After being privileged last year to go on a Taglit-Birthright trip with 40 students from Johns Hopkins University, last month I traveled with 12 other student leaders to Israel and the West Bank with J Street U. Since then I’ve been reflecting a great deal on these two very different experiences.
Birthright helped to provide a stronger connection to my Jewish identity. After the trip, I began to take more Jewish studies courses and engage more with the campus Hillel. I took an internship with Hillel’s Peer Network Engagement Internship program and started organizing my own events.
I realize, though, that the Birth-right model is not designed to instill a strong sense of responsibility in diaspora Jews toward Israel. After all, it’s easy not to feel responsible for issues that no one asks you to think about. Rather, the program focuses more on fostering a general sense of connection. This often leaves students unable or uninterested in being the “ambassadors” that Birthright so often asks us to be back home.
Birthright prides itself on being apolitical, and indeed on the trip I learned little of substance about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I have heard arguments for why Birthright does not venture into exploring the conflict, and to an extent I understand why. The trip targets a broad group of Jewish young people and there’s only so much that can be accomplished in 10 days.
But reflecting further, I can’t help but find it unsettling that Birthright takes tens of thousands of young, uninformed Jews to Israel without providing any real briefing or debriefing on pressing Israeli societal issues, all the while telling us to go home and “tell the truth about Israel” and “love Israel and be a proud Jew.”
We do fall in love with the land, with the Mediterranean Sea, the food and the Israelis we meet. We have energizing hikes and a lot of fun. Yet Birthright does not prepare us to engage with legitimate and difficult questions back at our college campuses and in our communities.
A few weeks after returning home from Birthright, I was talking about my exciting trip. A peer asked my opinion on the fact that any Jewish person like myself from anywhere in the world can travel throughout Israel with ease, but there are Palestinians who have lived on the land for generations who face burdensome restrictions of movement.
I had no idea what to say. I didn’t even know what checkpoints were.
“It’s the Jewish homeland?” I replied meekly, frustrated with my own ignorance. Not only was I unable to defend Israel to people who challenged it, but I felt embarrassed and confused.
Several weeks later I was asked how I could defend a state that expanded settlements in the occupied West Bank. I had no idea what people were talking about regarding “international law” and “illegal outposts.” Again I scratched my head and realized I knew so little of “the truth” that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had asked me and thousands of other participants at Birthright’s Mega Event to relay back on campus.
In contrast, while at times on the J Street U trip I felt uncomfortable with the Israel I saw, I left feeling deeply committed to its future. I saw Israel not simply as a place to which I wanted to return, but as a story of which I wanted to be a part.
On the J Street U trip, we met with Israelis from Sderot and Netiv HaAsara who regularly face the threat of rockets from Gaza, with Holocaust historians from Yad Vashem, an Israeli scholar specializing in deligitimization, leaders of the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah, Israeli university students, Jewish settlers in Gush Etzion, human rights activists and Palestinian citizens of Israel.
We met with two-staters, one-staters and those who advocate a constitutionally enforced binational state. We met with Palestinians and Jews living in the segregated city of Hebron. We wrestled with the role of diaspora Jews. At the end of it all, we emerged exhausted, intellectually humbled and more motivated to work to help Israel.
J Street U refused to present Israel as what Ir-Amim founder Danny Seidemann called a “Jewish Disneyland.” And I’m grateful for that. I still love Israel, but confronting the challenging parts of the country compelled me to have a much deeper sense of responsibility.
If those same students from last year ask me questions now about Palestinian freedom of movement or settlement expansion, I’m not sure I would have good answers. But I am positioned to be ready to seriously engage and grapple with the ideas, concerns, questions and consequences of the conflict. I am working to create a situation in which Palestinians, Israelis and I can all move more freely in peace and security, with self-determination for both peoples.
I am not suggesting that Birthright start distributing talking points on the conflict during their trips. But I am recommending that Birthright provide far greater opportunities for participants to struggle and engage with Israel’s real issues. Do not underestimate us. Then maybe we all can come home better equipped to be responsible ambassadors.
Rachel Cohen is a rising junior at Johns Hopkins University.