Shortly before I ended my sophomore year of college, I found myself in my advisor’s office with an important
“How can I participate in an activity when I profoundly disagree with much of its goals?”
You see, I was just about to leave for my Birthright trip, a free trip to Israel–all expenses paid–intended to
strengthen the bond between young American Jews and Israel. I’d signed up because a lot of my friends were going,
the Birthright coordinator at my school is one of the sweetest people I’ve ever met, and I wanted to get back to
Israel after having been there for a teen tour at the age of 17.
Yet I had a lot of second thoughts. Since my last time there, I’d educated myself about the complex realities of
the conflict. I understood that Birthright trips seek to promote an image of Israel among American Jews which, in
addition to being dangerously inaccurate, disregards Israel’s democratic character in favor of promoting
exclusionary nationalism. I am extremely proud of my Jewish heritage and believe the Jewish people have the right
to self determination in our ancestral homeland. However, I find it difficult to reconcile myself with a
conceptualization of Jewishness that contradicts both the Jewish values I grew up with and the progressive values I
have come to cherish.
My advisor, who studies both Middle Eastern politics and ethnic conflict around the world, gave me a fantastic
answer which I definitely should have thought of before (but didn’t due to my agonizing over the ethics of
participating in Birthright):
“Try to learn something from it. Ask difficult questions if necessary.”
Needless to say, I followed her advice. On the first day of the trip, our group was hiking in the north of Israel
and our tour guide pointed out that the nature reserve we were in was just the top layer of the site’s long
history. I took the opportunity to ask what the nature reserve had been before it became a nature reserve. After
all, it sat alongside abundant water. A perfect location for a village. My tour guide gave me a non answer,
confirming my suspicions. Something had been here that would tarnish the unblemished view of Israel that Birthright
wanted to inculcate among participants. Clearly, questions which might lead to the tarnishing of that view were not
From then on, I decided to keep my mouth shut and my eyes and ears open. Our bus drove by what looked like the
ruins of Arab villages in the north left behind by fleeing Palestinians in 1948. We passed the Separation Barrier
in Jerusalem. We even walked through East Jerusalem on the way to an archeological site. All presented excellent
opportunities for discussion and dialogue about the conflict. What happened at most were empty monologues from the
adults in charge about how Israel is the only Jewish state and must be protected from its numerous enemies. The
one-dimensional message was an insult to the participants’ intelligence. If Birthright was serious about educating
young American Jews about Israel then the program would teach us about Israel’s complexities and contradictions in
addition to its’ triumphs. Instead, these became an ever-growing elephant on the bus. We all knew they were there.
I don’t think I was the only one who sought them out purposefully. Yet they remained undiscussed.
Other Birthright participants may have had a different experience; their trip may have provided a more nuanced
narrative. However, conversations I have had with many other Birthright participants suggest that my experience was
the norm rather than the exception.
It’s not only an insult to our intelligence but also incredibly disrespectful to young American Jews to assume that
if we discover that Israel is not a utopia we will abandon it. We grew up in communities which emphasized the
importance of Tikkun Olam, or healing the world. Since Israel is our own, Jewish, nation state, we have all the
more reason to heal it in accordance with Jewish values. However, we cannot begin unless we have a firm
understanding of the realities we must confront. Birthright provides an excellent opportunity to introduce us to
these realities. We are smart enough and committed enough to handle them.
Let’s take the elephant off the bus. Let’s have a conversation.
Susanna (“Rosie”) Berman, a rising senior at Clark University in Worcester, MA, is a summer intern with
Americans for Peace Now; This article appeared first on June 29, 2015 on Jewschool.com