Who’s Birthright? Ari Snider
N: Every year, tens of thousands of young Jewish people from around the world go on a free ten-day trip to Israel called Birthright. Birthright is supposed connect Jews to Israel and to Judaism. Participants visit the Holocaust Memorial, the Western Wall in Jerusalem, and military bunkers of the Israeli Defense Force. The trip is also supposed to be fun, with hiking and camel rides and time on the beach in Tel Aviv.
Birthright is really popular in American Jewish communities. But In the last few years, Jewish activist groups in the US and Israel have started pushing back against Birthright, saying it’s “not just a free trip”. Recently, students at Brown University formed a group called Jews Challenging Birthright. Their main goal right now is to get people to think about going on Birthright as a political choice.
Tali: We’re mainly right now doing sort of education around like what’s up with Birthright? What are some of these broader conversations that are happening around it? And making it so that it’s an active choice to go on the trip instead of a sort of assumption of what you do as a coming of age in the American Jewish community.
N: That’s Tali Ginsburg. Tali is a good friend of mine, and was involved in creating the Jews Challenging Birthright group.
I talked to Tali and another friend of mine, Natalie Lerner, who is also part of Jews Challenging Birthright, about the main issues surrounding the program. Neither Nat or Tali claim to be experts on the subject, but they do fit into a larger trend of young Jewish Americans questioning the role that Birthright plays in their lives.
One of the central issues that Natalie and Tali brought up was access to land and freedom of movement in Israel/Palestine. Here’s Natalie.
Nat: Palestinians can’t return to a lot of what is their land, so why do I for example, why would I have that right.
N: With the creation of the state of Israel, a lot Palestinians lost their land and their homes. And while Birthright participants can move freely throughout Israel, a lot of Palestinians can’t. And
even for Palestinians who were not displaced, moving through Israel/Palestine can be really difficult.
Iman: When I was in the airport they were like questioning me, what I wanted to do in Palestine, why I was there.
N: Iman Mousa is another student at Brown University. Iman was born in Brazil, but her parents are Palestinian and she still has a lot of family in the West Bank. Last year she went to visit them, but was denied entry at the airport in Tel Aviv.
I: They said that my entry to Israel had been denied because of security reasons. And they didn’t give me any further explanations.
N: Iman’s experience points to a complicated reality where Jewish people are offered a free Birthright trip regardless of their connection to Israel, while Palestinians are not, even if they do have family living there.
I: Makes me mad. I think it’s really crazy to think that someone like me like someone who has family you know actual people who live in Palestine, I don’t have the right to go to Palestine.
N: The point that Iman brings up here is also something that the Jews Challenging Birthright group wants more people to think about.
T: And so why is it that people who don’t have that connection already are allowed free access and movement while the people who really materially and tangibly do have that connection are not?
N: Of course, plenty of people from the Jewish diaspora do have family in Israel, and many would say that they feel strong spiritual and emotional connection to the country. But the point that Natalie, Tali, and others are focusing on is the lack of an equivalent Palestinian right of return.
For it’s part, Birthright markets itself as an apolitical educational program. After several Birthright participants walked off the trip last summer in protest, Birthright co-founder Charles Bronfman told the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz that each trip spends four hours discussing the Israel/Palestine conflict. Bronfman said the political module of the trip is impartial.
Back at Brown, another topic that the Jews Challenging Birthright group likes to bring up is Birthright’s funding, a lot of which comes from Sheldon Adelson, a billionaire businessman and philanthropist.
Adelson has long been one of Birthright’s staunchest and most generous supporters, and in 2018 alone he donated 70 million dollars to the program. Adelson is also one of the most prominent donors to Donald Trump and the Republican party
Nat: I think the fact that so much of Birthright’s money comes from this person and also people similar to Sheldon Adelson, is really alarming. And I think it’s something that I want to be alarming to more people.
N: It’s not just Adelson’s political affiliations that make Natalie and others apprehensive about his involvement in the program. They also see his public remarks as encouraging an unhealthy sexual atmosphere on Birthright trips. Adelson often speaks at Birthright related events, and a common theme for him is the importance of ensuring the continuation of the Jewish people, which he links directly to sexual reproduction.
Here he is speaking in 2013 at a celebration called the Birthright Israel Mega Event:
Adelson: Somebody asked me, “what’s the solution to create more Jews?” Make more babies. Not necessarily on this trip, but wait till you get back home. That’ll do it.
Nat: I think what’s really freaky is that Sheldon Adelson and some of the other major donors to Birthright have really explicitly talked about like they want like Jewish couples and Jewish babies to come out of this trip. I think that there is some like a real drive toward like hook up on Birthright, fall in love on Birthright, find your Jewish partner on Birthright.
N: Now, there’s nothing necessarily wrong with falling in love with someone on Birthright, or marrying someone you met on a tour. But Natalie and Tali say the public rhetoric of people like Adelson, combined with the drinking and partying that happens on many Birthright trips, can create a dangerous sexual environment. Tali actually went on a Birthright trip a few years ago, but left early after experiencing sexual violence.
T: There is a really high pressure to basically make more Jewish babies. And this is it’s not it’s like an open secret, it’s sort of agreed upon as one of the outcomes of the trip is the continuity of the Jewish people and therefore more Jewish babies. And so I think
that filters down, combined with the drinking culture into a really high prevalence of sexual assault.
N: In April, the left-leaning magazine Jewish Currents published an article about Birthright participants who had experienced sexual assault and harassment on the trip. The article came out of about 50 interviews with past participants and staffers, many of whom said lax rules and a partying culture created unsafe situations. A Birthright spokesperson responded to the article in an email, saying “It is wrong to make inaccurate generalizations from a handful of incidents that were not [officially] reported and are not a representation of either the experience we provide or our values.”
Back in 2015, The Forward, a more mainstream Jewish newspaper, published a similar article questioning whether Birthright was responsible for encouraging a hookup culture on their trips. A Birthright official responded by saying that Birthright follows a strict code of conduct and that it was investigating the complaints cited in the article.
Back on Brown’s campus, the Jews Challenging Birthright group is starting small. They are mainly trying to get people to think a little more critically about Birthright, to take a closer look at this free trip that has become a staple of the American Jewish experience. Birthright isn’t going away anytime soon. But neither are the people challenging it.
T: You know people want to do something. I think it’s a really scary political moment. I think people just want to know what to do right now. And I think that saying like you have this thing that like you could do something about, is like, so appealing. To me at least. To be told that I that there’s a thing that I can do something about. And i think right now Birthright feels like there’s a thing I can do something about. And there’s a conversation and there’s a way to plug in. And i think that just that is so huge.