Birthright participants say they were booted for ‘asking about the occupation’

After program enacts new guidelines to prevent ‘hijacking of discussion,’ three American Jews say they were kicked off the bus for arguing over Israeli narrative

Illustrative. Young American Jews participating in a Birthright event in Jerusalem. (Dudi Vaknin/ Flash90)
Illustrative. Young American Jews participating in a Birthright event in Jerusalem. (Dudi Vaknin/ Flash90)

A Birthright Israel participant said she and two others were kicked off the program recently, after confronting their guides with questions about Israel’s control of the West Bank and its treatment of Palestinians.

Emily Bloch of Boston wrote in the Forward on Monday that questions she and others had raised about Israel’s West Bank security barrier while driving by it escalated quickly into an argument over the trip’s openness to alternative perspectives.

Participant Shira Leah later wrote on Facebook that the trio did not accept their guide’s assertion “that the entire conflict is caused by crazy violent Palestinians.”

Bloch said, “Two hours later, I stood on a street corner in Tel Aviv with two other participants, watching our trip’s bus drive away without us.”

Wow. I was just kicked off Taglit-Birthright Israel this morning, along with two other people, because when we drove past the border separation wall between Israel and the West Bank (which our tour guide had ignored all 4 times we drove past it), we tried to ask questions about it and didn't accept his answer that the entire conflict is caused by crazy violent Palestinians.I am devastated by Trump's policies of family separation, detention of children, and building a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border because it goes against all of the values I was taught growing up n my Jewish community, where my mom was the Rabbi. It is unfathomable that I would be asked to stay silent when we see the same thing happening in Israel. Clearly this is a bribe, not a gift. #NoSuchThingAsAFreeTrip #NotJustAFreeTrip

Posted by Shira Leah on Sunday, December 23, 2018

The trip’s leader told them that “we were no longer welcome on Birthright because our questions about the Occupation were making other participants uncomfortable,” she said.

Bloch said she belongs to IfNotNow, a group of young American Jews opposed to Israel’s presence in the West Bank which has been staging protests and walk-offs on Birthright tours.

In light of the growing phenomenon, Birthright recently updated its contract to say participants are banned from efforts to “hijack a discussion or create an unwarranted provocation.”

Bloch said she was “shocked” by the decision to boot her from the trip. It “showed me that Birthright is not here to facilitate discussion or invite young Jews to develop a complex, nuanced relationship to Israel. They want unwavering support for a political agenda.”

Birthright, in a statement, said: “When activists aggressively disrupt the experience of the other participants then, like in any organized group experience, we have to ask them to leave regardless of their agenda.

“Birthright Israel always welcomes participants’ views and questions, which are essential to the success of the experience, so long as they are shared in a constructive and respectful manner,” it added. “We will not condone any coordinated plans to ruin the experience for others in order to promote a specific agenda.”

Birthright, which has brought more than 650,000 young Jewish adults aged 18-26 on 10-day trips to Israel since 1999, tries to get Diaspora Jews to identify with Israel. On the trips, they tour the country’s highlights and meet young Israelis, including soldiers, who ride with them on their tour buses.

The walk-offs have sparked a debate over whether Birthright has a responsibility to grapple with Israel’s control of the West Bank. Guides have said they do make an effort to represent a range of opinions on the tour — including Palestinian views — and are happy to answer questions.

In August, Birthright Israel co-founder and billionaire philanthropist Charles Bronfman said that young Jews were free to criticize Israel — but not while enjoying a free trip.

“If people want to call Israel names and say bad things about the country, they certainly have the right to free speech. But they don’t have the right to do it on our nickel,” he told the Haaretz newspaper.

Bronfman said participants on Birthright can extend their trip and join any kind of group they want, or travel on their own to Palestinian areas.

“If they want to go to the West Bank or Gaza, they are certainly free to go,” he said. “What is not fair is making a big tzimmes [fuss] while the trip is on. Frankly, I just don’t think that is fair to their fellow participants.”

JTA contributed to this report.

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