Left-wing participants stage Birthright walkout to attend West Bank tour
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Left-wing participants stage Birthright walkout to attend West Bank tour

Five women affiliated with IfNotNow leave trip early on final day to visit flashpoint city of Hebron, after lamenting program's refusal to grapple with 'realities of occupation'

Jacob Magid is the settlements correspondent for The Times of Israel.

#Birthright wouldn’t show us the occupation so we are going to see it for ourselves.

Posted by Katie Anne on Thursday, 28 June 2018

Claiming the program was “hiding the realities of the occupation,” a group of five Birthright participants staged a walkout on the final day of their trip on Thursday in order to attend a tour of the West Bank city of Hebron run by the left-wing Breaking the Silence organization.

The group live-streamed their protest, which began with one of them taking the microphone at the front of the bus to announce their decision before the rest of the participants headed to a program in Tel Aviv.

“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,” said 25-year-old Bethany Zaiman.

As she continued to speak, the tour guide tried to cut her off, saying it was time to get off the bus and head to the program.

Bethany Zaiman announces her decision to leave a Birthright trip early along with four of her peers to attend a Breaking the Silence tour of Hebron on June 28, 2018. (Screen capture/Facebook)

However, she refused to let go of the microphone, saying that she and her friends had been asking questions throughout the trip in an effort to engage with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“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,” she said.

Breaking the Silence publishes testimony of former Israeli soldiers who report on alleged abuses by the IDF in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. The organization has raised the ire of many Israeli officials and drawn criticism from those who challenge the authenticity of its mostly anonymous claims and lament its advocacy work in the international community.

The left-wing NGO offers regular tours of the flashpoint city of Hebron, where several hundred nationalist Israeli settlers live in fortified compounds heavily guarded by the IDF in the midst of 200,000 Palestinian inhabitants whose movements are heavily restricted.

Breaking the Silence Spokesman Dean Issacharoff greets five IfNotNow activists after they they staged a walk-out from their Birthright trip to attend a tour of Hebron on June 28, 2018. (Screen capture/Facebook)

As Zaiman got off the bus, the tour guide, Golan, chastised her for “pulling a fast one” on him and for “trying to enforce [their] opinions on the rest of the participants.”

“You did not come to learn about Israel, you came to learn about Palestine,” Golan shouted at the group of women, who he said had came on the trip in in order “to bash Israel on purpose, and in public in front of all your friends.”

As they began gathering their belongings, the five were approached by several fellow participants who chided them for showing a lack of appreciation for the free trip that they had been given.

“You say [Birthright is] about community, but you’re disrupting everyone’s experience,” one fellow participant told the women.

Another particularly angry participant told the women that they would be “killed” and “raped” on their West Bank trip.

The protesters wheeled their suitcases several blocks down the street, where they were greeted by a handful of Breaking the Silence staffers.  Among them was spokesman Dean Issacharoff, who thanked them “for deciding to not cooperate with the silence that is protecting the violent and immoral military regime that we’re enforcing on millions of Palestinians.”

Israeli settlers record a video and argue with a member of Breaking the Silence as he gives a tour in the West Bank city of Hebron on July 10, 2015. (Garrett Mills/Flash90)

Issacharoff referred to the incident as “the first political walkout from a Birthright trip.”

Speaking to The Times of Israel from their tour in Hebron, one of the participants, Danielle Raskin, said that she and her four peers came to a realization halfway through the trip that “we weren’t really going to get the full picture [of the conflict] from Birthright,” leading to their decision to reach out to Breaking the Silence.

Raskin said that the five of them are activists in IfNotNow, an anti-Occupation organization made up of young progressive Jews in the US.

IfNotNow has been conducting a series of events in recent months targeting Birthright participants as they departed the US.

Asked why they didn’t want to wait until the trip had finished later Thursday to visit Hebron, Raskin said she and her peers had to get back to work on Monday and didn’t have time to stay in Israel longer.

“I also don’t think we should have to go out of our way to get this educational experience. It should be part of the ten day trip,” she added.

IfNotNow activists marching to demand that then-President-elect Donald Trump fire Stephen Bannon, Philadelphia, November 22, 2016. (Courtesy of IfNotNow/via JTA)

The 22-year-old argued that the trip’s goal “to get participants to fall in love with Israel seemed disingenuous,” given that she felt that they weren’t getting “the full picture.”

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.

As for particular issues the IfNotNow activists had with how the trip’s organizers presented the conflict, Raskin lamented being given maps at the start of the trip that did not include the Green Line differentiating the West Bank from sovereign Israel.

She also recalled being told that “security reasons” prevented them from meeting with Palestinians in the West Bank, “but then we were taken to the part of the Dead Sea that is in the West Bank.”

In a statement that they drafted from Hebron the five women said that American Jews should know “that Birthright is not providing the education our generation deserves. It is morally irresponsible to participate in an institution that is not willing to grapple with reality on the other side of the wall.”

Birthright participants at one of the organization’s Mega events, gathering thousands at Jerusalem’s International Convention Center. (photo credit: Dudi Vaknin/Flash 90)

Breaking the Silence said that Thursday’s walkout showed how the  organization was “building new bridges on the basis of equality and democracy, while the right-wing government is destroying Israel’s connection to Diaspora Jewry.”

For its part, Birthright condemned the actions of the five women.

“Since we respect the ability of our participants to formulate their own views, we reject the promotion of any agendas, attempts at manipulation or provocations from either political side,” the organization said in a statement.

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