Sam Sussman’s tour of Masada started in a pretty standard way. It happened three years ago as part of the Taglit-Birthright program, which offers young Jews free 10-day trips to Israel. At Masada, 50 American students were on hand.
Sussman, a 24-year-old New Yorker, climbed to the top of the plateau and expected the requisite spiritual experience. But what struck him was the guide’s speech when the group reached the top — on the importance of Jewish lives.
According to Sussman, the tour guide said: “I have Italian neighbors I grew up next to, and they’re wonderful, but if I had to decide whether to save their lives or the life of one Jew, I would choose to save the Jew. If I had to decide to save 100 non-Jews or one Jew, I would choose the Jew.”
Sussman was studying political science at the time and went on the trip to learn about the Israeli-Arab conflict. But he says that over the 10-day tour this issue almost never came up. The group didn’t meet one Israeli Arab or Palestinian, and met maybe one or two Israelis who didn’t espouse right-wing views.
Sussman says he was particularly surprised by what he considered matter-of-fact racism. When he asked a guide about the conflict, he was told: “You know, the Arabs have never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity.”
In a gathering with soldiers — a high point of the trip — Sussman talked with a woman soldier about the Palestinians; she spoke mostly about her run-ins with them and about how they allegedly hate Jews. According to Sussman, when he asked if she had ever tried to talk to Arabs, she said: “I don’t understand, are you on the Arabs’ side?”
Birthright, for its part, calls itself an apolitical organization that’s neither right nor left.
After the program, Sussman went on a different trip to the West Bank, where he learned about arrests of children there. He met a youth who had been arrested.
Sussman says he asked himself a hypothetical question. If the people on the Birthright trip discussed the issue with the Palestinian youth, would they be disturbed about how a country with so many admirable values could make such an arrest?
Sussman thus founded Extend, a program of five-day tours in the West Bank designed to round out the Birthright experience.
Sussman isn’t the only American to visit Israel on a Birthright or similar program and return filled with questions that morph into criticism. Many of these young people I spoke with say that after Birthright they became activists in left-wing organizations. They reflect the way some people see Israel when visiting for the first time — as well as young American Jews’ changing relationship with the land of their ancestors.
A Bedouin trip without Bedouin
Chris Godshall, a 21-year-old who lives in New York, went on a Birthright tour not to strengthen his Jewish identity but to find it. Like many young American Jews, he was born to a Jewish mother and Christian father. He joined a Birthright trip in June 2012, thinking he could research his identity while enjoying a free trip.
Like Sussman, Godshall says he was surprised by the virtual absence of the Palestinian issue. Instead, there was a focus on victimization, which included talking about Palestinians who wore explosive belts and killed people on buses, without noting the political context, he says. Even when they spent a night at a Bedouin encampment in the Negev, the Birthrighters didn’t speak to Bedouin; they only ate the local cuisine and rode camels.
At a kibbutz on the northern border the group met an American Jew who now lives on the kibbutz. Godshall says the man’s shirt listed pogroms and killings of Jews throughout history, with the word Iran at the bottom with a question mark instead of a date.
“He told us, ‘It’s my duty to defend this land, which is also your land.’ And he added, ‘I’ll shoot any Lebanese who comes here, and I don’t care whether it’s a man, child or woman. They have no place here, and even the Lebanese children and women are guilty of crimes against Israel,’” Godshall says.
“A few of the participants nodded their heads in agreement. I thought it was a sick statement.”
The man was an extremist who didn’t represent the Israeli mainstream, but the fact the group met with him says a lot about the trip, Godshall says. This person’s opinion was presented as important and legitimate.
In Tel Aviv, the group was taken to the Independence Hall museum on Rothschild Boulevard, where the State of Israel was declared in 1948. They were shown a film on the founding of Israel, “which showed how God brought the Jews to the desert and they made it bloom,” Godshall says.
“There was no mention of the fact that another people lived here. In the video there was only desert; sand dunes. The Jews were exiled, and then they returned — a real erasure of history. It made me wonder what the agenda of the whole thing was.”
Seeing the other side
Godshall decided to return to the region — this time he went for a summer internship in Jordan, and after that to Ramallah and Bethlehem in the West Bank. He toured checkpoints with the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions, a coalition opposing the demolition of Palestinians’ homes.
When he returned to the United States he volunteered for Jewish Voice for Peace, which works against the occupation and seeks to expand Jewish organizations’ dialogue with Israel. It supports the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel.
Again, the things Godshall heard on the Birthright trip are what made him get involved; “for example, ‘We’re protecting this country for you’ and ‘We’re defending you from anti-Semitism,’” he says.
As Godshall puts it, “I need to thank Birthright for the understanding that Israel is connected to me, but I’m sure they didn’t intend to push me into supporting BDS.”
He says he’s not happy with the idea that Israel represents him in its actions. “My goal is still to identify with my Jewish identity, but to do so I have to take part in a movement that excludes Israel from this Jewish identity,” he says.
Does he know that the boycott also hits Israeli Arabs and other Israelis who oppose the occupation?
“That’s a shame, but there will still be less of an effect than the occupation has on the Palestinians,” he says. “This is the only nonviolent way to effectively pressure the Israeli government.”
The Irish are impressed
Even though Birthright isn’t the only organization that brings Jews to visit Israel, it’s the largest and most effective one. Over 14 years it has brought over more than 400,000 young Jews ages 18 to 26 from more than 62 countries.
It provides free 10-day educational trips; an influential model — the Irish government has announced that it’s launching a Birthright-style program. Also, 65,000 Israelis have taken part in Birthright’s Mifgash program, which brings together Israelis and Diaspora Jews.
Birthright is funded by the Israeli government, Jewish organizations and private American donors such as Charles Bronfman, Lynn Schusterman and Sheldon Adelson. As it says on its website, the program aims “to strengthen Jewish identity, Jewish communities and solidarity with Israel by providing a 10-day trip to Israel for young Jewish people …. One of the primary objectives of our trips is to motivate participants to explore their Jewish identity through a peer educational experience of historic and contemporary Israel.”
Birthright doesn’t organize the tours itself; this work is done by 13 groups that recruit participants and bring them to Israel. They craft the tours out of a broad menu of programs and activities provided by Birthright.
Many of the programs have a focus; some on nature and hiking, others on Israeli society, economy, art and even high-tech. But all are subject to the rules laid down by Birthright.
And despite the criticism, a wide range of political views are provided. Chase Carter, a 22-year-old student from Los Angeles, may have started volunteering for Jewish Voice for Peace as a result of things he saw on his trip, but he still says he was pleasantly surprised.
His tour included a two-day focus on minority groups, including talks with Druze and peace activists. There was also a talk with an Israeli Arab lawyer on discrimination against the Israeli Arab community.
If we judge by the numbers, Birthright’s chiefs have nothing to worry about. According to sociologist Leonard Saxe, the director of the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis, young people’s support for Israel rises almost across the board after they take part in the program.
A very small minority
In research conducted in 2009 and 2010, 1,677 American Jews who took part in Birthright five to nine years earlier were asked about their views on Judaism and Israel. This was compared with the views of Jews who signed up for the program but did not take part. Participants had a much greater chance of feeling “very connected to Israel.”
Separately, among participants who spent time in Israel during last summer’s Gaza war, only 5 percent said they did not support Israel and 4 percent said they felt “very alienated from Israel.” Godshall, Sussman and their friends make up a very small minority, but when we’re talking about hundreds of thousands of participants, even this group can add up.
This minority can be seen in the growth of Jewish Voice for Peace, which was founded in 1996 and now has around 60 branches on college campuses around the United States. The minority can also be seen in J Street U — the J Street arm that now operates at 58 U.S. universities.
Meanwhile, the All That’s Left organization targets non-Israelis who live in or are visiting Israel and want to protest the occupation. In Canada, the group If Not Now was established after the Gaza war; it calls for a more open dialogue on Israel in the Jewish community and for a solution to the conflict.
In any case, Birthright rejects accusations about its political orientation. “We’re an apolitical organization that doesn’t push an agenda left or right,” says Birthright CEO Gidi Mark. “We act according to the principles of pluralism and do not promote cooperation with the right or left.”
So why have you refused to cooperate with J Street, which is identified with the American left, while you accept huge donations from Sheldon Adelson?
As Dr. Zohar Raviv, Birthright’s international vice president for education, puts it: “Among our supporters there are supporters on the right such as Sheldon Adelson and supporters like Charles Bronfman, who is not necessarily known as a right-wing supporter. Birthright today represents 95 percent of the prevailing opinions among Disapora Jews, and our source of support is that we’re not identified politically.”
How can you provide an Israeli narrative without giving an Arab viewpoint?
Mark: “For better or worse we have only 10 days — 100 hours awake — in which we have to cover 2,000 years of Jewish existence, 67 years of Israel’s existence, and that’s without talking about the future. For everything that goes in, we have to take something else out.
“A good number of the participants come without any cohesive foundation of learning, and when they get to Israel we want to show them that the Israeli totality is unlimited. Do we provide everything a young Jew needs? No, but we hope this is just the first visit among many.”
Raviv estimates that around a quarter of participants meet with Arabs, “but the issue is discussed in almost 100 percent of the groups.”
“I can honestly tell you that I get stomach cramps when I hear the testimonies you quote. But it bothers me that you don’t give voice to the thousands of positive testimonies we get,” Raviv says.
“We’re also constantly getting slapped from the right and are trying not to be dragged to either side. We have no solution for 100 percent of the clients, but we provide a solution for 90 percent.”
How do you even dare to build an apolitical program in such a thorny situation? After all, the name Birthright has political significance.
Mark: “Reality is complicated. It’s complicated for someone who lives here, and even more so for someone who doesn’t. Birthright is only the beginning of a road, and that’s positive.
“As more people come here, more people will understand that the situation is complex — and this will help them deal with it. One measure of success is their desire to return to Israel for a longer trip or to read material about Israel. It doesn’t matter to me what the source is.”
When you hear about Birthright veterans getting involved in movements against the occupation or volunteering with NGOs in the West Bank, is that a success or failure?
Raviv: “Why a failure? If as a result of the process a person wants to be more involved in the community, how can that be a failure? Community and mutual support are supreme Birthright values.
“If a participant says ‘I experienced a connection to my people, to Israel as a Jewish and democratic country that also has a non-Jewish community, and an understanding that the story here is more complex and I want to come back,’ that’s only a success.”
Mark has a different view. “I have no interest in Birthright graduates volunteering for anti-Israel groups; I see that as a failure. I don’t know of such cases and very much hope there won’t be any,” he says.
“We’re a Zionist organization and don’t intend to put the question of Israel’s right to exist on the table. If a Birthright participant goes on to volunteer for an anti-Israel organization, that’s a failure for us.”