Earlier this month, registration for Birthright Israel’s winter programs opened, inviting thousands of Jewish young people to accept a gift that seems too good to be true: a completely free trip to Israel. Many of these young people will be excited to experience firsthand the country that they have been taught to consider their own since childhood. This is an understandable sentiment, and one that many of my friends and family members share. But even though I am eligible for Birthright, I refuse to take a free trip to Israel while millions of Palestinian refugees and their descendents are not allowed to return.
I recently befriended a fellow progressive Jewish student who I learned was considering going on a Birthright trip. She was someone who is opposed to Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, and wanted to go to Israel to learn more. I told her how I felt about Birthright and tried to convince her not to sign up. She was open to my criticisms, acknowledging that the trip would avoid or ignore essential aspects of life in Israel/Palestine, that it is a program specifically designed to create more ardent supporters of Israel’s actions in the Jewish community. She agreed with much of what I said, but kept insisting that she would not be vulnerable to propaganda and would push back against the narrative they offered. I wasn’t able to convince her not to go.
In one sense, she was right — it is wrong to assume that every young Jew who goes on a Birthright trip will fall for the simple and appealing story Birthright offers. But the biggest issue with Birthright is not the curriculum, but challenging the underlying logic that we, as American Jews, have a “birthright” to a state founded upon the displacement and continued subjugation of Palestinians.
I am a proud student member of Jewish Voice for Peace. This month, JVP students launched our #ReturnTheBirthright campaign, an effort to encourage fellow young Jews to reject the Taglit-Birthright program and its offer of a free trip to Israel/Palestine as long as Palestinian refugees cannot return to their homes.
Palestinian refugees, and their descendants, who were driven from their homes during the 1948 Nakba, the 1967 War and the waves of Israeli settlement activity since then, should have the right to return, to visit, and to live in the places their families lived in for centuries. With the passing of UN Resolution 194 in December 1948, the United Nations quickly recognized this right of Palestinians to return. But Israel rejected this right from the outset, and instead passed the Law of Return in 1950, which granted automatic citizenship to any Jew around the world who wished to live in Israel.
Since then, commonsense Zionist logic has dictated that the return of Palestinian refugees would endanger Israeli Jews. But in truth, recognizing the right of return, while ensuring the safety and security of all people in the region, is not a threat to Jewish communities — it is a necessary ingredient for a better future. A just peace requires recognition of the harm done over decades of displacement and dispossession. But Birthright moves Jewish communities farther from this recognition, by obscuring the reality of past and present Palestinian dispossession and promoting, instead, the idea that Jews around the world have privileged ownership over the land and state.
Some students are drawn to Birthright because they know virtually nothing about Israel or even Judaism, and Birthright will serve as their introduction to Zionism and Israel. This is an alarming prospect, considering the program is largely funded and shaped by supporters of Israel’s hardline, right-wing government, such as casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, a staunch Netanyahu ally and Republican Party bankroller, and Lynn Schusterman, a decades-long AIPAC veteran and founding funder of the Israel on Campus Coalition, just to name a few of many. Yet I also know many students who oppose the occupation but still want to visit a country that they have complex opinions and questions about and will bring with them a critical perspective and a desire to learn and argue. Each member of these groups of students have different but equally compelling reasons to go on Birthright. But none of them should sign up for the trip.
Birthright is free for us only because the Israeli government and right-wing donors have chosen to invest in shoring up political support for the state and a Jewish future by sending thousands of young people on adventures in the Jewish state. By producing an American Jewish diaspora with stronger emotional ties to the state — even convincing some trip participants to join the IDF or become Israeli citizens — the trip is part of the larger project to keep the country’s demographics solidly Jewish, and perpetuates a status quo of Palestinian displacement and dispossession. By accepting the offer of a free trip, we are furthering the organization’s goal of whitewashing Israel’s actions and helping solidify the image of Israel as a state that privileges Jews over Palestinians.
There are other, solidarity-focused trips to Israel/Palestine we could take with groups like Interfaith Peace Builders or Solidarity of Nations/Achvat Amim, to name a few. And, as we say in our #ReturntheBirthright manifesto, “there are other ways for us to strengthen our Jewish identities, in community with those who share our values.”