Tour of duty

An 'alternative' birthright trip shows participants a different side of Israel.

Jerusalem 88 (photo credit: )
Jerusalem 88
(photo credit: )
It wasn't long ago that someone realized that the offer of a free trip to Israel would go down well with Jewish teenagers across the globe, and thus the birthright israel experience was born. To date, birthright israel has brought some 160,000 Jewish young adults from 52 countries to Israel for a 10-day whistle-stop tour with the aim of strengthening Jewish identity and fostering a deeper connection with the State of Israel. But one group of young North American Jews who found themselves in Jerusalem last week courtesy of birthright israel took a little more persuading to "come home" to Israel. "It wasn't an easy sell for us," says Sophie Elser, 19, from Austin. "The audience on this trip is skeptical of the mainstream birthright approach." Elser arrived in Israel this month on a birthright israel trip organized in conjunction with the New Israel Fund (NIF), an NGO promoting democracy and social justice in Israel, and the Union of Progressive Zionists (UPZ), a "network of pro-Israel and pro-peace campus activists in North America," according to the UPZ's energetic director, Tammy Shapiro. The UPZ/NIF tour, dubbed "Peace, Pluralism and Social Justice," is geared toward young Jews who are "looking to experience Israel's beauty and complexities, while gaining a deeper understanding of the challenges facing Israel today," say organizers. The tour offers a framework for young Diaspora Jews who are not 100 percent at ease with the rose-tinted image of Israel sometimes portrayed on tours or gap-year programs. "I had always planned to come to Israel, but the question was 'why' and 'how.' We came across UPZ at our college and, although I am not entirely comfortable with the category of 'Zionism,' I wanted to come here and explore what it means," says Elser. Eli Winkelman, a guide for Oranim, the largest birthright israel tour provider, recognizes that the experience has an enormous effect on the Jews she takes around Israel. "They also have an effect on Israelis who realize what Israel means to other Jews," she says, but adds that mainstream birthright israel could do more to show modern Israeli life. "They don't see any more of Jerusalem than the Old City and obviously there's much more to it than that." The UPZ has been running birthright israel tours for four years, but January saw the second of its Peace, Pluralism and Social Justice excursions. Like all birthright israel tours, applicants must be Jewish, between 18 and 26 years old, and have never been to Israel before on an organized peer trip. In addition to the sights and sounds of a standard tour, including scaling Masada, getting a taste of Tel Aviv nightlife and swimming in the Kinneret, the group met politicians, peace activists, journalists and social justice NGOs in Israel. "The UPZ trip has a different focus for people who would otherwise be turned off by the traditional birthright message," says Joey Kolker, also from Austin. The popularity of birthright israel is growing rapidly, so it's no surprise that young Diaspora Jews now have a spectrum of programs to choose from. The UPZ is also encouraging Jews to stay in Israel for an extra two days to take part in their new East Jerusalem Program. The first of these programs, independent from birthright israel, was launched last week and focused on bringing participants together with Israeli organizations and activists including Ir Amim, Rabbis for Human Rights and B'tselem. Last Thursday the program took 15 young North American Jews to the Willy Brandt Center in Abu Tor to meet with young Israeli and Palestinian activists from Young Meretz and Young Fatah. The center, situated on the Green Line, was established in 2003 as a joint meeting place for young Israeli, Palestinian and German activists, and its balcony offers stunning views of the Old City and Kidron Valley. "Dialogue like this is important to change the ideas and perceptions of people between our two communities," Young Fatah's Adeeb Saleem told the group. His colleague Nimala Kharoufeh agrees: "It's good to meet American Jews who want peace. The first time I worked with Israelis it felt very strange and I thought, 'What am I doing?!' But now it feels more normal." At the center, participants also met with activists from Breaking the Silence, an organization of veteran Israeli soldiers who served in the West Bank. The UPZ's links with the latter group prompted the Zionist Organization of America to call, unsuccessfully, for the UPZ to be expelled from a coalition of pro-Israel student groups in the USA. The East Jerusalem Program also takes Jews to Palestinian neighborhoods in east Jerusalem and discusses the situation in the West Bank, but participants do not travel beyond the security barrier. Shapiro believes that bringing young Jews into direct contact with the often unsettling reality of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can help to strengthen the connection of young Jews with Israel. "When people actually go to these places and learn about things for themselves, they can go back to their campuses in America and talk about it better than they did before," she says. Many of the participants agree. "The conflict here is more complex than it is often presented and we met Israelis dedicated to working toward a just peace," says Kolker. But the UPZ's program isn't the only tour bringing Diaspora Jews into contact with Palestinians. Birthright Unplugged, which has no connection to birthright israel, brings North American Jews to the Holy Land to engage in Palestinian solidarity activism, many of whom return to US campuses as anti-Zionist activists, says Shapiro. "Birthright Unplugged is an alternative to birthright which includes the Palestinian narrative, but ignores the Jewish narrative," she says. "Our tour is more complex and doesn't ignore either one. We are not coming from the perspective of animosity toward Israel; we care about the country deeply." At the other end of the spectrum is ImpactAliyah, a new independent Israel tour for young Americans with the explicit aim of encouraging them to stay. "We are not looking to spread an ideology. We want to help give olim the tools when they get here," explains the organization's co-chairman, Jason Lutwig. ImpactAliyah completed its first 10-day tour last Saturday, which included 20 students between the ages of 20 and 22 who had to pay for their flight to Israel and make a $250 contribution toward living expenses. "It's not just about saying 'Israel's a great place.' Aliya is not just about getting off the plane and arriving here, it's about making Israel a better country," says Lutwig. Many of the participants on birthright israel's Peace, Pluralism, and Social Justice tour hope to return to the Jewish state too, but not necessarily as Israeli citizens. "This is my first time here and I want to come back, but I see my Jewish identity as being rooted in the Diaspora," says Kolker. The tour also left a lasting impression on Elser. "Our leaders didn't pressure us to make aliya, but people on the trip are still encouraged to stay in Israel. I want to further our engagement with the country in other ways, not just being another body."