Over winter break, I went on Birthright. For all of the Gentiles out there, Birthright is basically a whole bunch of rich people philanthropists and the Israeli government paying for Jewish youths to partake in a ten-day educational tour of Israel.
Trips have religious aspects, and tend to include both a volunteer project and an encounter with Israeli soldiers. Most of the 340,000 yearly Birthright participants have never been to Israel before and they experience Israel as the tour group chooses to allow them to experience Israel (however that may be).
When I told my friends I was going on Birthright, everyone had a different reaction. However, I received three general (and completely valid) responses.
The first reaction was, “You are going to have an amazing time! I went on Birthright and it was life changing.” Birthright has a reputation for being a really fun free party which happens to inspire intense Zionism. I know several American Jews who have returned from Birthright trips insisting they are experts on the Middle Eastern conflict (they aren’t) and how they are newly more culturally and religiously connected after ten days of being in “The Holy Land” for the first time.
Their reactions seemed very frivolous and shallow given they had shown no interest in either Israel or Judaism before their trip–and this frivolity is somewhat of a joke in Israel. Watch this video to get a better understanding of how Israelis perceive Birthright participants (READ: stupid and ridiculous).
My second favorite was, “Uh… Is Israel even safe?” For visiting Israel, the short answer is yes. I have been to Israel twice before for several weeks each time and never felt like I was in danger. An armed guard traveled with us on Birthright the entire time, but he really did not need to do anything safety-related on our trip. Remember that the Israeli population is over 7 million and all of those people are living their lives–going to work, grocery shopping, eating out with friends– just as you would anywhere else.
It is easy to forget that the country that is always the center of Middle Eastern conflict still has “normal” people leading “normal” lives. Conversely, I would not be able to guarantee that you would feel safe if you entered the Gaza Strip.
Third, I was informed, “Birthright is propaganda! Don’t go. They are going to try to brainwash you into becoming a fanatical pro-Israel Zionist!” I understand the propaganda concern. Birthright is propaganda. Israel is being shown in its best light to thousands of young Jews. Birthright takes participants to certain places and introduces them to certain people- and that is not the real Israel. There is so much more to the country besides Judaism, seeing tourist attractions, and meeting nice people.
However, it is the Israel the government wants the rest of the world to see. Even though Birthright claims there is no catch to going on the free trip, participants are being sold the ideology of Zionism. I am not saying that this is a bad thing, but it is the reality of the situation. Having been to Israel before and having a high bullshit meter, I tried to stay very aware of what and how I was being shown Israel when I wasn’t hanging out with people and eating my free buffet meals.
While on Birthright, I basically saw lots of stuff and ate lots of food. Masada, the Dead Sea, and the Western Wall were definitely highlights of our trip. We spent most of our time in the North in Tiberias and in the capital, Jerusalem. For me, the most meaningful place we visited was Mount Hertzl (a cemetery for soldiers) because I realized that the Israeli soldiers we had befriended led a vastly different life from the one we had seen while traveling together: the Army. All the while, we Americans were all living in our little NYU bubble.
Obviously, everyone who travels will have a unique, individual experience. Overall, my Birthright experience was really positive; I gained from my trip more than I could have ever imagined. Even though there were a few moments where I felt uncomfortable discussing my religious beliefs (or lack thereof), I got to travel for free and make new American and Israeli friends. I also feel like I learned a lot about myself– that I am proud of my Jewish culture, but I do not have to embrace the religious part of Judaism in order to feel that pride.