Halfway through a 10-day tour in Israel, Risa Nagel had a decision to make.
The 25-year-old grant writer from Seattle had hiked the hills of Galilee and wandered the ancient market in Jerusalem. But then some of the friends she had just met told her they were planning to walk off the tour to visit a Palestinian family, an act of protest that was bound to cause pain and controversy.
"We will be able to see for ourselves what's going on," one of them told her. "Do you want to come?"
Nagel agonized. The next day, after the group held a moment of silence at the Western Wall, her friends announced that they were walking off. She followed them.
Over nearly two decades, a nonprofit organization called Birthright Israel has given nearly 700,000 young Jews an all-expense-paid trip to Israel, an effort to bolster a distinct Jewish identity and forge an emotional connection to Israel. The trips, which are partly funded by the Israeli government, have become a rite of passage for American Jews. Nearly 33,000 are set to travel this summer.
But over the past year, some Jewish activists have protested Birthright, saying the trips erase the experiences of Israeli Arabs and Palestinians living under occupation in the West Bank. Activists have circulated petitions, staged sit-ins at Hillels on college campuses and blocked Birthright's headquarters in New York. But no protests have generated more publicity and outrage than the walk-offs from a handful of Birthright trips.
Supporters of Birthright dismiss the protesters, calling them professional activists and publicity seekers whose views are out of step with the majority of American Jews. Others say that the function of the trip is not to educate participants about Palestinians. In a statement, Birthright said that demand for its trips was higher than ever, and that the trips grappled with Israel's complex history in an apolitical manner.
"We do not shy away from open discussion of the geopolitical realities in Israel, including the conflict," the statement said.
But the protests highlight growing unease among many young American Jews over Israel's policies. They see Israeli leaders who have been drifting rightward and openly embracing the annexation of the West Bank, land on which Palestinians have long hoped to build their own state.
The Birthright protests also highlight a generational division between Jews who grew up with the constant fear of Israel's destruction, and younger people today who may be more likely to take Israel's existence for granted, and who focus instead on the millions of Palestinians left stateless by the conflict.
Just 6% of American Jews over the age of 50 believe that the United States gives Israel too much support, according to research by Dov Waxman, a professor of political science, international affairs and Israel studies at Northeastern University. But that view is held by 25% of Jews ages 18 to 29, the cohort that goes on Birthright trips.
Nagel, who grew up in Glen Cove, N.Y., had organized against climate change in college and for racial equity as an adult. But she had never been involved in any Israel-related protest before her Birthright trip.
Her Jewish upbringing included Hebrew school, a bat mitzvah, and a desire to go on Birthright.
"I was told, 'This is your homeland. You have to go there,'" she said. She knew little about the conflict, she said, when she signed up for a "free 10-day vacation."
On the group's first night in Israel, one of the attendees, a law student named Rebecca Wasserman, asked if she could facilitate a discussion about Israel's military control over the West Bank. The group's Israeli guide agreed, and even shared some of his own deeply personal experiences as a former Israeli soldier.
Many welcomed the talk that first night, said Ben Fields, 26, a college counselor from Denver.
"It felt at first like it was a good-natured attempt to have these conversations," Fields said. "Absolutely, these were things we should talk about."
But as the trip wore on, Wasserman and three others kept bringing up the same points.
"They kept saying, 'When are we going to hear from Palestinians?'" Fields recalled.
Fields did not know it at the time, but Wasserman and the other three had all been in contact with IfNotNow, a network of Jewish activists who want to end Jewish American support for the occupation.
One of IfNotNow's founders, Yonah Lieberman, had helped lead a Birthright trip as an outside volunteer the previous year and said he "saw a lot of lies" about Israel.
Last summer, IfNotNow encouraged activists to protest one-sided trips.
After Nagel and others walked off their trip -- a departure the activists livestreamed and sent to the news media -- they visited an Arab family facing eviction in East Jerusalem. They then traveled with Breaking the Silence, a group of former Israeli soldiers who oppose the occupation.
In Hebron, a populous West Bank city divided between Palestinians and a few hundred Israeli settlers who occupy a small section under heavy military protection, Nagel walked down streets that Palestinians are barred from using, even if they own a home there. She saw the Star of David spray-painted on the wall, marking territory.
"Seeing the Jewish star being used in that way was so hard," she said. "Judaism is about love and kindness."
Birthright does not take participants to meet with settlers or Palestinian political activists in the West Bank, citing security concerns and a desire for unbiased speakers.
"We encourage our tens of thousands of participants each year to challenge themselves by asking difficult questions," Birthright said in a statement. "IfNotNow promotes a specific and highly partisan political viewpoint, which does not correspond with Birthright Israel's nonpartisan commitment to open dialogue that allows participants to develop their own points of view."
Birthright has updated its curriculum in recent years to include more contact with Israeli Arabs, who make up about 20% of the population. When Birthright was first conceived in the 1990s by Yossi Beilin, an Israeli official who helped craft the Oslo peace process, few fretted about how to talk about a conflict they believed was on the verge of being solved, said Brian Lurie, a well-known rabbi who has spoken out against the occupation and has been involved in Birthright since its inception.
But as the conflict has dragged on, he said, Birthright has had to grapple with how to talk about it, but activists say their programming doesn't go far enough. In the fall, J Street U, a liberal Jewish organization with 60 affiliates on college campuses, circulated petitions asking Birthright to include at least one Palestinian speaker on the occupation. J Street U has also rolled out its own alternate free trip to Israel this summer, which will take students into the West Bank to meet Palestinians and Israeli settlers. Organizers say it is meant to serve as a model for how Birthright could change, while IfNotNow has called for a boycott of Birthright.
Almost a year has passed since Nagel's Birthright trip.
Fields said those who claimed to have been surprised by the absence of Palestinian speakers were being disingenuous.
"We all know what we signed up for," he wrote in an op-ed against the walk-offs published in Haaretz, a left-leaning Israeli newspaper.
Nonetheless, Fields said the experience was "incredible," and he returned from the trip feeling more Jewish, and more connected to other Jews. This year he hosted a Seder with work colleagues and attended high holiday services.
Nagel said the protests had prompted an important conversation that Jewish Americans needed to have. She said that she, too, had been attending more Jewish religious and social events since the trip.
"I've been to more Shabbats and Havdalahs," she said, referring to the Jewish Sabbath and a ritual marking its end. "What's different is that at our Shabbats and Havdalahs, we talk about racism, sexism and the occupation."
Religion on 06/15/2019
Print Headline: Birthright trips are now target of protests