Bailing on Birthright


Hearts & Minds That Won’t Be Won

By David Kattenburg

The State of Israel faces no greater struggle than winning the hearts and minds of young American Jews. Judging from the outcome of a recent trip to Israel by a group of Jewish college students, it’s no longer a slam-dunk.

On a recent, all-expenses paid tour organized by Birthright, the lavishly financed, US-based organization that gives American Jewish kids free trips to the ‘Land of Israel’, a half dozen freethinkers repeatedly asked that the topic of Israel’s permanent military occupation and colonization of Palestinian lands be discussed. Their requests were rebuffed.

Pro-Israel Youth on Jerusalem Day (David Kattenburg)

At one point, someone invited a couple of their Jewish Israeli friends to come speak to the group, informally, about the occupation. When the Birthright tour guide found out, he angrily scotched the encounter.

Denied at every turn, their two-week adventure coming to a close, back in Tel Aviv, a spokesperson for the five free-thinking students stood up in the bus and announced that they loved everyone, but that they were going their own way and others were welcome to join them.

Talk about breaking bad! The five students would be taking off to apartheid Hebron with Breaking the Silence, the organization of former Israeli Defense Force (IDF) soldiers who’ve been sharing service stories about brutalizing and humiliating defenseless Palestinians.

The tour guide was not impressed. In the 35-min. video diligently captured by one of the departing students, he berates the rogue Birthrighters, insisting indignantly that they sign waivers, which they did, amidst the generalized shock and opprobrium of their confreres.

Shuhada Street side of souk, old Hebron.

All the while, prepared and efficient, a cadre of Breaking the Silence activists stood in the background, then swiftly spirited the rebels off into vans and down to Hebron.

For 25 year-old Bethany Zaiman, from Washington, D.C., it was quite the adventure, and a matter of principle:

“While I enjoyed the chance to get to know this community and this group of people and to visit Israel, I found it morally irresponsible to stay on a Birthright trip if they were going to ignore the reality of the occupation. And that it’s a mis-education — and an incredibly problematic one — to be the largest Jewish educational institution in the world and to not be talking about the occupation.”

In hindsight, back in D.C, studying anthropology, Bethany Zaiman thinks Birthright needs to be made to feel “uncomfortable.”

“It’s not appropriate to be the largest Jewish educational institution in the world, and not talk about Palestine,” Zaiman says.

Listen to my conversation with Bethany Zaiman:


Bethany Zaiman and Birthright Tour Guide