NEW YORK — Risa Nagel was five days into her Birthright trip when she decided to walk.
Afterwards she said she’d spent the day shaking, unable to eat, and wondering whether she’d done the right thing. It was the second time this summer left-wing activists staged walkouts over what they say is Birthright’s refusal to address the ongoing conflict in the West Bank and Israel’s presence there.
“It was a really hard decision to leave. I was pumped to go on the trip,” Nagel, 24, said. “I had a bat mitzvah. I’m not super religious. I’m proud of being Jewish and it was always a given I’d go on Birthright. I’m not wealthy and I was down for the free trip. I didn’t know a lot about the conflict before I came. I knew it was complicated, but I didn’t know the whole story.”
When the subject of the West Bank came up, their tour guide answered questions — but always from “Birthright’s perspective,” Nagel said. When they passed out maps of Israel, she noticed the West Bank was marked as Judea and Samaria, she said.
“I wondered what else Birthright was trying to cover up. I expected a little one-sidedness but it felt like they were weaponizing Judaism, and when it comes to Israel this one-sidedness is scary,” Nagel said.
There have been other protests as well. At New York City’s JFK Airport IfNotNow, an anti-occupation organization, has staged “send offs” for Birthright participants. At London’s Luton Airport, Na’amod, a British Jewish organization, also held a protest.
In the past month there has been a brouhaha surrounding the protests: support and outrage on Twitter; a flurry of opinion pieces either chastising or celebrating the protestors. But recent Birthright participants speaking with The Times of Israel said the atmosphere on their trips was decidedly drama free.
“They talk about the conflict but they also want you to fall in love with Israel, maybe to move there. We had meetings with people from both sides. The whole trip in general is to get you connected, and to have a good time,” said Michael Zola, a junior at UMass-Amherst who went on Birthright last month with Cornell University.
Zola said there was never a sense of tension among those on his bus with tour guides or a feeling that Birthright was hiding things from them. Participants can learn as much as they want to about the conflict before and after the trip, he added.
Indeed, Birthright Israel’s stated goal is to connect Diaspora Jews with each other and the Jewish state through the gift of a free trip. And that’s what the majority of the 50,000 young Jewish adults estimated to travel with Birthright this summer season expect, according to Birthright Israel.
“Birthright Israel has and always will embrace a diversity of viewpoints, especially those from its participants so long as they are expressed in the context of respectful dialogue,” said a Birthright Israel spokesperson. “We are an apolitical organization that does not tolerate those with a political agenda and an intent to disrupt the experience of other participants.”
Robust dialogue was definitely on the itinerary for Rebecca Cooper, a junior at UMass-Amherst. She traveled with Birthright from May 26 through June 5 on a joint George Washington University-Emory University trip.
Whether it was standing on a lookout over the West Bank and Bethlehem, or ducking for cover in Sderot on May 29 when Hamas fired an estimated 70 rockets into Israel, Cooper said her tour guide never shied away from answering questions, no matter how political.
“She did a really good job of giving us different perspectives. She’d tell us, ‘Some people have this perspective, other people have that perspective,’” Cooper said. “She was really open and she stayed factual. She referred to the West Bank as the West Bank, and it was the same with regard to Gaza. Being with students from GW, everyone was so interested in politics, they had a ton of questions and she definitely answered them.”
By contrast, Joey Clateman, a Columbia University sophomore (and this reporter’s first cousin once removed) who went on Birthright in early June said his tour guides focused on connecting the participants with Judaism and lighting a spark of spirituality. From his perspective, the trip was devoid of politics — almost to a fault.
“I would say it’s a very apolitical trip. When we were at the Western Wall I asked the tour guide about the Women of the Wall movement. He said he really didn’t want to get into it. I asked about the West Bank, and he didn’t want to talk. I would say they were pretty reluctant to get into anything political,” Clateman said.
“My opinion is the political situation is complex and complicated and you are really ignoring a large part of the country if you don’t talk about it. I think it’s a discussion you have to have,” he said.
Talking about an ‘occupation’ revolution
As an educator who holds geopolitical seminars for Birthright, Emanuel Miller meets thousands of Birthright participants each year, as well as hundreds of tour guides. While Israeli tour guides are all highly knowledgeable, not all are comfortable taking about modern-day Israel because it’s not part of their studies. Any avoidance of the topic isn’t a directive from Birthright, he said.
Indeed, upon joining Birthright, Miller was required to attend a mandatory enrichment seminar where he was told to cover everything including the origins of Jewish history in Israel, the 1948 and 1967 wars, settlements, peace negotiations and Palestinian refugees.
“In literally every seminar of mine, the word ‘occupation’ is mentioned multiple times. It’s even on the second slide of my presentation,” Miller said.
“Since I penned an article lamenting IfNotNow’s actions, other lecturers have been in touch to say that they too strive to speak openly about Israel’s relationship with the Palestinians. I believe that the overwhelming majority of Birthright participants know that they’re welcome to ask questions in good faith, and be answered in kind,” he said.
Sam Sussman, who works with Extend, an organization that introduces young American Jews to Israelis, Palestinians and Palestinian citizens of Israel, said Birthright should embrace dialogue about the conflict.
It “does not have to choose between the hard-right agenda of the Trump-Netanyahu-Adelson alliance or the BDS camp,” he wrote in an opinion piece for Haaretz, saying that a failure to engage will mean more US Jews will walk off Birthright this summer.
Mindful that some people might want to experience places not on the itinerary, Birthright encourages participants to extend their stay in Israel after the trip concludes, Miller said. As such, those who stay can avail themselves of several tours organized by Israeli human rights groups and visit places not on the Birthright itinerary.
A different Holy Land perspective
The activists who recently left their Birthright trips joined a Breaking the Silence tour and went to Bethlehem and Hebron. Some also visited a Palestinian family who are to be evicted from home in Silwan, a neighborhood in East Jerusalem.
Nagel said she had never heard about IfNotNow or Breaking the Silence prior to her arrival in Israel. She said they met members of the organization through a friend who was on their Birthright bus.
But several of the protestors have been involved in various degrees with IfNotNow, according to The Times of Israel.
In an email, one of IfNotNow’s founders, Yonah Lieberman, said the organization provides resources and support to Birthright participants “to ensure they get the answers they deserve. Participants on these trips reached out to us and we connected them to our partners on the ground.”
Nagel and her fellow participants have since started a GoFundMe crowdfunding page to raise $10,000 to cover the cost of the trip back home and “potential legal costs.” Easily meeting their goal, they raised it to $18,000, to split proceeds with Palestinians threatened with eviction.
It costs $3,000 to send one participant to Israel, according to Birthright. Participants sign a contract with Birthright agreeing to forfeit their $250 deposit and pay for their return flights home if they leave early — for whatever reason.
With many people accessing IfNotNow education materials, Lieberman predicts there will be more protests on Birthright trips and at JFK this summer.
“IfNotNow members are inspired by the courage we’ve seen from our peers on Birthright trips this summer, taking action to learn the truth about the occupation,” Lieberman said.
“We want to ensure that as many Birthright participants as possible have the information needed to be able to see through Birthright’s right-wing political agenda, shaped by Sheldon Adelson and [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu,” he said.
From Miller’s perspective, its simplistic to think Israel can be boiled down to a 10-day tour.
“It’s like a first date — it’s supposed to get people interested in hearing and seeing more,” said Miller. “And just like on a date, you don’t come away and honestly think that the person you’ve just met is perfect, you understand that they’ve been showing you their good sides. So too with Israel and any type of tourist attraction or trip.”
“Participants are not children. They’re adults who should be able to form opinions independently, and are treated as such,” he said.