Last week, eight young American Jews walked off their Birthright tour, a programme which has been running trips to Israel for young people of Jewish heritage, free of charge, since 1999. The group was due to visit an archaeological park in Jerusalem, known as the City of David. The City of David is also called Silwan, and is home to hundreds of Palestinians who are facing deliberate efforts to eradicate their presence by right-wing organisations.
Instead of visiting the park the group chose to walk off the tour and visit the Sumreen family, whose home is situated in the heart of Silwan. Their home has been slated for eviction since 1991, when Israel tried to declare the head of the family an "absentee" and claim his property for the Israeli state. A 27-year-long legal battle has embroiled the family since, with the case remaining unresolved. In disobeying the Birthright tour and opting to visit the Sumreen family, these eight young people defied a well-oiled system that has long pitched the Israeli narrative to the Jewish diaspora.
I spoke to one member of the group, Elon Glickman, about his experience. He says that "it was an honour to be invited into [the Sumreen family's] home – they were incredibly generous for giving us just a small window into the immense struggle they've gone through simply to stay in their home". Elon believes that, even if Birthright had wanted to enlighten its participants, "there was no way for them to explain to us the daily nightmare that the occupation imposes on Palestinians. We had to leave and go speak with the Palestinian people themselves".
Asked about his motivations for walking off the tour, Glickman explains that "like the thousands of other Jews visiting the region on Birthright trips, I wanted to see what's really happening in Israel, and that includes the occupation". Glickman says that although he and his peers repeatedly asked questions about the occupied Palestinian territories (oPt), "every time we were given misinformation, such as being told that the West Bank is part of Israel, and deflected with answers such as 'it's complicated'". He adds "even the map they gave us did not mark the West Bank, it instead said Judea and Samaria. When I asked why this map didn't mark the West Bank, even though Google maps does, I was told that Birthright tells the perspective of Israel and Israel believes the West Bank is part of Israel".
Elon's comments were echoed by Katie Fenster, who was one of five Birthright participants to walk off her tour in late June, marking the first time anyone had defied the organisation to do so. Asked why she and her peers decided to take this first step, Katie told me that "Birthright advertises itself as a life changing experience and I came with the hope that they would help me to reconcile the violence perpetrated against Palestinians that I see on the news with my understanding of Judaism as a religion of social justice". Yet, like Elon, Katie felt that Birthright didn't accurately portray the reality of the situation facing Palestinians. She says "as Americans, we realised that going to Israel and not talking about the occupation is like going to the Jim Crow South and not talking about segregation," referring to the racial segregation imposed on African-Americans in the southern US states until the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Fenster adds: "as the greatest educator of the Jewish diaspora regarding Israel, by ignoring the occupation, Birthright is systematically miseducating Jewish youth."
As the first to break ranks, Fenster's group received widespread media attention, drawing praise and criticism in equal measure. She explains "we did not expect the level of media attention that we have received" but adds she was "relieved" their actions "generated a conversation about Birthright and challenged [its] statements of being an 'apolitical' trip". When the second group decided to follow suit, they reached out to their predecessors for guidance on how to stage an effective walkout. Elon explains that "we wanted Birthright to know that we felt so disappointed and misinformed by their trip that we felt compelled to leave," and, having seen the previous group walk off, "I was inspired by their determination to see the truth of the occupation".
For Elon, the strength of reaction their actions provoked came as a surprise. While some have expressed their support, "others have sent us really hateful messages, claiming we're not real Jews and even sending us death threats". Elon says he and the group have tried to ignore such trolling, but "we know that our decision has riled our American Jewish community in a way that should have happened a long time ago". He adds that some members of the American-Jewish community have been supportive of their actions, even raising "$8,000 to cover our return flight costs in just one day" after Birthright refused to allow the group to fly home with the rest of the party.
Members of Elon's group also went to visit residents of Khan Al-Ahmar, the Bedouin village situated east of Jerusalem, which has been slated for demolition by Israeli forces as part of a plan to extend illegal Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank. The group also visited Hebron as part of a Breaking the Silence tour, yet were harassed by Israeli settlers living in the old city and had paint thrown at them by settler children. Discussing the incident, Glickman says that "what we experienced is in fact very little compared to what Palestinians experience on a daily basis. That being said, it was disturbing to witness the violence of the occupation first hand". For Elon, the worst thing about the experience was the lack of action from the Israeli occupation forces, who did little to reprimand the settlers or settler children. He adds:
[quote] "It made it frighteningly obvious that the soldiers are there for the sake of the settlers and that, because of the Israeli military's presence, they can basically do whatever they want. Meanwhile, Palestinians face extreme restrictions on their daily activities. The contrast is just so stark."
Asked what they would say to anyone thinking about joining a Birthright programme of their own, Katie and Elon are united in their response. Elon says that "you deserve to know the truth and you should demand it. If they won't give it to you then unfortunately you may have to find it yourself". Katie adds that "if you go with Birthright, I urge you to ask questions about the occupation, so that Birthright cannot ignore young Jews' call for freedom and dignity for all".
Since walking out of the tour, Katie says she has discovered many organisations offering a "more holistic" view of the occupation, like Breaking the Silence and the IfNotNow movement, a US-based organisation opposing the Israeli occupation. For Katie, IfNotNow's launch of the hashtag #NotJustAFreeTrip, which seeks to highlight the role that Birthright plays in hiding Israel's occupation of the Palestinian territories, is vital. She says: "I think that we can spark a conversation to challenge the occupation and [the American-Jewish] community's support for it. Ultimately, if we can get our community to agree that the occupation is a problem, we will be one step closer to ending it."