Why the Birthright Protests are Ridiculous

Lately the media has focused on a small series of protests aimed at Birthright Israel. A young Jew on one trip questioned why “Palestine” wasn’t labeled on a map that was used by the tour guide. Others have become attention seekers by leaving their trip early to “learn about occupation” from the far-left IfNotNow group, and subsequently complained when they were made to pay for their own flight back to the US. IfNotNow has begun its own campaign of targeting young Birthright participants at the airport before they embark on their trips, and its fellow leftist group, Jewish Voice for Peace, has begun a “Return the Birthright” campaign aimed at encouraging young Jews not to attend. Of course, there has been some backlash against both campaigns, but this internal fighting has often confused many young Jews—most of which already have confused feelings about whether it is safe to travel to Israel or not, when to go, and about the conflict itself.
The truth about all of this is that it is embarrassing, racist, shameful, and self-hating. While some Birthright trips are religiously observant, and thus have biased views regarding the situation of Jewish settlement in Judea & Samaria/the West Bank, the trip itself is apolitical. It is inevitable that the conflict will come up in some way during a Birthright trip, and that there will be those with biases. Political debates within the group also may occur. However, Birthright is focused on connecting/reconnecting Jewish Diaspora youth with our indigenous homeland. It is a trip about culture, religion, heritage, and history. My own Birthright experience, like so many others, wasn’t focused on the conflict at all, although our tour guide was balanced and explained to us the narratives of both Jewish Israelis and Palestinians. Included in our trip was a valuable visit to an Arab town in Israel, and a conversation with a British convert to Islam who married an Arab-Israeli man and moved to the country. If JVP and INN were truly dedicated to showcasing Palestinian voices and exposing young Jews to the “reality” of Israel, why are they opposed to Jewish Diaspora youth visiting our homeland and hearing out these very communities?
The manner in which these protests are carried out is also disturbing. First of all, it seems to be based on an idea of “ethnic shaming”—in other words, trying to guilt American (and other Diaspora) Jews for actions not committed by their government. Regardless of how one feels about Israel’s policy towards Palestinians, to shift the blame, partially or otherwise, of Jerusalem’s policy onto foreign Jews dabbles into the same kind of racism that the far-right has always employed against us—that we are foreign agents of another government and have dual loyalties. The Left cannot claim itself to be anti-racism and a viable and moral alternative to the Right while itself engaging in anti-Semitism, especially the same kind used by far-right groups. Even more disturbing is the double standard that is experienced by Birthright Israel regarding “protests against occupation.” Does NowThis, or any other “progressive” organization, condemn Birthright Armenia participants for going on their own trips, despite the conflict with Azerbaijan over disputed land in Nagorno-Karabakh/Artsakh? Are young Diaspora Armenians encouraged not to go on these trips, disrupt them, or leave early to visit Azerbaijan and “learn about occupation?” Are they shamed for their identity, and asked to apologize for or denounce Yerevan’s policies in Artsakh/Nagorno-Karabakh? No—in fact, few people know that Birthright Armenia even exists. Yet this is another example of double standards, in which there are higher expectations or demands made of Jews than other people. This is a widely recognized form of anti-Semitism, and for fellow Jews, of all people, to be engaging in it is as much of a self-hating disgrace as Kanye West saying that African-Americans chose to be slaves.
The protestors themselves seem not to be well-versed in how Birthright operates. While Birthright isn’t a political trip or organization, if one wanted a less biased view on the issue of West Bank/Judea & Samaria settlements, they should have chosen a trip such as Israel Outdoors or Kesher, rather than what appears to have been a more conservative or religious trip provider. If they wanted to learn about the conflict or Palestinians, they should have chosen another trip altogether, or simply extended their visit and gone to Palestinian communities after the trip was over.  It is incomprehensible why they would be upset about having to make their own way home when they chose to break the rules of the trip—which was free, anyways—and disrupt the group instead of going on their own “mission of self-discovery” afterwards. Another questionable fact of these protests is that while they state they want to hear both sides and experience a balanced narrative, their actions and words show that they often dismiss the Jewish Israeli narrative and are biased towards the Arab one. In other words, this is less of a “balanced critique” of Israel or “hearing out both sides” than it is an attempt to normalize ethnic shaming against Jews in leftist political circles. If someone, Jewish or Gentile, wants to go learn about the conflict in Israel and the Palestinian Territories, he or she should either plan and pay for their own trip, or go with a trip designed specifically for that purpose. Alternatively, one can go on Birthright and afterwards go into Palestinian areas and learn about the conflict themselves. But by trying to shame someone for learning about their heritage or selfishly disrupting other peoples’ experiences, left-wing “peacemakers” are isolating themselves and unmasking the thinly-veiled ugliness of racism in leftist anti-Israel discourse.