Adelson’s money and his presence at events like the program’s mega-event has, justified or not, created a connection between his hard-line, right-wing Israel agenda and — even more disturbing for young American Jews — his tremendous financial and political support of President Donald Trump, which has tainted the organization for many.
Birthright Israel has done its best to stay above the political fray ever since its founding in 1999. Like most major institutions, though, in these divisive times it is losing the struggle to remain detached from deep political differences. Over the past months, it has been targeted directly by young activist Jews, angry over what they believe is the program’s refusal to deliver a balanced message to its participants regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The activities have ranged from protests against the Birthright gala in New York, to leafleting Birthright participants boarding their flights to Israel, to the high-profile walkout of five female participants toward the end their trip to Israel last Thursday, opting instead to join a Breaking the Silence tour in Hebron.
This last event kicked off what the activist group IfNotNow predicts will be a long, hot summer against the program.
[Avrum Burg has served as speaker of the Knesset, Jewish Agency chairman and interim president of Israel.]
Birthright, like every other Hasbara project, is a practice in augmented reality. It is Israel’s attempt to talk the talk without walking the walk, to be perceived as a liberal democracy while imposing a military regime on Palestinians in the territories and expanding settlements in the West Bank, all so the international community and world Jewry support — or at least don’t interfere with — what Israeli conservatives see as Israel’s real birthright: controlling the lives and future of millions of Palestinians.
Last week, five participants of Birthright walked out on the program and straight onto a tour of the segregated city of Hebron with IDF veterans from Breaking the Silence, where they saw what Birthright desperately tried to hide.
They saw the checkpoints, the streets Palestinians aren’t allowed to walk on and the caged windows that protect Palestinians from settler violence.
Their strong actions were followed by strong words as they urged fellow American Jews to refuse to cooperate with pro-occupation propaganda like Birthright: “It is morally irresponsible to participate in an institution that is not willing to grapple with reality on the other side of the wall. That’s why we’re on our way to Hebron now,” they wrote in a statement.
“Like a lot of you, I came on this trip to be in a community with fellow Jewish youth and to learn. I really valued a lot of the experiences I’ve had. We have not been able to do that and as a result, the five of us will be leaving as we get off the bus and will be going on a trip with Breaking the Silence to learn about the occupation from the perspectives of Palestinians and IDF soldiers.”
— Birthright participant Bethany Zaiman
Five American Jews, who were visiting Israel as part of the Birthright Israel program, ditched the trip yesterday in protest. Instead of continuing on with the trip’s planned itinerary, on the eighth day of their trip the five Americans joined Breaking the Silence, an anti-occupation army veteran’s group, on a tour of Hebron.
One of the five Americans who walked off the trip, Sophie Lasoff, 24, insisted they did not know each other prior to their trip to Israel and had not planned to join Breaking the Silence. Instead, the five “wanted to give Birthright a chance,” says Lasoff. “We didn’t want to do something like that, but we felt that it was the right thing to do.”
I was always concerned about the brainwashing that’s built in to [Birthright] trips.
But I also believe in young people’s hearts and minds; I believe that awareness and exposure can change mindsets. I insist on meeting Birthright groups, I insist on speaking to people who disagree with me.
Birthright is reportedly ordering their trip providers to stop meetings between their participants and Arab citizens of Israel. In their own words, “there is a need for further analysis of this module.”
I read these lines over and over again and could not trace my thoughts fast enough. My responses went from laughing out loud, to wanting to smash the nearest available wall, to being entirely unsurprised.
“Further analysis” on how and if to meet Arabs?
Maybe they mean to say Birthright participants should meet only the properly vetted and defanged “good pro-Israel Arabs,” because they’re scared delicate Birthrighters might be exposed to critical thought? After all, what a disaster it would be to raise a generation of Jews who dare to think critically about Israel. Continue reading “Birthright is so scared of Arabs, it has banned them!”
Birthright’s conviction that its participants should not encounter Palestinian citizens is a troubling sanitization — one that does justice neither to young Diaspora Jews nor to Israel itself. Rather than ask American Jews to face Israel in all its complexities and contradictions, Birthright has chosen to offer what one congressman once described to me as “Disneyland Israel” after a trip by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee that met with no Palestinians.
So they will never know Wadeea.
This was the thought that came to me as I read the disappointing news that Birthright has chosen to end meetings with Arab citizens of Israel, who make up one-fifth of Israel’s population. Birthright’s official statement explained that “there is a need for further analysis” of such meetings before they can proceed.
Wadeea and I met in his hometown of Kafr Qasim, a city of Palestinian citizens of Israel, t2 miles east of Tel Aviv. Wadeea heard I was from New York, and he wanted to make sure I knew how much he hated the Knicks. I challenged him to a game of one-on-one. We found a court between Kafr Qasim and Rosh HaAyin and played well past dusk. The next time I was in Israel we smoked hookah, watched Barcelona beat Madrid and discovered that we both write fiction. Continue reading “Why doesn’t Birthright believe in Israeli democracy?”
“We will not go on a Birthright trip because it is fundamentally unjust that we are given a free trip to Israel, while Palestinian refugees are barred from returning to their homes. We refuse to be complicit in a propaganda trip that whitewashes the systemic racism, and the daily violence faced by Palestinians living under endless occupation. Our Judaism is grounded in values of solidarity and liberation, not occupation and apartheid. On these grounds we return the Birthright, and call on other young Jews to do the same.”
The controversial pro-Palestinian advocacy group Jewish Voice For Peace has launched a campaign to convince young Jews not to participate in Birthright Israel trips, just as college students are returning to campus and registration for the winter visits gets underway.
Under the slogan #ReturnTheBirthright, JVP is working to convince 18-to-26-year-old Jews eligible for the all-expenses paid 10-day tours to reject the tempting offer.
Birthright Israel sends Jewish young adults on a free ten-day trip to Israel with the goal of strengthening Jewish identity and connection to the Jewish state. The trips are funded through a partnership between the state of Israel and a group of North American donors. The original funders of the program were Michael Steinhardt and Charles Bronfman, but in recent years, Sheldon Adelson, casino billionaire, Republican mega-donor and supporter of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, has showered $250 million on the program, becoming the its largest benefactor.