We don’t know whether the walkouts from two recent Birthright trips were an aberration or a sign of things to come. In either case we believe the orchestrated incidents, the first in the history of the free, 10-day trip to Israel for college-age Jews, is worth discussing — if only to call out the tactic of what appears to be an increasingly spoiled subset of our community’s left flank.
In both instances, one in June and one this month, a handful of Birthright participants decided to protest the itinerary of their tour by setting off on their own to meet with Palestinians. In reaction, the protesters were released from their Birthright groups, lost their deposit money and were liable for the cost of their return airfare.
Those who walked out said they had not gone on the trip planning to abandon it. That’s a claim that is difficult to accept, since all of the protesters were members of the left-wing group IfNotNow, which opposes Israel’s presence in Judaea and Samaria and wants the organized Jewish community to join their opposition. Among other things, IfNotNow stages demonstrations, including against Jewish federations, to protest Israel’s policies. And since Birthright has been in business for close to 20 years and its free trips have become a rite of passage for young Jewish adults, it strains credulity for protesters to claim that they didn’t know visits to Palestinian areas would not be a part of their tour.
In fact, they knew the itinerary before they stepped onto the plane. So, while we can understand the attraction to Birthright’s free, fun and safe environment, maybe a better choice would have been for the protesters to go on one of many other organizations’ alternate trips that focus on the Palestinian situation. Because, as many critics have rightly said, the people who pay for Birthright get to set the agenda and call the shots.
Interestingly, it has been reported that the border that Birthright won’t step across is absent on the maps that it gives to trip participants. Whether by oversight or by design, that has been interpreted by some that as far as Birthright is concerned, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is over and there should be no negotiated resolution. We think that argument goes too far, notwithstanding what appears to be Birthright’s rightward leanings — even as Birthright maintains that it is not political.
Birthright’s mission has always been to ensure the Jewish future by strengthening Jewish identity through connection with Israel. Young people looking for geopolitical perspectives should look for a different tour. PJC