In an op-ed published online July 18th, CJN editor Yoni Goldstein responded to youth who have walked off their Birthright Israel trips this summer. Goldstein took issue with these walk-offs because Birthright’s mandate is to connect Jewish youth to their heritage and to the modern state of Israel, not to educate on Palestinian experiences. “If it’s understandable why young Jews might want to seek a ‘fuller’ picture of Israel,” Goldstein argues, “it is nonetheless baffling why Jewish youth expect the organization to do so.”
I disagree. Based on my volunteer work with IfNotNow, the U.S.-based group behind the much-publicized walkouts, I can say with confidence that those who decided to publicly depart their Birthright trips did so in order to gain a more complex understanding of life in Israel, including witnessing the daily experiences of Palestinians living under Israeli military occupation. The young people quitting their Birthright trips – and the many more, like me, who are supporting their brave stance — are making a statement that it is intentionally misleading for the organisation to assert it has no political agenda while at the same time deliberately obscuring or avoiding the Occupation. We know full well that Palestinian history and politics are inseparable from Israeli history and politics. Palestinians are people who live in Israel, its occupied territories of the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem, the refugee camps of the Middle East, here in Canada and around the world. They are people who have suffered loss of land, livelihood, life, and freedom as a direct consequence of global historical events and current Israeli policy. They are every bit as entwined with the Israeli history that Birthright trips omit them from, and the land on which Birthright participants hike, play, and flirt under the hot Middle Eastern sun.
While I am under no illusions that, as currently constituted, Birthright would teach Jewish youth about the Occupation (the Canada Israel Experience website, for example, advertises trips ranging from the 10-day classic to “health and wellness”-focused vacations), we are demanding that they begin doing so. Otherwise, they risk losing their relevance to young people. Goldstein’s support for Birthright’s current stance, which is that young Jewish people can choose to engage with Palestinian narratives where and when they feel comfortable, underscores a far deeper moral crisis in Jewish institutional leadership.
Goldstein also argues that you don’t have to go far to encounter Palestinian narratives in Israel. He is right about that. You don’t have to go far at all — but you do need to look and be encouraged to see. Those who are walking off their Birthright trips represent a generation of young Jews who are demanding that the organization do better. Formative experiences like Birthright have encouraged us to honour our history and to stand up against injustice, but also to close our eyes when it is us who benefit from that injustice.
The Birthright trips of today are not programs that encourage us to reckon with Israel in all its faces, nor with the nightmare that is the Israeli occupation. In fact, they encourage the opposite. Enjoy the shawarma. Have the best 10 days of your life in this beautiful country where you are free and you are valued. Forget that millions of others here are without the basic freedoms we take for granted, and have some hummus instead. Forget that so far this year, 315 Palestinian children have been held in Israeli prisons, or that Gazans receive 8-12 hours of electricity per day because of Israeli government policies.
That’s why youth are walking off their Birthright trips. We are tired of the by-the-book deflections, tired of how the curious among us who ask difficult questions are so quickly dismissed and accused of ingratitude by our tour guides and trip leaders. We deserve more than cookie cutter answers so that everyone can just keep on taking selfies at the Kotel.