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July 4, 2018 11:44 am

An Open Letter to the Participants Who Left Their Birthright Israel Trip

avatar by Liel Asulin

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A Birthright Israel trip. Photo: Facebook

To those who recently left their Birthright Israel trip:

I’m conflicted. On the one hand, I am hesitant to engage with you, because a response would give your rhetoric a degree of legitimacy. On the other hand, your rhetoric is so presumptive and your intentions for participating on this trip are so disingenuous that I feel compelled to speak out. Ironically, the guiding principle that has ultimately led me to pen a response is Hillel’s famous adage in Pirkei Avot: If not now, when? I am sure you are familiar with it.

After reading your tweets and Facebook posts, a few things stood out to me that I feel the need to discuss. The first is the purpose of Birthright.

Taglit-Birthright has never purported to be the forum for young Jews to engage in depth with the Israel-Arab conflict. One glance at the Birthright Israel website should be enough to understand that. Instead, Birthright was born out of a sentiment that you yourselves expressed — that Jews no longer feel connected to their Judaism.

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The goal of the program was, in part, to succeed where Jewish communal institutions in the United States had failed, and to provide young Jews with some kind of connection to their heritage, their spiritual identities, and their Jewish community. To be sure, the institution’s work is also motivated by a desire to give participants a connection to Israel, but connection does not mean an unwavering support of the Israeli government. It means that you begin to form a relationship with the land and with the people.

So they took you to Jerusalem to see how religious Jews pray and to Tel Aviv to show you how secular Jews party. They took you to the desert to see how Jewish pioneers feed a country and to Tzfat to see how Jewish artists create mystical works. They did not do this because of an ethnocentric supremacist ideology that they want to force on you. They did it to show you that, for the first time in 2,000 years, Jews of all varieties are free to be what they want to be in the land of their genesis. It’s a celebration for a group of 40 participants who may have never seen the positive side of being Jewish in their lives.

But you knew that. Still, you went on the trip in order to promote the agenda of an organization whose narrative you seem to have accepted without question.

If you wanted to participate on a trip to Israel that allowed you to meet with Palestinians and Israelis, and engage with the conflict on a deeper level, I know of at least five organizations that offer such trips. Finding them is as simple as Googling “Israel-Palestine educational trips.” But again, you chose to feign ignorance for 10 full days, take advantage of the free trip provided by those “far-right Jewish billionaires” that you fear so much, and tweet IfNotNow talking points as though they were your own.

Moreover, your one-to-one equation of a social-justice ethos with Jewish values is deeply troubling, especially considering that at multiple points in your magnum opus, you express clearly that you have never felt particularly close to your Jewish identity. How can you simultaneously be distant from your community and its values, and yet speak with authority on what the community’s values are and what they are not?

What is most disappointing is that, for all your talk of wanting to critically engage with a complex issue, the path you have chosen — disparaging an organization, disrupting the experience of 35 other participants, being dishonest about your reason for taking part in the trip — was the least critical, most predictable path that you could have taken.

Solving complex issues requires patience and critical examination of the individuals and ideas that created the problem. There are scholars, politicians, lawyers, and activists who have devoted their entire lives to trying to make sense of the conflict and to improve the lives of both Israelis and Palestinians dealing with its consequences. It would be embarrassing to say that you made up your minds after 10 days. It is deeply upsetting to see that you made your minds up before you even set foot on the plane to Israel.

In spite of my frustration with the absurdity of this incident, I still welcome and accept you as part of the Jewish community, as it is written, “Love your fellow as yourself.” I also recognize my own limitations as a student of this conflict. As members of a shared Jewish community, I invite you to join me in studying the history, learning from diverse texts, and sharing our insights with one another. I believe that this is how we make progress and how we in the American Jewish community can positively contribute to building a better world.

Liel Asulin works for CAMERA on Campus, where a version of this article first appeared. 

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