Birthright Israel, known in Hebrew as Taglit, is a program that sends Jewish young adults on free ten-day trips to Israel. Each group includes about 40 participants, and just about everything is included. A trip that would cost thousands of dollars ultimately costs just a few hundred, thanks to the generosity of the program’s funders. It’s a sweet deal for college students and twenty-somethings, or so I thought when I accepted the gift in 2016.
Then there are people like Hal Rose. She was among a handful of Birthright participants who decided last Sunday to leave their group mid-trip to visit a Palestinian family in the Muslim Quarter of Jerusalem, an area not toured during Birthright trips.
Hal and her cohort disliked that their Birthright trip did not include time in any Palestinian villages. If their true goal was just to educate themselves, however, they would not have needed to make a drama-filled exit mid-trip. Instead, they could have completed the trip and chosen to delay their return flights to have extra time to visit these areas, or to avoid Birthright altogether and come to Israel on their own. The program offers that option to everyone.
Instead, streaming on Facebook Live for maximum exposure, the participants gave tear-filled speeches about their choice to leave the trip then went to East Jerusalem to meet a Palestinian family, still streaming live on Facebook. If they had waited a few days until their Birthright trip had ended, the family still would have been there to visit, but gone would have been the opportunity to make a scene and grandstand for 147,000 viewers, the current view count on their Facebook video.
I Didn’t Take the Trip to Make a Political Point
I’d already been to Israel when I was 14 with my family on a trip sponsored by our synagogue, but later decided I didn’t want to miss out on Birthright and signed up to go when I was almost 25, not far from the then-cutoff of turning 27. In ten packed days, I experienced all the highlights of Israel.
I hiked at Banias near the northern border, sipped wine at a winery in the Golan Heights, and floated in the Dead Sea. I climbed Masada, spent a night camping near Eilat, snorkeled in the Red Sea, spent a night at a Bedouin site, and visited holy and famous sites in Jerusalem, including the Western Wall, Israel’s national cemetery called Mount Herzl, and Yad Vashem Holocaust Center.
I learned about the struggles Israel faces from people on various sides of the issues. For five of the ten nights, our group was joined by a cohort of young Israeli peers. Our group of more than 40 individuals quickly became a tight-knit family. It was exhilarating and exhausting, and I’m so glad I went.
The majority of Birthright alumni share these kinds of experiences. We are grateful to have been given the opportunity to connect to our Jewish heritage, the land of Israel, and a group of Jewish peers. We smile at the silly inside jokes our group had or the way our Israeli tour guide pronounced a certain word. We can close our eyes and picture the historic sites many of us had previously only seen in pictures. We remember the late-night talks in small and large groups about politics and our views on the issues in the region.
Not everyone feels that way. Some say Birthright is right-wing or too pro-Israel. They say the program does not expose participants to what they call the “Occupation.” While Birthright strives to give participants a memorable, educational experience, their ultimate goal is safety. As such, Birthright restricts where its trip organizers are allowed to take participants. They avoid conflict-filled locations, such as the West Bank and Gaza. Given that bomb shelters are all over the country because enemy rocket attacks can and do happen any time, this seems defensible.
Don’t Like What the Free Trip Offers? Don’t Go
Most people, when offered an experience they do not particularly care for, will politely decline the offer. Many Jewish young adults do not go on Birthright. Some cannot take the time off work or school. Some do not want to have to share a hotel room or eat strange food. Some do not have an interest in touring Israel. And some disapprove of the program’s Zionist stance. Regardless of reasons, most people who do not support Birthright Israel simply do not sign up for Birthright Israel.
In addition to the free ten-day trip, Birthright offers participants the opportunity to extend their trip and still enjoy a free or heavily subsidized flight home. About a quarter of the participants on my trip chose this option and we did not fly back to LaGuardia at the end of the ten-day trip. I met up with my mom and we visited friends and toured by ourselves.
Some people visited other countries. On the last evening of the trip, those of us who were extending signed a release stating that we were leaving the trip and that Birthright would no longer be responsible for us. From then on, there were no restrictions on where we could travel. Rose and her friends could have done precisely this if their true interest was visiting Palestinian families.
While a secondary goal of these participants may have been to visit areas that Birthright does not cover, their primary goal was to make a loud, public outcry against a nonprofit that has brought 650,000 Jewish young adults on free trips to Israel since 1999. If they did not like what Birthright had to offer, they could have made other arrangements; instead, they accepted the gift only to bash it in the most public way possible. This behavior makes them more like toddlers screaming because they received the wrong color of toy than the heroic visionaries they pretend to be.