On June 29, Mayanot Bus 354 drove from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv. I sat at the front of the bus, experiencing the physical and emotional whirlwind of nine days on a Birthright trip through Israel. As we entered Tel Aviv and headed for the optimistically named Birthright Innovation Center, I glanced nervously at the woman seated to my left and then scooted to the edge of the seat. After a few minutes of back and forth, the tour guide handed me the microphone and I stood up to face a bus full of my peers, young American Jews from across the United States. I had spent the last nine days getting to know these people and now I was announcing that I and four other young women were leaving the trip early to join with Breaking the Silence on a tour of occupied Hebron. I had written a speech in the early morning hours. I wanted to talk about tikkun olam, a Jewish value conspicuously missing from most of the trip. Regardless of the criticisms this concept has come under lately, tikkun olam was the first Jewish value I learned as a child and it has deeply informed my relationship with Judaism and social action ever since. I wanted to thank the 35 other participants for their time and emotional energy. I wanted to tell them that my own Jewishness, my own sense of a Jewish self that clings deeply to a tradition of social justice movements—from resistance movements in oppressed Eastern Europe to the civil rights movement of the last century and today—demanded I no longer participate in a trip that blatantly ignored and tacitly endorsed military apartheid.
My speech was angrily cut short by the tour guide and the next 30 minutes passed in a blur of insults and offense, now captured and replayed millions of times on the internet. I watched, despairingly, as participants who had known very little about Palestine nine days earlier embraced the rhetoric they had heard on the trip. Some assured us we would be “killed and raped” upon setting foot in the West Bank. Others implored us to change our minds, repeating the refrain we had heard often over the previous nine days: “It’s not the time or the place.”
If we do not talk about borders while within, arguably, the most contested borders in the world, then how do we talk about them at all? How do we, while driving through militarized checkpoints, talk about the “security” and “safety” of Israel and never mention the violence those spaces enact on Palestinians bodies and communities?
I would like to talk about them now. First, because it feels irresponsible to talk about Birthright protests, or anything else related to Israel/Palestine, without speaking of national and international boundaries and their high costs, which only some communities have to bear. Second, because international state borders are not the only ones I transgressed when I joined and subsequently walked off a Birthright trip three weeks ago.
Birthright claims to offer an apolitical tour of Israel and a neutral chance to explore one’s Jewish identity. As an institution it does not explicitly endorse the occupation or any of Israel’s other military activities. However, it makes a point to celebrate military victories, introduce participants to Israeli soldiers, and conveniently omit the existence of the West Bank or the millions of Palestinians living there from its maps and language. Israel is political. Bringing young Jews from around the world to Israel to learn about their connections to the land and nation-state is a fundamentally political act. Refusing to engage in dialog about the occupation or let participants interact with Palestine or Palestinians in a meaningful way upholds the occupation, for it accepts the occupation as natural and never lets participants think critically about the occupation’s existence.
Years ago, a dear friend jokingly suggested I do a “subversive” birthright trip. “Not possible,” I responded with a laugh, but the suggestion has echoed in my head ever since. This winter, I hesitantly signed up. Even though my ideas about Birthright as an inherently political institution upholding a violent occupation did not change, my ideas about how to engage with Jewish communities and how to honor multiple types of social change have altered.
I run in generally leftist circles. I’m pursuing a Ph.D. in anthropology at one of the most radically leftist departments in the United States and my work is deeply invested in the anti-violence movement. My work focuses on the ways structural violence such as white supremacy, misogyny, and capitalism intersect with instances of domestic violence and shape institutional responses to domestic violence. It is not only expected that my academic work be politically engaged but also that it inform how and when I take to the streets to lock arms in solidarity with the communities with which I work. Organizations and activists I respect have called for a boycott of Birthright for years. Most notably, Jewish Voice for Peace has run the #ReturnTheBirthright campaign and offers a list of alternative ways to travel through or learn about Israel. Their campaign indeed triggered some of my own political awakening around Birthright and Israel/Palestine. As a result of their organizing and that of other like-minded activists, no one in my intimate circle of friends has taken the trip because we are all too critical and too aware that beneath the “apolitical” branding and exciting pictures of camel rides lies a propaganda experience meant to convince young Jews—especially marginalized or disenfranchised ones like me—to support the state of Israel at all costs.
I understand this line that we, as a broadly defined group of leftists, have drawn in the sand. I crossed it anyway. There is power in the symbolic boundaries we create and, just like with national borders, there is also someone living on the other side. Power, knowledge, and resources are distributed unevenly across these lines, even the symbolic ones.
Symbolism, boundaries, and critically weighing the consequences of our actions are crucial for sustainable social change. But symbolism for the sake of purity is a value I am learning to reject if it comes at a price of inaction. What does this mean for me, as a Jew whose deepest connection to Judaism is a consistent call for shared liberation? I grew up in an interfaith home, largely outside of Jewish community but always longing for it. I was a young adult when a friend handed me a copy of Nice Jewish Girls: A Lesbian Anthology and I found my experience in the world articulated for the very first time. I was introduced to the generations of Jewish women who have come before me and invested their life’s work into challenging violent structural norms, not in ways that are separate from their Jewish identity but instead because of their Jewishness. I have chosen to root my own Jewishness in activism, even though those communities are too often placed at odds with each other and especially when it comes to Israel/Palestine. If it takes transgressing symbolic borders, in both communities, to challenge the violent existence of state borders and occupied territories, then I question the usefulness of our symbolic lines.
Young Jews are going on Birthright at astonishing rates. Approximately 40,000 American Jews will participate in Birthright’s 2018 summer season. Birthright proudly markets itself as the largest Jewish educational institution in the world. They are effectively determining the minds of tens of thousands of young Jews each year. I understand and agree with calls to forego Birthright. But clearly the vast majority of young Jews are not getting the same message.
When I submitted my birthright application, it was a very intentional decision to engage with an institution I do not respect in an effort to build a relationship with a community for whom I feel responsible. In doing so, I transgressed a well-known line in the activist community and walked into the murky waters of incremental social change. It was a calculated risk I was able to take in no small part because of my positionality as a white, American Jewish woman.
It was my deep hope to create genuine relationships with my fellow Birthright participants. I wanted my presence on the trip to poke holes in the myopic narrative Birthright offers. I wanted my persistent questions about the occupation, Israeli settlements, and violence in Gaza to encourage curiosity and maybe even outrage in my fellow participants. That hope was realized in four other participants, who eventually walked off the trip with me. Though we all came carrying various levels of skepticism about Birthright and very different activist backgrounds, we were all eager to engage with both Birthright staff and our fellow participants about the occupation, the recent Israeli violence in Gaza, and why we oppose those things not in spite of our Jewish identity but because of it.
Over the course of the trip, it became very clear that space for genuine engagement about the occupation was limited. So, we decided to take a different course of action. We decided to leave our trip on the last day and to make it clear that visiting Israel without learning about Palestinians or the reality of the occupation is morally reprehensible.
Maybe our inability to engage deeply with our fellow participants is a symptom of the individuals we were with or perhaps it’s a sign that Birthright’s propaganda is far too impervious for a few passionate individuals to poke holes in over the course of ten days. It is easy enough to convince myself that I never should have gone or that I failed to meaningfully engage my community in a dialog about the atrocities committed in our name.
However, social change is a process, one in which there should be room to fail and also one in which success does not always look like what we originally planned. I didn’t change the minds of the entirety of my birthright cohort. In the moment, I didn’t change any minds. It did not bring down Birthright as an institution and it did not end the occupation, but it was a step towards both of these things. Our action, flawed and imperfect, has captured the attention of the mainstream Jewish community and prompted more conversation than I ever could have hoped. Two weeks after our action, eight more participants, inspired by our group, walked off of their Birthright trips. These actions have made international news cycles consistently for the past month. Individuals are reaching out to me and other walk-off participants with questions about Birthright, the occupation, Israel. They are expressing discomfort with the status quo and curiosity about the impetus to our actions. We have reached a group of people who are generally on the other side of the borders we create and some of them are edging close to the line.
Our attempts at social change cannot be about purity of action or reifying boundaries about with whom we can and cannot engage if purity of action and activist boundaries come at the cost of never moving the people on the other side of these lines.
This border metaphor only goes so far. The consequences of my transgression are real but minimal. Many activists are angry that I would ever go on Birthright in the first place; they argue that doing so offers the institution some legitimacy that it does not deserve. The critics, especially online, are endless and have come from all positions on the political spectrum. They insist that my identity, be it at as a Jew or as an activist, is not good enough because of the stand I took. The consequences have made me uncomfortable, but my personhood is still intact. The hate mail has never threatened my physical security and I am fully able to live my daily life without additional risks.
The same is not true for those impacted by other borders—state borders secured by increasingly militarized forces. Lines drawn on a map 70 years ago, with no intention of permanence, shape the daily lives of millions of Palestinians. Families have been separated and homes demolished. The basic dignity to move freely about one’s own home is denied on a daily basis as increasing numbers of streets forbid Palestinian cars and businesses and, often, Palestinians themselves. Israelis violate international, and even Israeli, law to settle on the other side of the green line and Palestinians are displaced and fragmented even further within the open-air prison they cannot escape. Children are detained and vital resources are consistently limited. All of this has been reinforced by Israel’s new nation-state law, legally recognizing Israel as a Jewish state above all else.
In our efforts to combat these violent structures, all deeply intertwined and shaped by global capitalism, white supremacy, and misogyny, we must make difficult choices. We have to break rules and transgress social norms on many sides. Sometimes that means making everyone uncomfortable, the institutions we disagree with and the communities in which we are deeply invested. In an effort to grow in a way that does not unnecessarily reproduce oppressive structures, social change requires continuous self-reflection. It’s also a constant balancing act of short-term and long-term goals, maintaining safe spaces while also bringing in new people and challenging our own notions of community. Those of us in positions to do so need to take on the uncomfortable emotional labor required to challenge hegemony and offer alternative communities to more people. As activists, we are not immune to the violent logics that surround us. We also entertain dangerous ideas related to in- and out-crowds and the purity of process that can inhibit our ability to create sustainable change or limit the communities or organizations with which we allow ourselves to engage. If we are not consistently reflective and critical about our own communities, we end up needlessly replicating the violent structures we are trying to stand against.