i've never felt so much like a kid

Everything on the trip was finely choreographed; from the bathroom times to the eating times. If you go on a Birthright trip you should expect this. Even our "free time" was constrained. We were allowed to do what we wanted within a 3 block radius and had to be back at the meeting point within 2 hours. The lack of sleep can be very disorienting. I probably got an average of 4 hours per night. I started to feel powerless to make decisions without the guides around me; I didn't know exactly where I was, what day it was, or how I could possibly travel in Israel without the Birthright bus.

Birthright organizers attempt to be the gatekeepers of Israeli identity. Throughout the trip I felt disconnected from the Israeli population. I knew there were Israelis out there who agreed with my views (Anarchists Against the Wall for example), but I didn't meet any of these people on my way.

Unfortunately one of the only spontaneous interactions I had with an Israeli was as follows:
I had to get directions from a stupid old man who told me a joke on the way:
"Why are the signs in Jerusalem written in Arabic?" He said.
"Why?" I said.

"So the terrorists shouldn't get lost!"
"Oh good one. All along, I thought it had to do with the fact that a large percentage of Jerusalem residents speak Arabic." He didn't say anything.

Despite the barely concealed racist assumptions of the man in this conversation, there are many admirable enclaves of the Israeli population that agitate against the oppression of the Palestinians. In fact, there are Israelis that would debate our guides and guest speakers on the exact same points that I did.

The Shuk (outdoor market) in Jerusalem

Unfortunately, tourists can get trapped into homogenizing a country's population, and it's in Birthright's interest to lure you right into this trap. If hypothetically everyone in Israel is a Jewish nationalist (read: Zionist), then that coincides perfectly with Birthright's ideology. Then Birthright can claim they are only representing the population of Israel. It's all so perfectly uncomplicated, unlike reality. Every country has its debates (and of course its limits around what is considered acceptable, sane, or mainstream debate). However, when a chorus of Israeli citizens you meet on your trip all sing the same tune, its hard to imagine where the debate happens.

In part it occurs in the Jerusalem Post (Israel's largest distribution English-language newspaper). In this "Right of Reply" article an Israeli anarchist (Uri Gordon) defends the anarchist community from the vilification of a previous article. Now imagine for a second a major American newspaper, say the Boston Globe allowing an anarchist the right of reply. Actually, I can't imagine it.

During the course of the trip we were able to see one Jewish organization (Yad Sarah) which rents out medical equipment to those who need it in their homes. We went on an extended tour of their facilities, with only half an hour left to actually volunteer.

There are other kinds of the trips, that may allow you to meet with different segments of the Israeli population. In another blog, heeb'n'vegan summarizes the events of his trip:

We went to a Tel Aviv peace rally marking the 40-year anniversary of the Six Day War and the Occupation and got to talk to different protesters as well as representatives from groups that were tabling...We met with a representative from Meretz...
We were hosted by an Arab-Israeli family at their home as they talked about their perspectives on the conflict. We drove along the Israel-West Bank border with Lydia Aisenberg of Givat Haviva and saw the security fence close up, looked out to the West Bank on one side and to the Mediterrean Sea (a mere 15 miles away from the border) on the other, and heard Aisenberg's stories about her interviews with Palestinians who wait for hours to get past checkpoints and who are separated from their families by the controversial fence. We attended a Parents Circle Family Forum event featuring a Palestinian woman and an Israeli man who had lost their siblings in the conflict and who shared their desires for peace.

Be careful in your trip selection. There's likely to be another post on other cool things Israelis are doing, but for now I'll move on to other aspects of the trip.


heebnvegan said...

Thanks for quoting from my blog. There's no doubt about it: A lot of the Birthright trips give you a one-sided view that is very disappointing to those of us who know there's more out there. I can't say enough positive things about the Union of Progressive Zionists (in conjunction with Israel Experts) trip that I went on last year, and I urge other progressive Jews to get in touch with UPZ to learn about future Birthright options. You'll still have timed bathroom breaks and such, but you'll get a whole lot more out of the experience.

P.S. L'shana tovah

Anonymous said...


I really like what you're writing on, especially in the opening section and I'd be interested to know more about your sources on the political side of Birthrigh participant selection. I do feel like I need to say that though the views of our guides were pretty rightist, never once did they make me feel uncomfortable expressing my views or asking the questions that I needed to ask. In our "My Judaism" opening circle I stated clearly that the conflict surrounding Palestine made me feel alienated from Judaism and our guide didn't bat an eye, there was no reprimand or judgement.

After you guys left I stayed and was able to have some interesting discussions with some more left-wing folks, and also have a very frank talk with Leah about the media.

So when does Judaism start being political, or when does it stop? When does simply being Jewish become a political statement, or is never not one? In fairness to our trip organizer, sure this may not be the group to go with if you really want to learn about the conflict, reason being not just that they're funded by right wing Zionism but because their focus is on showing you how you can improve your life through Judaism. Never once did they pressure us to take a side or make aliyah or whatever. Sure, that might have been a subtle or implicit message, but surely not the thrust of our particular trip. So, at what point does our trip showing us how Judaism can be fulfilling become political....?

United_Partisan said...

Thanks for the comments. I'm glad you like the blog. However, I disagree with some of what you've said. Personally, I didn't feel that I was able to ask the questions I needed to ask. I was placed in a very awkward social situation. There were guides and Israeli soldiers around us who made their politics fairly clear, which makes it hard to have an open and honest discussion, especially when all of those around you are complete strangers. More importantly there was not time to discuss anything in depth. The trip flew by so quickly. Perhaps you had better discussions after the Birthright trip was over.

The statement "never once did they pressure us to take a side or make aliyah or whatever." is the one which I disagree with the most. As I pointed out in the post on the debate, speakers and guides were throwing out racist statements, including but not limited to the famous "they [Arabs] don't value life" assertion. I don't think that's subtle. And I think it's encouraging us (the captive audience) to take a side.

They did mention at the end that we were now "part of a family" and I remember hearing multiple times that we should come back. I don't know if that's pressure, but the way I remember it, they certainly suggested the possibility of a future trip or aliyah more than once.

And, yes, our trip organizer is a Zionist organization. I knew that going in. I knew what Birthright was going in, but I don't think that it means I need to soften my criticism one bit. You said, "this may not be the group to go with if you really want to learn about the conflict," and I agree with you. I think one of the focuses of this trip was the state of Israel (and how can you talk about Israel without discussing the conflict?). And our "teachers" (the guides and guest speakers) wasted no time in presenting their side.

Now to your questions:

So when does Judaism start being political, or when does it stop?
I think a simple place to say it starts is when Jews use military force to form a Zionist state. Then these Jews say that their government speaks for the Jewish people as a whole. I would say that's a start.

If the thrust of our trip was about learning how Judaism can be more fulfilling, and not about supporting the Israeli state, why would Birthright spend all the time and money sending us to Israel? Why couldn't they just send us to Brooklyn, or to another Jewish center in the U.S.? One of the goals of Birthright is to strengthen diaspora Jewish connection to Israel. It's stated pretty clearly in their literature, and I don't think our trip was an exception.

United_Partisan said...

Apparently, Rachael Kafrissen has some similar ideas to me, regarding sending Jews to NYC...

"If you want to make them Israelis, then send them to Israel...For those coming from alienated Jewish communities, send them to NYC, have them hang out with Hebrew hipsters. NYC is the best Jewish city in the world. We have everything here, why do we have to send them away to preserve their Jewish identity?"


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