Return the birthright

A trip to Israel that ignores Palestinian suffering is not worth a free plane ticket
Jewish Voice for Peace activists protest outside the New York Birthright office, December 5,
 2017. (Twitter account, #ReturnTheBirthright)
Jewish Voice for Peace activists protest outside the New York Birthright office, December 5, 2017. (Twitter account, #ReturnTheBirthright)

On Sunday December 3, seven months after my Birthright trip, I marched with hundreds of Jewish students and young Jews to the offices of the Birthright Israel Foundation in New York City, as part of Jewish Voice for Peace’s #ReturntheBirthright campaign. I watched my peers drop fake ‘Adelson Airlines’ tickets into a giant tzedakah box labeled ‘Return the Birthright for Palestinian right of return’- enacting their commitment to boycott Birthright. And along with other Birthright alumni, I explained to them that it wasn’t worth it to take a free trip to a state that welcomes us ‘home’, while many of our Palestinian friends and classmates were unable to visit or return to the homes their families lived in for generations. There are better ways, we affirmed together, to celebrate and explore our Jewishness.

At some point in every young Jewish American’s life, they encounter the question: “are you interested in signing up for Birthright?” For me, it happened during my freshman year of college. I became involved with my university’s Jewish student center from the first week of orientation. I was blown away by the multitude of different ways of being Jewish that were celebrated. There was a club for LGBTQ+ Jews, an independent student-run service each Friday, and even a Jewish a capella group. I even participated in a Jewish Learning Fellowship, on the intersections of music and Judaism.

The topic of Israel, however, always left me feeling uneasy. I was used to discussing and learning about Eretz Israel, referring specifically to the biblical land of Israel, but was not expecting to encounter the politics of the modern nation-state in a center for spiritual exploration. After all, my family arrived in New York generations ago, and never left. We love it here. We also have no relatives in Israel, or other ties to the land beyond being Jewish. So, when a fellow student of mine asked if I had plans to go on Birthright, I simply replied, “Nah.”

I had never visited the State of Israel, never learned about it, and frankly never felt much of a desire to do so. To my surprise, my nonchalant answer was met with a gasp.

“What do you mean you don’t want a free trip to Israel? That’s your homeland.”

It was an odd interaction, sure, but it didn’t mean much to me at the time. However, as my first year at college progressed and I became a regular at the Jewish student center, I felt more and more alienated each time the topic of Birthright came up, which happened almost daily. It was the only corner of my institutional Jewish community that I hadn’t explored, and even tried to avoid.

I figured I would approach the topic the same way I approached any other topic in Judaism, with questions. While my questions about the Torah, G-d, and other Jewish traditions were met with enthusiasm, my questions about Birthright were met with a confusing mix of scorn and condescension.

I was told I was too uneducated, too inexperienced, and that the only way to find the answers I was looking for was to go on Birthright myself. So, I did.

To my dismay, I returned with more questions than I left with.

While the trip never promised to engage with the politics of the country we were visiting, we were instead promised the opportunity of self-reflections and spiritual exploration. Unfortunately, these moments were few and far between the Aroma stops and nationalist sightseeing tours. One evening, I was so desperate for a space to discuss Torah and Talmud that I pulled one of the trip leaders aside and asked him to help me sort out my thoughts. The best space we could find was in the hotel lobby, next to the rest of our trip, who were enjoying the hotel bar.

Back in New York, I figured now that I had finally done it, I actually went on Birthright, my questions would earn validity and warrant answers.

Instead, our chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace was denied a space in our Jewish student center, and the legitimacy of being included in our institutional Jewish community.

I was promised conversation, reflection, and full disclosure, but was met with closed doors from the very same people who had supported me not too long ago. A rabbi even compared my ask for non-Zionist Jews to be included at the student center to asking a LGBTQ+ space to include pro-conversion therapy advocates in their community — the same rabbi who invited me to tell my coming out story at a Queer Seder.

I identify as non-Zionist, and am a proud member of Jewish Voice for Peace, because my connection to Judaism extends far beyond the borders of any modern nation-state. I do not support Israel’s disregard for international law, or their human rights abuses. It would be a betrayal of my own family’s history of persecution to remain complicit. I thought that, by going on Birthright, I would challenge myself to give the pro-Israel narrative a chance. But I was disappointed to find that the rare attempts our trip made to discuss Zionism featured vague, simplistic definitions of the term, alongside an unsatisfyingly small amount of historical context.

There is one moment in particular that I remember vividly.

We were sitting on a staircase in Tzfat. Our tour guide had somehow diverged from the basic history of the city, and began discussing the current Palestinian refugee population.

“Palestinians have the ability to move out of their refugee camps, but choose not to as a political ploy.”

At the time, I didn’t know anything about the factual validity of that statement, but it didn’t matter. Her tone and language were a clear attempt to “otherize” an entire population.

I looked around, hoping to make eye contact with equally shocked members of my trip, but only found blank faces. Then, I began to cry.

After spending long days and sleepless evenings discussing the oppression that our people faced as Jews, I could not bear to hear the same rhetoric used against Palestinians.

So, there I sat on the top of a staircase in the middle of the day in Tzfat, wearing my bright pink Taglit-Birthright name tag, sobbing uncontrollably, while the rest of my trip went on to buy overpriced falafel and small opal hamsas.

In that moment, I decided I could no longer engage in my Jewish community and work towards tzedek, justice, without actively prioritizing the fight for Palestinian human rights.

Rejecting a free trip is difficult, but it is easier than justifying the continued persecution of an entire people. There are plenty of ways to visit and learn about Israel/Palestine (many for little or no money at all) that do not manipulate your identity in order to fit a right-wing agenda. I love my Jewish community, but hate the anti-Palestinian rhetoric they employ. The only option is to improve it from the inside. It starts with me, and it starts with you, too. That’s why I protested outside Birthright’s offices on Sunday, and that’s why I hope you decide to Return the Birthright.

About the Author
Jennifer Neuman is a student at New York University's Gallatin School of Individualized Study, concentrating on the intersections between politics and language. She is an engagement intern at the Bronfman Center for Jewish Student Life and a member of NYU's chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace.
Related Topics
Related Posts