For decades, Birthright Israel has offered free trips to Israel for young Jews around the world.
The purpose is to grow the bond between the global Jewish population and the state of Israel. But while the trips help connect young Jews with Jewish heritage and culture in Israel, what they don’t do is expose them to the realities of the Israeli occupation of the Palestinians — the people displaced by the creation of Israel and currently living in refugee camps and behind military checkpoints.
This is no surprise, as the program is partly sponsored by philanthropists associated with the Jewish and Israeli right — casino magnate and GOP donor Sheldon Adelson pledged $70 million toward it this year.
On June 28, five program participants on the 10th and final day of their Birthright trip decided to take a stand. They walked off their bus and met up with the group Breaking the Silence, an anti-occupation group run by former Israeli soldiers. From there, they went to occupied Hebron, where they met Palestinians living under occupation.
Before they walked off the bus, they read a statement to fellow participants.
“We each came on this trip separately with hope that — especially in light of the recent killings of more than a 100 protesters in Gaza and Trump moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem — Birthright would trust its participants enough to give us an honest education,” they said. “We came with questions about what’s happening in the occupied territories and wanted to engage with new perspectives, but what became clear over the course of 10 days was that Birthright did not want to truthfully engage with our questions. It’s clear that young Jews who have critical questions about Israel are not welcome on Birthright. It’s shocking that given all the recent violence Birthright would continue to act as if we can’t handle the truth.”
In the mid-2000s, as Israel was building its separation wall through occupied territory, Birthright faced a similar issue, with trip participants walking off and joining protests against the construction of the barrier.
Katie Fenster, 25, was one of the participants who walked off of the bus this time. Going on Birthright was important to her as means of connecting to a larger Jewish community.
She had just moved from Philadelphia to the town of Brookings, South Dakota. “I’m the fifth Jew in the town I moved into, I’m number five!” she told The Intercept, laughing. “I came on the Birthright trip because Birthright’s just so huge in the Jewish community, and it’s so huge in the education of the Jewish community.”
During her time in Philadelphia, she had met activists from IfNotNow, a movement led by young Jews who organize to end the American Jewish community’s support for the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories. She began to question Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians, and was hoping the Birthright trip would also be an opportunity to meet Palestinians and explore the dynamics that sustain the occupation.
“I really wanted to learn more and try to reconcile my feelings between knowing that Judaism is about social justice and seeing all the violence that is happening in Gaza,” she explained.
But whenever she and a small group of other participants asked the Birthright tour leaders about the occupation, they would be evasive. At one point, they traveled to a beach in the West Bank, and they started asking questions about the occupation nearby. “We were told, ‘No, that’s not part of the program,'” she said.
IfNotNow has launched a formal campaign — called “Not Just a Free Trip” — to encourage Birthright participants to pressure the organization to educate young Jews about the occupation. “[Birthright] brings 40,000 Jews every summer to Israel on its trip. It has a responsibility to be honest about what’s going on in the region, and we’re saying that … as young Jews, we are going to demand that they tell the truth, and we can handle the truth, and we need to know that complexity,” spokesperson Sarah Brammer-Shlay told The Intercept.
Fenster also noted that while the trip advertises itself as apolitical, participants were handed a map of Israel that does not demarcate the occupied territories — a message that Israel owns all of the land and that the Palestinians are not to be recognized.
Toward the end of the trip, the five participants contacted Breaking the Silence and decided to make a statement by walking off the bus and meeting Hebron’s Palestinian residents instead.
“We needed to really make a statement that probably the greatest educator of Jews in the diaspora is actively ignoring talking about the occupation. That’s unacceptable. The occupation is polluting the soul of Judaism. Judaism is about social justice,” Fenster said.
Fenster was taken aback by the acerbic reaction from many of the participants who did not join them. “This is going to go to the heads of Birthright Israel,” the tour guide can be seen telling them in the video. Another participant told them they would be killed or raped if they ventured into the West Bank.
“We really value the relationships we made on the trip, with the tour guide, with our fellow participants. It’s a sacrifice for us to end it this way without a proper goodbye. Some people were so actively against it … and a lot of people thought it just wasn’t the time and the place,” Fenster told us.
When they arrived in Hebron, Fenster was shocked by what they found there. “It’s like a ghost town. We walked down a street, and we saw a photo of what the street looked like in 1994 — it was a bustling spice market, and it was profoundly sad to see what has been lost because of this violence,” she reflected.
Over the summer, IfNotNow plans to continue a campaign it started in the winter aimed at reaching Birthright participants. “We’re going to be at airports, handing out materials for people going on Birthright, saying, ‘Hey, we know you’re going on this trip, and we hope that it includes talking about the occupation, and if it doesn’t, here’s ways to ask those questions, and here’s ways to get the learning that you deserve,” Brammer-Shlay told The Intercept.
Fenster had no ill will toward Birthright or the participants who did not join them in the walkout. But she wanted the program to engage with the reality of what is happening to the Palestinians. “It’s their responsibility to honestly educate us about the occupation. And we really want Birthright to engage in this and to not hide what is happening,” she said.
“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,” Birthright told the Times of Israel in a statement.