I Was Kicked Off Birthright For Asking Questions About The Occupation
On the fifth day of my Birthright trip, as we drove south from a Kibbutz up north to Tel Aviv, I asked our trip leader if the towering concrete wall I could see from my window was the wall that separates the West Bank from Israel.
Two hours later, I stood on a street corner in Tel Aviv with two other participants, watching our trip’s bus drive away without us; we were officially kicked off of Birthright.
I am an immigrants rights organizer and spend every day working with people whose lives and families have been torn apart by Donald Trump’s racist, anti-immigrant policies.
Part of being Jewish to me is about fighting for justice for all people.
I grew up listening to my grandfather’s stories about his parents who fled to Illinois to escape pogroms, without speaking a word of English, and how his dad scratched out a living selling umbrellas door-to-door. My family’s story of survival taught me that that I should fight for the inclusion and rights of all people in society.
So when I read the news of the government shutdown over Trump’s demand to build a wall along the US-Mexico border, my heart sank. I felt doubly sick as I watched our Birthright bus wind along the separation wall.
I know enough about the separation wall to know that it denies Palestinians freedom of movement, keeping them apart from family members only a few miles away. And I had heard — both in the media and from the Israelis on my trip — that Trump views Israel’s wall as model of success.
So I asked a question about the wall we were driving past because it reminds me of the wall I spend countless hours fighting against back home.
In response to my question, the Israeli tour guide blamed the Palestinians for the wall. He wouldn’t, or couldn’t, say a single thing about how the wall affected people on the other side. When I asked if we were going to hear from anyone with a different perspective, he said he was not familiar with any program that could expose us to the other side, and claimed that legally, Israel has “never occupied any Palestinians.”
The tension escalated quickly, especially once the tour guide tried to stop another participant from taking a video of the conversation; someone grabbed her phone out of her hands and deleted the footage.
Eventually we arrived at the Birthright Innovation Center, and the trip leader told me and two other participants that we were no longer welcome on Birthright because our questions about the Occupation were making other participants uncomfortable.
I was shocked.
My whole life I’ve been looking forward to an opportunity to visit Israel.
I started to get involved in IfNotNow because I wanted a space to engage in learning, community building, and action with like-minded Jewish young people.
This was the first time I was finally able to go on Birthright, and despite having reservations about the agenda of the program, I went with an open mind, curious to learn and engage.
And for engaging in the most Jewish way possible — asking questions about injustice — I was told that I am not welcome.
A week ago, Haaretz broke the news that Birthright had instituted a new Code of Conduct, that forbids “any attempt, by any individual or organization, to manipulate [the] open climate” of the trip.
The enforcement of this code reveals the line that Birthright is willing to draw, despite claiming to be open to diverse viewpoints, and that people like me are on the other side of it.
Getting kicked off my Birthright trip showed me that Birthright is not here to facilitate discussion or invite young Jews to develop a complex, nuanced relationship to Israel. They want unwavering support for a political agenda promoted by Benjamin Netanyahu, Sheldon Adelson, and Donald Trump, a political agenda that leads to border walls, family separation, and endless hatred and violence against people on the margins.
Birthright seems to think that the only way to connect young Jews to their identity is to hide the Occupation from them.
They are wrong. In fighting the Occupation of the Palestinians and demanding justice, we are connecting to our Jewish identity. This is the most Jewish thing we can do — and they are banning it.
Having an authentic connection to Judaism does not require us to dehumanize Palestinians or ignore the daily brutality of the Occupation. I want a Jewish community that confronts injustice rather than hides from it. I want a Jewish community that stands for freedom and dignity for all in every part of the world, against every border wall.
Over the last year, Birthright has been repeatedly confronted by young people who are seeking out more honest and critical engagement with Israel, and the choice they have repeatedly made in response is to increase their litmus tests for participation and crack down on dissent.
We young Jews are demanding better, in the most Jewish way we know how.
Emily Bloch is an American Jew living in Boston and an immigrant rights organizer with Cosecha. She was kicked off her Birthright trip along with two other participants for asking questions about the Occupation and the separation wall.