To skirt terror, Birthright trades exotic markets for malls

Heavy travel restrictions in Jerusalem disappoint participants, but the possibility of violence demands adaptation

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

Illustrative photo of Birthright participants visiting Masada, summer 2012. (Taglit-Birthright/JTA)
Illustrative photo of Birthright participants visiting Masada, summer 2012. (Taglit-Birthright/JTA)

Throughout the coming weeks, the streets of Israel will fill with Jewish American college students and young adults, visiting the Holy Land on Taglit-Birthright Israel trips.

But as terror attacks continue, those streets have become increasingly dangerous. Bus stops, public markets and commercial areas have all been the sites of stabbings, car-rammings and shootings since the current iteration of violence began earlier this fall.

As a result, Taglit-Birthright severely limited its participants during their stop in Jerusalem, canceling visits to the capital’s Ben Yehuda Street pedestrian mall and Mahane Yehuda market, both of which have been common sites for terror attacks over the years.

Though most of the participants have never been to Israel before and therefore have no way to compare their experience, there is still a sense of dissatisfaction among the groups in light of these changes, according to a staff member for one of the groups who asked not to be named.

“Our students weren’t allowed to go to the shuk, which they were incredibly disappointed about,” the staff member said, using the Hebrew word for the market. “They knew that they were missing out on something that was supposed to be a part of the birthright experience.”

The trips’ regular night out in the downtown area was also changed to a night in either Jerusalem’s Cinema City movie theater or one of its shopping malls.

“Taking them to Cinema City was a crazy, crazy letdown. They had to wait in ridiculously long lines for food because there were so many Birthright trips there,” the staff member said.

But the changes to the groups’ itineraries were not baseless, the Taglit-Birthright staffer said. The ongoing violence in Jerusalem and the rest of Israel is a legitimate source of concern for participants and their families back in the United States.

In loco parentis, the university students and young adults who travel to Israel are under the watchful eyes of their program leaders, who must be mindful of the threat of attack but still provide an educational and enjoyable experience for participants.

“All of us have been affected by the security situation in Jerusalem. Obviously, in my perspective it’s for the best because I want my participants to be safe,” the staff member said.

Earlier this month, the US State Department even issued a travel warning for Israel, due to the frequency of Palestinian terror attacks, which are occurring at a rate unseen in over a decade.

“The security situation can change day to day, depending on the political situation, recent events, and geographic area,” the warning said. “A rise in political tensions and violence in Jerusalem and the West Bank has resulted in injuries to and deaths of US citizens.”

One American student, Ezra Schwartz, spending a year a yeshiva in Israel between high school and university, was killed in the ongoing violence that has rocked Israel since October 1, when Naama and Eitam Henkin at the hands of a terror cell that gunned them down in their car in the West Bank while the couple’s four children were in the backseat.

Ezra Schwartz, center, was murdered by a Palestinian terrorist south of Jerusalem on November 19, 2015. At the time, Schwartz was spending a gap year at a Beit Shemesh yeshiva. (Facebook)
Ezra Schwartz, center, was murdered by a Palestinian terrorist south of Jerusalem on November 19, 2015. At the time, Schwartz was spending a gap year at a Beit Shemesh yeshiva. (Facebook)

Schwartz was shot and killed by a Palestinian terrorist in late November while riding in an un-armored bus after a visit to a settlement outpost in the West Bank. His death raised concerns over the security protocols of some international programs in Israel, principally why the bus he was traveling in was not bulletproof in light of the high chance of a terror attack in the West Bank.

The trip providers are accustomed to running their programs through terror waves and rocket fire and plan accordingly.

For multiple reasons, both security-related and political, Taglit-Birthright trips rarely travel beyond the Green Line, Israel’s pre-1967 border, into the West Bank or into East Jerusalem, save for a required visit to the Western Wall or trip to the Dead Sea.

As the trips are just 10 days long, the participants are rarely allowed out on their own, and even during free nights when participants are allowed to explore, they are accompanied by a staff member and a guard, a Birthright Israel spokeswoman said.

However, if participants opt to remain in Israel after the trip, they take responsibility for their own safety, the spokeswoman added.

As a matter of course, the groups’ itineraries are approved each day by the Education Ministry’s security department. If needed, those schedules can be changed, as happened with this winter’s round of Taglit-Birthright trips.

The last time that happened, during the 2014 Gaza conflict, when large swaths of Israel were under rocket fire, Taglit-Birthright shifted its itineraries to avoid the south of the country and focus more on northern and central Israel.

“None of our trips even heard a rocket siren,” the spokeswoman boasted.

But the ongoing terror wave has not yet forced Birthright to radically remake trip itineraries, as its plans take a certain threat of violence for granted. “We’re ready for everything,” the spokeswoman said.

“We’ve never had any security issues, and we’ve had over 500,000 participants,” she added.

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