A Taglit-Birthright tour visiting Israel in early July made a stop in a city that most of these groups have studiously avoided: Hebron. And this stop has raised questions about whether Birthright can travel beyond the so-called Green Line into the Israeli-occupied West Bank, with differing answers from American and Israeli Birthright officials.
The visit to Hebron, where Palestinians live under harsh restrictions near a small enclave of some of the most militant Jewish settlers, was exposed when a video first discovered by the website Coteret showed a few dozen young Birthright participants hanging out on the stone steps leading up to the Tomb of the Patriarchs in the West Bank city. Those interviewed for the video were all Australians from Melbourne, and Birthright, in its initial statement, confirmed that this was “a Taglit-Birthright Israel group from Australia, run by the Israel Experience,” a trip provider connected to the Jewish Agency.
But according to the “safety and security” page on the Birthright website, Hebron falls outside the acceptable parameters of locations the groups are allowed to visit: “Our tours do not travel to or through areas of the West Bank, Gaza or East Jerusalem, other than the Jewish Quarter of the Old City.”
Reached for comment by the Forward, Gideon Mark, the Israeli-based CEO of Birthright, pointed to a parenthetical caveat added to the prohibition: “Changes are possible when permitted by the security authorities.”
Mark said that although he could recall no other Birthright group visiting Hebron — considered one of
the tensest cities in the West Bank — during one of the subsidized 10-day trips for Jewish youth, the only factor that might disallow such a visit was the security situation.
“Out of the 750 groups that we have this year, only one went,” Mark said. “If this is possible, everything is possible. But practically, this is the proportion of groups until today.”
Asked why more groups don’t visit the West Bank, Mark said, referring to the many trip providers of Birthright: “You have to ask them. Trip organizers submit proposals. We see if there is some rationale, and we submit it to the security services.”
But Robert Aronson, head of the Birthright Israel Foundation, the enterprise’s American arm, did not share Mark’s opinion of what was permitted under Birthright rules.
In an e-mail message to the Forward, Aronson stated simply that the trip was “clearly against Birthright policy.” Attempts to reach Aronson by phone for further comment were unsuccessful.
At the time of publication, there was still no clarity from Birthright officials about the extent to which travel through and to Israeli-occupied territory was allowed. Many Birthright groups visit the Dead Sea, taking a route that cuts through the West Bank. Mark’s comments to the Forward suggest that this route falls into the ambiguous space between the straightforward statement on Birthright’s website and the parenthetical disclaimer. Adding to the ambiguity about its policy, while the Birthright website attempts to state some parameters, the website of the Israel Experience, the provider of the tour that visited Hebron, does not explicitly mention any locations as prohibited.
In the video of the group visiting Hebron, the guide, a bearded man identified as Daniel Guttman, is asked why he brought the group there.
“This is the roots of our people,” he says. “Birthright is the connection of our right to the land. And I brought the Jewish people, the descendents of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, to the Land of Israel, to the roots of our people, to show them what our birthright is all about.”
He also seems aware that his decision to visit is an unprecedented one. The man behind the camera says that this is the first time he can recall a Birthright group in the city, to which the guide responds: “With the help of God, all the Birthrights should come to Hebron to connect with the mamas and the papas. It should be a year that we see all the Jews come to Eretz Yisrael and Hebron.”
David Wilder, a self-proclaimed English spokesman of the Hebron community, writing on his blog, described meeting the group during its visit. He called it, “the first time an ‘official’ Birthright mission has come into Hebron.”
“Their visit made my day,” Wilder wrote. “I spoke with some of the people in the group, saw the sparkle in their eyes, the radiance of youth soaking up a heritage they never knew existed. It was a wonderful time, and I really look forward to meeting other such groups.”
Gal Beckerman was a staff writer and then the Forward’s opinion editor until 2014. He was previously an assistant editor at the Columbia Journalism Review where he wrote essays and media criticism. His book reviews have appeared in The New York Times Book Review and Bookforum. His first book, “When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry,” won the 2010 National Jewish Book Award and the 2012 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature, as well as being named a best book of the year by The New Yorker and The Washington Post. Follow Gal on Twitter at @galbeckerman