Controversy regarding Birthright, a free trip to Israel for Jewish individuals aged 18-26, has become very public in recent years. This past summer, a number of individuals associated with IfNotNow, a left-wing Jewish organization that protests the Israeli military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, walked off their Birthright trips because their groups were not meeting with or hearing the stories of Palestinians. Additionally, some students have been removed from trips this winter after supposedly causing “disruptions” that inhibited the learning experiences of others. All this comes amidst claims that Birthright serves to advance right-wing propaganda regarding Israel and the occupation. However, as someone returning from a Birthright trip over winter break, I would strongly disagree with the idea that the spread of right-wing propaganda or the indoctrination of American Jews is the point. For one thing, very little of our trip actually dealt directly with the conflict, instead focusing on modern Israeli society in addition to some of the ancient history of Israel. Some see this as a problem in and of itself, believing that any discussion of Israel needs to include a discussion of the occupation and the Palestinians.
When you exclusively frame Israel in the context of the conflict, however, or require that any conversation regarding Israel be focused through this lens, you lose the rest of the picture that makes the modern state of Israel such a unique place. You lose out on the history of the Jewish people who have maintained a near-constant presence in the holy cities of Safed, Tiberias, Jerusalem, and Hebron since the beginning of the first millennium A.D. You lose out on the technological achievements that Israel has spread throughout the world, like the USB drive and drip irrigation. While both perspectives are important, they should certainly not be conflated with each other and can be dealt with separately.
You lose out on the spirituality that is so central to Israel, for Jews and non-Jews alike. As a Jewish person, it is an incredible experience to be surrounded by other Jews, to be able to have Shabbat services at the Western Wall, only meters away from where the Shechinah, the divine presence of God, manifested itself during the days of the Temple. None of this excuses the conflict, and none of this makes permissible injustices committed by Israel. But what it shows you is that there is another side, that there exist other aspects of Israel than simply the conflict.
Birthright never claims to be representative of the myriad of perspectives and narratives that exist surrounding the modern state of Israel and the conflict. The point of Birthright is to forge a connection between diaspora Jewry and the state of Israel. This is a very important connection when, in the modern world, many Jews, especially diaspora ones, are losing their religious and cultural connections to Judaism. I do not think it would be wrong to say that Birthright advances a singular view, or more accurately a grouping of closely related perspectives that reflect a single worldview: a Zionist one. Zionism is becoming a dirty word on college campuses as it has become associated with some of the more right-wing perspectives on Israel. But at the end of the day, all it means is that you support the right of the state of Israel, as a Jewish state, to exist. That is the narrative that Birthright advances.
Organizations and individuals that oppose Birthright do no better at trying to advance a “balanced” narrative, other than perhaps to present a cursory glance at competing viewpoints. I participated in a conflict tour of Israel and the West Bank during the summer of 2017 and practically the only “pro-Israel” perspective we heard was from a number of West Bank settlers. That meeting seemed like more of a straw man that a genuine attempt to consider the other side. Birthright does no better in that the vast majority of trips do not meet with Palestinians; ours did, however, and we had an incredibly engaging conversation with him as we heard about his family’s experiences during the Second Intifada. His experiences certainly provided a competing narrative as we had only heard about the Second Intifada from an Israeli security perspective. Our meeting with him was surely the most significant topic of conversation for the remainder of the trip after our meeting.
Many complain that Birthright advances a singular narrative, yet they choose only to engage with a single narrative of their own. Even if one doesn’t support the State of Israel, isn’t Birthright an invaluable experience to learn about how “the other side” thinks and what shapes their beliefs and their perception of the world and the conflict? Regardless of how you feel about the State of Israel, traveling there and learning about it is the only way to begin to understand it. And I don’t mean traveling there to view it through the lens of the conflict, although that is an incredibly invaluable experience in its own right. I mean trying to engage with it from a neutral perspective to learn about all its merits and its flaws, which certainly includes learning about and viewing the conflict, and then maybe to begin to form an opinion about it. A ten-day trip is only enough to scratch the surface.
I am a Zionist, but not because of Birthright. I am not a Zionist because of the conflict. I am a Zionist because of the many years I have spent learning about Israel and Palestine and hearing from the perspectives of those who live there, Israeli and Palestinian alike. I am a Zionist because of the holy city of Safed, where the greatest codification of Jewish law was written. I am a Zionist because of the kibbutzim that have made the desert bloom. I am a Zionist because of the Western Wall and the ruins of the temple. And ultimately, I am a Zionist because of my great-grandparents who were murdered in Auschwitz.
I believe in the state of Israel for all of these reasons, but my belief is not mutually exclusive of a recognition of the pain that Palestinians endure. My Zionism doesn’t mean that I endorse or support everything Israel does, just as I question what the American government does. But it does mean that I support the existence of a Jewish state in the ancestral homeland of our people.
At the end of the day, when you chant “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” you are calling for the destruction of the state of Israel even if that is not actually the explicit outcome you desire. I don’t mean that in the violent sense of the term, but instead in the erosion of the Jewish character of the state until it is no longer a Jewish state. I will not try to discuss what a solution to the conflict looks like as ultimately that would require at least ten more op-eds. But I am someone who believes that a Jewish majority state is essential for the preservation and protection of the Jewish people because of the recent extermination of one-third of the Jewish population in the Holocaust and continuing anti-semitism throughout the world. Regardless of what the finals borders of Israel or Palestine look like, the end of the Jewish state is something I cannot accept.
The anthem of Israel is “HaTikvah,” literally, “the hope.” It is the hope of the collective Jewish soul to live freely in their homeland. Only when the Jewish people perish from this earth will that hope be extinguished.
I invite anyone who is interested in having a conversation with me about Israel/Palestine to reach out to me (firstname.lastname@example.org). It’s probably my favorite thing to discuss.