The Birthright program brings young Diaspora Jews to Israel for a free, 10-day trip in a clear attempt to indoctrinate the unindoctrinated. While Birthright’s agenda is right wing, it sometimes has the unintended effect of pushing ambivalent or inquisitive Jews to the left.
Diaspora Jews on a Birthright trip. Might one or two of them be pro-Palestinian activists in the making? (photo: flickr/GregTheBusker)
There is a term for a specific– and increasingly robust– subsection of Jews among the American Left: PEP, or Progressive Except Palestine. PEPs are consummate liberals: they recycle, champion minority rights, protest religious incursion into politics, and denounce far-flung oppressive regimes. Yet they remain curiously tight-lipped in all matters relating to Israel (or else unapologetically hawkish). As one PEP friends has put it, “I’m liberal in America, but when it comes to Israel’s security I’m to the right.”
To what do we owe this rampant strain of political schizophrenia? For many young Jews, the answer is Birthright Israel. The mammoth foundation– the 22-year-old brainchild of a pair of Canadian-American philanthropist tycoons– sends tens of thousands of young Americans on ten-day trips through the Holy Land every year. Trip providers vary: they can be secular or spiritual, or cater to niche communities. Only one Jewish grandparent qualifies you, and since prior group travel to Israel is an immediate disqualifier, participants profiles’ tend to be fairly similar: nonreligious, left-leaning, uninvolved, questioning. Ripe for conversion, they take to Judaism (and, more importantly, to Israel) with startling vigor, and return loud-and-proud ambassadors for the Zionist cause, memories of starry desert landscapes and alcohol-fueled shabbat singalongs compromising their political acumen.
As Jordan Brower, 26, recalls, “they sneak the propaganda in.” According to him, it’s part of Birthright’s “sophisicated psychological regimen.” Jet-lagged, homesick, short on sleep, reeling from overpacked itineraries, participants become “emotionally raw,” and turn to each other for support. The experience fosters a powerful feeling of familial intimacy among peers, which manifests as a sense of oneness with the Jewish state. On my own Birthright trip in 2010, one participant– a Ukrainian-born New Yorker– used the pronoun “we” to refer to Israel’s army when asking about conflicts with Syria. Visibly moved, our Israeli tour guide interrupted his lecture on the Golan Heights to warmly congratulate her. The moment came at about the halfway mark of the trip, and helped crystallize our Birthright-backed transformation from passive, observant bodies into willful state accomplices.
But many young Jews are bucking the trend, becoming more critical of Israeli policy as a result of their state-sponsored sojourns, and even parlaying their trips into extended jaunts through the Occupied Territories. So-called “Birthleft” trips help flesh out an all too sketchy political picture, providing a counter-narrative to Birthright’s rigidly pro-Israel script. While many Birthlefters opt to travel and volunteer solo, others team up with an expanding number of organizations– Green Olive Tours, Alternative Tours, and Breaking the Silence, to name a few– that offer day and even week-long Palestinian excursions. For countless Birthright alumni, such trips are life-changing.
Melissa Cetlin, 23, didn’t initially care about the Middle East. “It wasn’t a place I wanted to visit.” But her 2010 Birthright trip convinced her to return: “I saw all these great parts of Israel and I didn’t see any of the bad parts.” She signed up for a program through MASA, an organization that uses government funds to bring Diaspora Jews to Israel for extended periods. After several months of living as a full-time resident of Jaffa Cetlin began to see the cracks in Israel’s system.
On a whim, she joined Breaking the Silence on a guided tour of Hebron, where her growing disillusionment was cinched. She remembers standing with the group in a park and learning that it was strictly off-limits to Palestinian residents, even though many of their houses overlooked the grass. “I realized the magnitude of the situation,” Cetlin says. “It’s really segregation, like the South was before Civil Rights.”
Later that day, she was astonished to see a small Jewish schoolboy sprint down the street while a pair of Palestinian children looked on from a caged window (many Arab residences in Hebron are barred as a protection against settler violence.) Says Cetlin, “Since coming back to Israel, I’m really glad that I’ve been able to open my mind and let [my views change]. On Birthright they don’t teach you about settlements. They don’t teach you anything. It’s pure hasbara [Israeli propaganda].”
While some group leaders welcome dissenting voices, even trips billed as “pluralist” still serve to reinforce the political status quo.
But the Birthright agenda can often backfire. Such was the case for Josh, 29, a California-native whose best friend back home is Palestinian. He was nonetheless unconcerned with Israeli state policy until his 2008 Birthright trip with Israel By Bike. Josh extended his ten allotted days, hobnobbing with hipsters in south Tel Aviv and meandering on his own dime through Ramallah, Bethlehem, and Hebron. “It was a bit awkward to switch hosts so quickly,” he remembers, “but it drove home the amazing […] similarity of the two peoples.”
While Birthright Israel succeeded in instilling in him a sense of familial obligation, Josh’s newfound feeling of responsibility gave him what felt like free reign to criticize; the country’s actions were, after all, now a reflection on him. “Now I feel like Israel is a relative of mine, and so I judge its actions more harshly inside the family.”