in Poland. As it turns out, that irrational hatred dates back eons before the Holocaust.

In Trump’s America, it's becoming increasingly uncomfortable to embrace my Judaism. His white supremacist and white nationalist policies and rhetoric are creating an environment that invites, among many forms of hate, anti-semitic crimes of all calibers, from the Pittsburgh and Poway Synagogue Shootings to the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville. And yet, his support for Israel under the suggestion that criticism of Israel is anti-semitic has always confused me. His apparently adamant support for the Jewish people does not align with his otherwise white nationalist agenda.

Recently, I discovered accounts of the participants who walked off Birthright this year, which shed light on the contradiction within this claim. These participants are the most recent examples of a number of American Jews, who have been questioning the itinerary and agenda of Birthright trips. Each of these participants share individual variations of similar stories.  Some previous participants were kicked off for inquiring about Israel’s military occupation of the West Bank, which barrier their bus passed multiple times without recognition from the trip leader, and asking if they would hear a Palestinian perspective on the conflict. More recently, the participants who walked off this year questioned why Birthright’s maps of Israel did not separate the West Bank from Israel. Although the trip leader responded that Israel recognizes the West Bank as part of Israel, international law recognizes it as Palestinian territory

Birthright trips avoid the discussion of Israel’s military occupation of Palestine, specifically in the West Bank and in Gaza. Under military occupation, Palestinians are subject to separation from their jobs, family, food and water, as well as subject to home demolition, relocation and death. Additionally, Israeli laws, such as the Law of Return and the Israeli Nationality Law, often deny Palestinians their homes, citizenship, and basic human rights throughout the entirety of Israel-Palestine. Israel has also constructed a wall, which it claims acts as a security measure, although the wall divides some Palestinians from their jobs and family members rather than Israeli territory from the West Bank. It is this wall from which Trump draws inspiration for his own proposed wall between Mexico and the US. 

Birthright claims it is an “apolitical” organization and that one of the trip’s aims is to “understand the country’s current political, cultural and economic realities.” Despite the contradiction in its claims that it is somehow both apolitical and seeks to understand the political realities of the country, it achieves neither of these goals. Instead, Birthright tells “Israel’s side,” which, as Americans, is already the only side we know. In order to tell this polished narrative, the organization disseminates false maps, forbids participants from speaking to Palestinians or Arab-Israelis and sends participants home for questioning the political realities of the country, breaching one of the most valued principles in Judaism. Not only are Birthright participants told a singular narrative, but they are also being denied all other ones.  

Some of the most concerning pushback I’ve seen from the American public in response to these participants divulging their Birthright experiences are statements such as, you knew what you were getting into when you went on Birthright. You knew who was paying for it. You shouldn’t have gone on Birthright.This rhetoric is disturbing because it suggests that Birthright participants should turn an apathetic eye towards the human rights crisis underway in Israel-Palestine. This pushback is both a contradiction to the Jewish value of social justice and the tradition of engaging our own inherited trauma to help those in need, exemplified by the #JewsAgainstICE protests

Other popular pushback aligns with Trump’s suggestion that criticizing Israel is inherently anti-semitic. This notion predates the recent Birthright controversy, but continuing to conflate the two is harmful and undemocratic. This logic is specious because it reinforces current foriegn policy in the US, uncontested economic and military support for Israel, and fails to address the problem that anti-semitism predates and surpasses the founding of Israel. This logic benefits powerful lobbies such as AIPAC, US arms manufacturers, from whom Israel purchases a majority of its arms, and other US industries who prioritize their economic interests. As a result of this logic, the American public opinion is siding with what they understand as the pursuit of human rights when in reality our foriegn policy provides the economic and military support that is fueling the human rights violations of Palestinians. This conflation also seems to suggest that the only way in which Jews may escape widespread anti-semitism is to support discriminatory laws against other groups of people, which is truly a horrific platform for all Jewish people to be synonymous with. As Anna Baltzer summarizes, “There is nothing Jewish about occupation and discrimination, and there is nothing anti-Jewish about speaking out against them. In fact, it is offensive to claim that criticism of human rights abuses is criticism of Judaism, which equates the two.” To be clear, anti-semitism is the irrational hatred of Jewish people. Anti-semitism is not supporting Palestinian human rights.

The actions of recent Birthright participants, as well as the support for Palestine that US Congresswomen like Rashida Tlaib and Ilan Omar express has sparked debate about the human rights crisis in Israel-Palestine, which a claim of that nature often undercuts. However, their concern for Palestine is far from radical, except in the context of American politics. In fact, public UN resolutions show that a majority of the world agrees that international intervention is necessary in order to thwart human rights violations in Israel-Palestine. It is worth noting that the minority of dissidents of these proposals (US, Canada, Australia) are also the countries whose existence is contingent upon repressing and relocating their own indigenous populations. Although these Congresswomen, recent Birthright participants, and organzations that support peace for Palestinian people face backlash for their criticism of Israel, they are all critical of powerful institutions and individuals, whose power is intertwined with human rights violations in Palestine. Therefore, their stances are not against the human rights of Jewish people; they are in favor of human rights for all people. 

In contrast, Birthright speaks only for the Israeli government, which exclusively concerns itself with the rights of Jewish Israelis. Though the government may act in favor of its Jewish residents, it does not necessarily act in favor of Jewish values, of many Jewish people’s respect and concern for their neighbors, or in the name of freedom and dignity for Palestinians. The Israeli government does not speak for all Jews, for all Israeli people, and certainly does not speak for Palestinian people. It speaks for itself and Birthright assists by placing a microphone below its lips, a microphone that reverberates throughout the world. 

Many question if it is even the responsibility of the Israeli government and Birthright organizers to discuss the conflict from any perspective other than Israel’s. The prevalence of this question alone illustrates Birthright’s power, which is the ability of the organization to perpetuate the narrative that touring and moving to Israel is the right of all Jewish people, meanwhile Israeli laws deny citizenship and basic human rights to the land’s own indigenous population in order to accommodate that promise. While their narrative is not a just one, there will be no reason to alter it without pressure from previous proponents. Both Birthright and the Israeli government should be held accountable, but as a main ally of Israel’s, the pressure to provide different information about the conflict must come from the US. If and while Birthright will not speak for anyone but the Israeli government, American people, politicians, and public figures must be the ones to hand the microphone to Palestinian people and their supporters. 

The significance of this incomplete narrative extends beyond American Jews who travel with Birthright because a majority of American citizens learn and accept a similar narrative. IfNotNow, a movement that is dedicated to holding Birthright and Israel accountable, articulates one reason for disseminating a Birthright narrative from an American Jewish establishment perspective:

“The out-of-touch leadership of the American Jewish establishment tells us - young Jews who believe all people should have freedom and dignity - that our values are incompatible with our tradition...We know their view of Israel and the Palestinians is shaped by the history of Jewish oppression and Jewish suffering and Jewish death. We also know that those who act as if we are a people without power condemn us to accepting what we cannot accept: that we must always live by the sword, that we will always be hated, that we are condemned to live in conflict for all eternity. Their pain has curdled from fear into hate.”

In light of this, the movement suggests an alternative path for our generation, reinterpreting fear as fuel for solidarity rather than division: 

“We too are scarred by our people’s trauma. Our families are their families, and our grandparents their parents. We understand how trauma has caused some in our community to interpret history to mean that the world is against us. But we interpret our past differently - as a lesson that our freedom cannot be achieved absent the freedom of our neighbors.”

This shift recognizes the historical trauma and the present fear of violence and hate in our own community, but engages with that as motivation to drive out all hate. So that we may fight against anti-semitism in addition to fighting for human rights, freedom and dignity for Palestinian people. This shift is not one in which we discard concern for Israeli citizens. Rather, it means joining people-- Palestinian, Israeli, American, Jewish-- who question an uncritical dedication to Israel, a country whose prosperity we know is currently contingent on the death and inhumane conditions of fellow human beings.