good jew bad jew

As mentioned in a Salon article, a group of Birthright participants have used their trips to Israel in different ways than those intended by the organizers. Some have extended their trips to see the separation wall, the West Bank, Gaza Strip, or to volunteer with organizations like the International Solidarity Movement .

One organized trip, Birthright Unplugged, directed toward North American Jews, visits "Palestinian cities, villages and refugee camps in the West Bank and spends time with internally displaced Palestinian people living inside Israel. Throughout the journey, we help participants develop an understanding of daily life under occupation and the history of the region."

Personally, I was never apprised through Birthright's advertising or orientation sessions on what I was allowed to do politically during or after the trip.

The Birthright response (in this case, Gidi Mark, marketing director of Birthright) to these incidents gives clear insight into its agenda:

"Birthright is a Zionist program and we want the students to go back to their campuses and be able to answer questions from a Zionist perspective. There's a lot of gray area, because we want to be pluralistic, but at the same time make sure that people aren't taking advantage of us."

How "pluralistic" can your program be if you want your participants to argue from a Zionist perspective? When representatives of Birthright Israel define their Zionist agenda in opposition to Palestinian cultural exchange/community service programs, they imply that Zionism cannot exist alongside Palestinian rights.

In these "Birth-Left" scenarios in question, the participant took part in the Birthright trip, then went off on their own during the trip extension (up to 3 months) that Birthright offers. Yet Mark still considers this "taking advantage." As the Salon article notes: "Potential [Birthright] candidates who are discovered to have a 'hidden agenda' are not allowed onto the trips."

If the Birthright trip is a gift, the purpose of which is to allow participants to see Israel, and the living conditions of Palestinians under the occupation are a concrete reality of Israel, and a bunch of kids motivated by their humanistic values (in some cases springing from their Jewish upbringing) want to have dialog with or give support to oppressed people, then what moral higher ground does Birthright think they have? How much of a gift is Birthright if there are strict limits and on how you can use it?

Leaders on my Birthright trip tried to emphasize how everyone on the trip should think of themselves as part of a family. However, the love of this family is conditional. If you go "astray" like some participants have, then "you're out of the family" or if Birthright doesn't like your politics you can't join in the first place. It reproduces the "Good Jew" versus "Bad Jew" dichotomy illustrated here.

"Good Jew" ----------------- "Bad Jew"

In the Salon interview, Mark states that the practice of "Birth-lefting" is "taking advantage of the Jewish money that sends people to Israel, exploiting this money to promote an agenda which is not the agenda of the people who funded Taglit,"

Mark has made his point perfectly. Birthright has not only an agenda, but a very specific one. A participant fraternizing with Palestinians on their own terms does not fit Birthright's agenda and is a misuse of "Jewish money." This is occasionally forgotten during these programs; as when someone on my trip asked: "Why can't we focus on why we're here [in Israel] instead of politics?"

In response I wrote:
You take a bunch of Jews from America, send them to Israel for free (on the the dime of two Jewish businessmen in cooperation with the Israeli government) in an effort to get them to connect with and thus support the State of Israel-- the situation can't be anything but political!

I support the acts of these "Birth-left" participants, who act on their consciences and reclaim their trips. Thinking back, I wish I would have extended my trip even a few days. I'd be interested to hear about what kinds of ways other people have used their trip extension.

A former Birthright participant said it best: "If Birthright is going to weed people out according to politics, then it's not really about Judaism anymore."

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