Quitting Birthright Israel has emerged as a noteworthy trend this summer. Twice in the last month, young Jews have walked off their Birthright trips in protest of what they deem a lack of focus on Israeli occupation and Palestinian issues. If the two instances bear striking similarities – centred around an emotional speech explaining why, despite all the great friends they’ve made, the dissenters cannot morally allow themselves to continue on the free trip to Israel they signed up for – that’s not at all by accident. Both groups of dissenters expressed fealty to IfNotNow, the American Jewish group that has been waging war on Birthright trips they argue ignore and/or erase Palestinian experiences.
Don’t be surprised if it happens again. There is an undeniable, if manufactured, virality to these episodes, captured as they are on cellphone video or streamed live to social media. They are intended to reassure other Birthright participants who might be considering a sensational protest of their own that it can be done (and that everyone in the Jewish world will see it).
Worse comes to worst, as a dissenter, you might have to endure a bit of haggling with your Israeli tour guide (who’s seen just about every imaginable manifestation of youthful exuberance in his years) – it may even take him 10 whole minutes to scrounge up the proper waiver form before you’re on your way. But don’t worry: activists from Breaking the Silence and Peace Now will be happy to wait for you. In fact, your hardest decision may very well be how many days to stay on your Birthright trip – which, again, is free of charge – before denouncing it (the first group waited until the final day before disembarking; the second group departed on a comparatively reasonable day six).
The latter group of protesters said they were leaving Birthright because the program is “intentionally leaving out Palestinian narratives.” Generally speaking, that assessment is correct (though it’s worth noting that there are all sorts of Birthright trips, with some offering more focus on controversial issues, including the Palestinians, than others). “Palestinian narratives” is not what Birthright is about. If it’s understandable why young Jews might want to seek a “fuller” picture of Israel, it’s incomprehensible why they think Birthright should serve it up to them.
Besides, the truth is you don’t really need to head off the beaten path to see Palestinian narratives up close in Israel. You can even find them while on Birthright, as so many currently enjoying trips in Israel discovered over the weekend, when Hamas launched more than 30 rockets and mortars from Gaza into Israel. Once again, families were forced to take cover amid indiscriminate fire from a Palestinian leadership hell-bent on Israel’s demise. Despite a fragile ceasefire, on Sunday, the IDF deployed additional Iron Dome batteries to the south and around Tel Aviv. One image making the rounds on social media over the weekend showed a mother and her twin babies waiting out the sirens in a stairwell. They couldn’t make it to the bomb shelter in time. As far as narratives go, it doesn’t get any more real than that.