Birthright Walkouts

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A Birthright Israel: Mayanot group learning about innovations in vegetation in Israel. (Mayanot Institute)

We don’t know whether the walkouts from two recent Birthright trips were an aberration or a sign of things to come. In either case we believe the orchestrated incidents, the first in the history of the free, 10-day trip to Israel for college-age Jews, are worth discussing — if only to call out the tactic of what appears to be an increasingly spoiled subset of our community’s left flank.

In both instances, one in June and one this month, a handful of Birthright participants decided to protest the itinerary of their tour by setting off on their own to meet with Palestinians. In reaction, the protesters were released from their Birthright groups, lost their deposit money and were liable for the cost of their return airfare.

Those who walked out said they had not gone into the trip planning to abandon it. That’s a claim that is difficult to accept, since all of the protesters were members of the left-wing group IfNotNow, which opposes Israel’s presence in Judaea and Samaria and wants the organized Jewish community to join their opposition. Birthright has been in business for close to 20 years and its free trips, which have become a rite of passage for young Jewish adults, have well-known itineraries. It strains credulity for protesters to claim that they didn’t know visits to Palestinian areas would not be a part of their tour.

In fact, they knew the itinerary before they stepped onto the plane. And if they didn’t like what they knew Birthright was going to provide for them, they shouldn’t have taken the trip. Clearly, they went on the trip with a plan to disrupt it, and to make a point. That was an abuse of the Birthright gift, and improper. As many critics have rightly said, the people who pay for Birthright get to set the agenda and call the shots.

We can understand the protesters’ desire to sit down with real Palestinians to hear what they have to say. But if that is what they wanted to do, and they weren’t trying to disrupt the Birthright trip and make a point about their political views, they should have signed up with a different trip provider.

Interestingly, it has been reported that the border that Birthright won’t step across is absent on the maps that it gives to trip participants. Whether by oversight or by design, that has been interpreted by some that as far as Birthright is concerned, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is over and there should be no negotiated resolution. We think that argument goes too far, notwithstanding what appears to be Birthright’s rightward tilt — even as Birthright maintains that it is not political.

Which begs the question: Is Birthright’s claim to be non-political a good thing? Zionism is political. Israel is a political entity. Every Birthright participant is there because the political movement for Jewish self-determination has succeeded. And that is not a bad thing.

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