Last Sunday I was one of a number of Na’amod activists who travelled to meet Birthright participants as they gathered at Luton Airport, to talk to them about the occupation and the ways it might be hidden from them on their trip. Although the Birthright leadership were evidently unhappy at our presence, and made various efforts to prevent us talking to the group, the participants themselves were overwhelmingly receptive and interested in what we had to say. By the time the police arrived to escort us away, we had managed to speak to everyone going on the trip.
My decision to take part in this action was as personal as it was political. I went on Birthright two years ago, and had a deeply meaningful experience. Although I knew parts of Israel well from visiting family there while I was growing up, Birthright took me to many of the landmarks I had missed out on as a child. It also helped me to strengthen my Jewish identity, an opportunity that should be open to every young Jew who wants it.
Yet Birthright hid a lot from me as well. Although I and many others on my cohort had a sense that what we were being shown wasn’t the full picture, it was only afterwards that I discovered the extent to which the occupation had been obscured from us.
One of my strongest memories from the trip is being taken around Jerusalem’s Old City, ending with a visit to pray at the Kotel. It was incredibly spiritual, in a way I hadn’t experienced before. During our day there, however, no one thought it important to share the fact that approximately 90% of Old City residents are literal second class citizens, denied the right to vote for the Israeli government simply because they were born Palestinian. This is a jarring statistic given what we had been told about Israel being a thriving democracy.
And as we drove around the country, Israel was repeatedly described as the “start-up nation” whose pioneering founders had “made the desert bloom”. It was not deemed relevant to inform us that over 70,000 Palestinians live in West Bank communities without access to water, and that 97% of piped water in Gaza is unfit for human consumption. This double standard was one of many I grew to discover in the aftermath of my trip.
The more I learned about the occupation, the more I felt betrayed by Birthright. This is a trip funded, marketed and supported by many of the leading Jewish organisations in the UK, and which specifically targets young people who have a limited relationship with their religion. It has a responsibility to provide honest education about Israel, yet it is doing the opposite of that when it minimises or erases the occupation from its programming.
This is not an attack on the individuals who lead Birthright. I had very positive relationships with my tour guide and madrichim, and they encouraged me to ask questions and listen to different perspectives. Institutionally, however, Birthright is simply unable to address the occupation in an honest way. Trips cannot go into the West Bank or even meet with Palestinians, for example, meaning there are no opportunities to see the occupation first hand or hear from those who have. No amount of goodwill from trip leaders can change that.
The idea that Birthright should ignore the occupation because it’s apolitical is a deeply cynical argument. Thanks to successive Israeli governments, the occupation has been embedded into society, and to ignore it is to ignore a significant part of the country. It also assumes that young Jews will be gullible enough not to ask questions or realise when they’re not being told the truth, which seems an unstable foundation to build a Jewish identity on. The only motivation to do that is if you believe there is something to hide.
At the end of the day, when it comes to occupation, you either believe everyone should have the same rights, or you don’t. If Birthright is going to continue taking young Jews to Israel, it’s time for it to be honest about where it stands.