A group of eight Birthright Israel participants in Jerusalem walked off the tour, according to social media posts by the non-profit American Jewish organization IfNotNow. They shared a video taken by a participant on the trip, documenting their visit to a Palestinian family living in East Jerusalem.
The participant in IfNotNow’s video is emotional as she describes her reason for leaving the trip. “We have had a hard time with some of this misinformation and generalizations that we’ve been hearing,” she says. “This is a real opportunity, and rare, for us to listen and learn and to take a stand against endless occupation and for freedom and equality.”
Birthright is an organization that sponsors free 10-day trips to Israel for young Jews around the world. Over the course of the program’s 20 year history, it has sent more than half a million young people to Israel.
Haaretz reports on the latest protest:
“We think that part of the story is the occupation and unfortunately Birthright will not show us this reality, they try to leave the occupation out of the story,” said one of the people who left the Birthright tour. Becky Wasserman, 26 from Boston, said that “we tried to point during the tour to the fact that they won’t speak to us about the occupation, but we got no answers. They gave us a map of Israel that doesn’t have the West Bank borders depicted on it. It’s really unfortunate because Birthright is often the only opportunity for young Americans to learn about what’s going on.”
According to Wasserman, she did not plan to leave the tour when she first arrived, but decided to do so once she realized she was not going to receive honest answers about the occupation or hear the perspective of the Palestinians. Therefore, she got in touch with Israeli activists.
The Sumreen family, who the participants visited, live in East Jerusalem, the part of the city that is inside the Palestinian-controlled West Bank. They are under threat of displacement by the Jewish National Fund and Ir David Foundation, who have tried multiple times since the early ‘90s to evict the family. According to Haaretz:
The Sumreen family has been facing eviction notices by the Ir David Foundation and the Jewish National Fund since 1991. Israel declared the family home absentee property and later sold it to the Jewish National Fund, which has been seeking the family’s eviction. The family’s filed its own suit, but was rejected for failing to prove they had purchased the property.
This is the second time in the last two weeks that a group of Birthright participants have left a trip to tour Palestinian territory and engage with anti-occupation activists. The last group walked off the tour to visit the Palestinian city Hebron, led by the Israeli army veterans anti-occupation group Breaking the Silence. These latest protesting participants also plan to join a Breaking the Silence tour, and to visit Khal al-Ahmar, a Bedouin village that the Israeli government plans to demolish.
According to Haartez, several of the participants who walked off say that they have heard from Birthright that the organization intends to cancel their plane tickets back to the US. Birthright also responded to Haaretz with a statement:
“50,000 young Jews from all over the world have taken part in Birthright so far and it is the leading educational initiative in the Jewish world.”
“Birthright believes in the ability of the participants to formulate their views and opinions themselves. That is why Birthright will not allow groups with any political agenda to sidetrack the plans for the tours. Participants who interfere with the experience of their friends in the groups for any political objectives will forfeit their deposit and their plane ticket.”
Birthright claims that it is a non-political organization, aiming to connect young Jews with their heritage. But this claim doesn’t line up with reality. In April, Birthright co-founder Michael Steinhart gave the finger to a group of protestors outside of Birthright’s annual gala, calling them “left-wing, stupid young Jews.” The program’s substantial funding comes mainly from private donors that include the conservative billionaire Sheldon Adelson, who has helped fund the campaigns of countless Republicans like Donald Trump. It’s hard to buy that anyone would spend upwards of $47 million dollars a year out of the goodness of their hearts, with no expectation of a return on their investment, especially for a cause that endears young people to a country that is the center of an ongoing international conflict.