American Jews, Don’t Go on Birthright

Birthright Israel pretends the occupation does not exist and manipulates Jewish heritage and identity into support for an apartheid state. I’ll never go on Birthright, and neither should you.

A Birthright group on camels in Israel-Palestine. (Flickr)

I couldn’t even tell you the first time I went to the West Bank.

In theory, this is occupied Palestine, separate from “Israel proper” not just in international law, but in the hearts and minds of liberal Zionist American Jews — like my thirteen-year-old self, arriving with my family for the first time in “the promised land.”

But for Israelis (and foreign passport holders) the line between Israel and the West Bank, democracy and occupation, legitimate and illegitimate, is almost invisible. And so, I don’t even remember the first time I crossed the “Green Line.”

Was it when we went to Jerusalem’s walled Old City, whose holy sites are blocked by arduous checkpoints for Palestinians living barely a mile away? Or was it when we went to visit an Israeli friend of my father, whose apartment in a Jewish settlement in East Jerusalem was built on land illegally confiscated from Palestine? Or was it on an early morning drive to the Dead Sea, our route passing for miles and miles of the West Bank, without there ever being the slightest marker that this had been internationally recognized as Palestine for decades?

I can’t remember, because none of those experiences even registered to me as leaving Israel and entering somewhere else — Palestine, the West Bank, the occupied territories. For Palestinians, a system of walls, checkpoints, and bureaucracy confines them to ever-shrinking and fracturing areas of land. But as an American, as a Jew, as a guest of Jewish Israelis, the Green Line did not exist. Without realizing it, I had experienced a core reality of the occupation: it could not be separated from the way I — or any American Jew, or any Israeli, or anyone — experienced Israel.

Rejecting Birthright and Embracing an Alternative

In the fourteen years since that trip, I have been asked many times why I hadn’t gone on Birthright, the free ten-day tour of Israel available to most people of Jewish descent between the ages of eighteen and thirty-two.

There were all kinds of trips, I was told, for different ages and interest groups and travel styles. If I didn’t want to hike, there was a special Birthright food trip! And when the inevitable subject of politics comes up — my opposition to Zionism is no secret to those who know me — I’ve been consoled that there are only the briefest sessions of overt propagandizing interrupting what is mostly an “apolitical” excursion across Israel.

But despite these pleas, my revulsion to Israel as an occupying power has only grown stronger over the years. Given the choice of participating in an enterprise that pretends that the occupation does not exist, that refuses to take young Jews to see the reality of the West Bank firsthand, that manipulates Jewish heritage and identity into support for an apartheid state, my answer is clear: I’ll never go on Birthright, and neither should you.

For any Jew with the barest moral conscience — let alone those who are opposed to the occupation — there are plenty of reasons to skip Birthright. For one, its entire raison d’être is to further the odious goals of ethnonationalism: strengthening diaspora Jews’ connection with Israel, and Jewish continuity.

The Jewish people have a glorious, diasporic identity, from our varied traditions and nonhierarchical religious structure to our disproportionate ties to radicalism, our proud “rootless cosmopolitanism.” In reducing that to blind loyalty to a state, coupled with inbreeding, Birthright does not strengthen Jewish identity: it disembowels it, evicting it of all its moral and cultural meaning. Our complexity and contradictions as a people become a cheap, nationalist pastiche, a mere prop for a base, right-wing political project.

On Birthright, the occupation is not so much concealed as it is unspoken, for it is everywhere: in the land stolen from Palestinians that the tour bus traverses to the walks through Jerusalem’s Old City, nearly off-limits to Palestinians coming from the West Bank. While pro-Israel speakers are a fixture of Birthright — the trips receive sizable funding from right-wing billionaire Sheldon Adelson — visitors are never even given the opportunity to speak to Palestinians.

Many liberal Jewish organizations have challenged this. This past winter, IfNotNow launched their “Not Just a Free Trip” campaign to pressure Birthright to discuss and show participants the occupation. The Extend trip, which brings American Jews to the West Bank and Palestinian human rights activists, began as an alternative to the standard Birthright extension excursions. And the campus arm of liberal Zionist group J Street has even launched its own “Let Our People Know” trip that combines an excursion through Israel with tours into the West Bank and East Jerusalem led by Palestinian activists.

No doubt these efforts are a meaningful improvement over Birthright’s propaganda. I recently chatted with an American Jew who had helped lead a trip to Palestine with J Street members, and he remarked on how hearing about and seeing the occupation brought them to tears. “How could Israel do this?” they had cried to them, bemoaning their shattered fantasy of Zion.

But to not just confront the reality of Israel and the occupation — of how Jewishness has been turned into a bludgeon of segregation, oppression, and murder — merely reforming or complementing Birthright is not enough. As American Jews, we must boycott Birthright all together.

That’s because Birthright’s very premise — that Jews have a literal birthright to the Land of Israel — is inherently one of ethnic cleansing. At the root of the occupation, at the root of Zionism, is the idea of “a land without people for a people without a land.” Claiming our “birthright” comes at the expense both of our identity as a people of the diaspora — unbound by the oppressive confines of the bourgeois nation-state — and of the very lives, land, and freedom of the Palestinian people who have long lived in the fertile hills between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.

How can any person with an ounce of morality embrace a “right of return” for Jews by a state that bans the Palestinian refugees (and their descendants) that it itself expelled? By rejecting Birthright the trip, we reject these twinned, foundational, oppressive myths of Zionism. To open up the possibility of collective liberation, we must abandon this cursed inheritance.

This call is not new. Palestinian activists with the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement have already asked comrades to not spend money on tourism in Israel, which literally helps to bankroll the occupation. And last year, Jewish Voice for Peace began its #ReturnTheBirthright campaign. Their website eloquently states the core principles of the boycott:

Throughout history, Jews around the world have cherished a variety of spiritual and cultural relationships to Eretz Yisrael (the land of Israel). But today, we must acknowledge that the modern state of Israel is predicated on the ongoing erasure of Palestinians. Taking a Birthright trip today means playing an active role in helping the state promote Jewish “return” while rejecting the Palestinian right of return.

As I learned firsthand, the idea that there is a “good Israel” which can be separated from the “bad occupation” is a fiction. Instead, American Jews looking to see the Holy Land should follow the lead of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI), which has laid out a series of principles and guidelines for ethical tourism there.

For those looking to see the reality of life in Palestine, the US Campaign for Palestinian Rights (USCPR) has a helpful list of morally responsible tours of all different styles. One, run by the UK-based Zaytoun, brings tourists to both help Palestinian olive farmers collect the annual harvest, and to offer “protective presence” in the face of Israeli military and settler harassment. Far more than any Birthright trip ever could, this truly embodies the spirit of socialist internationalism.

We Can Make a Difference

After he returned from marching with Dr Martin Luther King Jr from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, the famous American rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel was asked if he had found much time to pray during the civil rights protest. He responded, “I prayed with my feet.”

American Jews considering Birthright should take this message to heart. To truly make a difference in ending the occupation, words alone are not enough. We must pray with our feet — by choosing not to walk on stolen land with Birthright, and instead walking with Palestinians fighting for their fundamental human rights. That is a journey that every American Jew should be proud to go on.