My Unexpected Birthright Experience
On a Birthright trip this summer, Tommy Alter was surprised to find that the American students and chaperones were more militant toward Palestinians than the Israeli soldiers who accompanied the group.
The first time I experienced radical Israeli rhetoric, I was standing 2,700 feet above sea level, looking down on the Lebanese village of El Adisseh.It was two days into my Birthright trip this past July and our group was at Misgav Am, an Israeli kibbutz known for the 1980 incident when terrorists from the Arab Liberation Front crossed the border, murdered two Israelis, and held a group of children hostage.
The man speaking to our group was a charismatic expat from Hollywood, Florida. He was full of funny colloquialisms, and made the complicated politics of the Middle East vivid and concrete to the tired teenagers who were taking him in.
As the man continued to speak, he became more and more extreme. Having prefaced his talk by saying, “don’t argue with me because I don’t care what you think,” he proceeded to tell us that the conflicts in the Middle East were caused by Arabs who were “evil” and that “we should let them kill each other off.”
Vitriol like this in the U.S. is usually reserved for Internet message boards, so the man’s words were initially shocking. More surprising, however, was the reaction of the American group. Teenagers and adults who had been raised thousands of miles from the violence in and around Israel either nodded their heads in agreement or dozed off indifferently.
Birthright is an ambitious program. In 10 days, you take the country by storm. The trip organizers make a conscious effort to introduce Israeli culture to the group and they don’t disappoint. The rabbi on my trip, a daredevil artist from New Jersey, was the coolest religious leader I’ve ever met.
But one of my biggest surprises of the program was that the American students and chaperones were more militant towards the Palestinians and their dreams for statehood than the Israeli soldiers who accompanied us. Not only did most of our free-riding travelers think the Palestinians were evil, they also thought they were obviously at fault. It almost felt like it was our responsibility as Jews to hold on to this hatred. Less adamant, ironically, were our Israeli hosts, who were more nuanced about who did what to whom, and more open to sharing responsibility for years of misunderstanding.
Even though they had grown up against a backdrop of suicide bombs and violence, the soldiers and Israeli guides were less willing to make blanket statements about their neighbors in Gaza. While certainly nationalistic, many rejected the polarizing foreign policy that used to be prevalent in Israel. One soldier refused to read The Jerusalem Post because it was “too far right-wing.”
It’s possible the Israelis were this way because they would be the ones fighting if war broke out, while my fellow Americans would be watching from 4,500 miles away. More likely, it’s because they’re fully educated and immersed in the complex dynamics of the conflict. For Jews of varying degrees of religiosity, the Birthright trip to Israel is exhilarating but overwhelming. Upon arrival you are immediately dropped into an emotional vortex. Israelis are fighting every day for their country and it’s difficult to not get swept up in their existential struggle. For the natives, the intensity of the conflict is just everyday life.
While our group leaders gave an exhaustive tour of Holy Land sites, it was the broad-minded Israeli people themselves who left the strongest impression on me. Their willingness to address the inconsistencies of their politics, even in the face of ongoing violence, was the most surprising and powerful takeaway from the trip.