Katie Fenster says that she wasn’t planning on walking out on her Birthright Israel tour when she arrived. But during the free 10-day trip, she grew increasingly frustrated that the answers to her questions about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict “all came from one perspective” and did not include Palestinian views. “We felt like we weren’t being engaged with honestly,” she told the Forward.
So on Wednesday, the final day of activities on her trip, she and four other women staged a walkout in Tel Aviv, meeting up with the controversial anti-occupation group Breaking the Silence for a tour of Hebron in the West Bank, where they met with Palestinians and saw a shrine dedicated to an Israeli terrorist.
The video taken of the walkout, which has since gone viral, shows the five women being angrily confronted by other trip participants and their Israeli tour guide, who accused them of “pulling a fast one” and “trying to enforce [their] opinions on the rest of the participants.” Brandeis University professor Leonard Saxe, who has conducted numerous studies on Birthright, told the Forward that he wasn’t aware of a past incident like this.
The walkout, which Fenster insists was not planned before the trip, is the latest salvo in the effort by American Jewish groups critical of the Israeli government, like IfNotNow and Jewish Voice for Peace, to change how Birthright and other Jewish institutions that focus on young adults talk about the Palestinian issue.
“Judaism is about asking questions,” she added. “It seems so surprising that they would be upset at us for asking questions.”
In response, Birthright officials criticized “troublemakers” for disrupting the experience for other participants and defended its “apolitical” programming.
Fenster and the others who walked out, all between 22 and 25, say that they were provided with maps that did not show the demarcation of Israeli-occupied territories, and that an expert speaker refused to answer their questions about detained Palestinian children. She says that their growing frustration over not getting the full picture spurred them halfway through the trip to decide to walk out on the final day.
Fenster insists that she went into the trip with an open mind and didn’t pre-plan the walkout — though she and the others who left early, who claim they didn’t know each other beforehand, are all members of IfNotNow, the leftist grassroots Jewish anti-occupation group that has long protested what they see as Birthright’s inadequate coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. One of the others in her small group, Danielle Raskin, created a new Twitter account to document her trip and tagged IfNotNow in her first message.
They say that halfway through the trip, they collectively decried what they saw as a lack of focus on the Palestinians. “Birthright is systematically miseducating Jewish youth by not showing both sides of the conflict,” Fenster said.
The five women reached out to IfNotNow for help “trying to figure out how to get Birthright to engage with the occupation,” IfNotNow spokesman Yonah Lieberman told the Forward. The group gave them information them about Breaking the Silence, with whom they had organized a trip to Israel in March.
The video shows the five women calmly explaining their reasoning for leaving amid their Israeli tour guide’s complaints. But it also shows other participants on the Birthright bus were not happy about the walkout, which came after days of the IfNotNow members’ tough questions about Palestinian issues during programming.
“You guys are the reason the world doesn’t change,” one person said. Multiple people asked not to be put on video, at least one using profanities.
“Everything that you guys said, we listened to. We had our phones down, we were looking at you… but you’re disrupting everyone’s experience,” another participant said.
In a statement to the Forward, Birthright said that those who walked out weren’t being fully forthcoming.
“We encourage Birthright Israel participants to analyze the complexities of the Middle East,” the statement said. “Yet this video omits the portion where the troublemakers repeatedly berated trip leaders, attempting to actually take over the trip from its leaders. That is the opposite of respectable debate and consideration of divergent views. Over the past 18 years, more than 650,000 young adults have participated in Birthright Israel’s apolitical programming that helps them explore their heritage and provides them with firsthand observations so that they can form their own opinions. Unfortunately, a group this week arrived with a determination to interfere with an experience that other participants are entitled to enjoy.”
Fenster questioned why the protest group that left their free trip to Israel were being labeled troublemakers.
“I think it really depends on what Jewish values they want to instill in us,” she said, adding, “If someone asks questions you don’t want to answer, it can be troubling.”
She also took issue with Birthright’s claim that it is “apolitical.”
“It’s not just a free trip, it’s not an apolitical organization,” she said. “It has explicitly political goals. Its donors are all far right-wing extremists, like Sheldon Adelson.”
Adelson, the billionaire casino mogul and Republican megadonor, has given more than than $400 million to Birthright over the years. The trips are also funded by the Israeli government, the Jewish Agency for Israel, the federation system and other donors.
“It’s not a coincidence that Sheldon Adelson is a donor to Birthright and [Donald] Trump, because both are working toward and believe in endless occupation and denial of dignity for Israelis and Palestinians,” Lieberman said.
Birthright came under criticism last year after it was reported that an operator of the trips had been promoting an extension program to volunteer at illegal Israeli outposts in the West Bank. The program was later discontinued.
In addition to supporting the walkout, IfNotNow has also handed out informational flyers about the occupation to departing Birthright participants at John F. Kennedy International Airport — including Fenster’s trip. Birthright staffers reportedly told participants not to engage with the pamphleteers and tore up their materials.
Before leaving for Hebron, Fenster and the others were made to sign a waiver allowing them to leave early, but which also confirmed that Birthright has the right to charge them for the entire cost of the program — around $3,000. They also lost their $250 deposit — but so far, their flights home have not been cancelled. That means they’ll be flying back on the same flight as the people they so recently left behind.
“A lot of things can easily be said in the heat of the moment,” Fenster said. “I hope that they’re curious about what we learned.”
Lieberman said such an incident definitely could happen again: Many of this summer’s Birthright participants had reached out to them and accessed their materials.
“We expect that more people will challenge Birthright’s incomplete narrative in different ways throughout the summer,” he said.
Aiden Pink is the Deputy News Editor for the Forward.