I first heard about Birthright, a free trip to Israel offered to young Jews, as I was being Bat Mitzvahed in Jerusalem. My family and I were there because we wanted to learn more about Israel and our religion. Because the land’s biblical history beckoned. Because we felt the need to compensate for the lack of Jewish spirituality in our lives.
Somewhere between eating laffa shawarma from a vendor in the Old City and floating on the Dead Sea, I felt a familiar, premature nostalgia I’ve often experienced near the end of a trip: a sort of longing for the adventure that was slipping inevitably away, combined with a kind of sadness that I may never return. But then I learned about Birthright. Winding through the rows of sellers hawking fruit and spices in the open-air market, I passed several gaggles of college kids fresh off the massive tour bus laughing, mingling, eating halvah. All I had to do was click a button online to claim my Jewish ancestry and I could join them. In no time, I could be back in Israel, for free, with people my age. I put it on my bucket list, and the premature nostalgia receded.
Before I turned 18 and had the chance to join a Birthright trip, I went back to Israel to visit my older sister. She spoke Arabic and was working as a reporter for a wire service there. So that she could practice the language and get a glimpse of the proverbial “other side” our family tour guide willfully neglected during my Bat Mitzvah trip, we stayed in East Jerusalem, much more proportionally Palestinian than the Jewish West. Then, we visited the West Bank areas of Hebron and Ramallah, cities beyond what Israel calls its security barrier and Palestinians call an apartheid wall. There, I learned, Jewish settlers were encroaching on land owned by Palestinians. Local Palestinian guides pointed to checkpoints that turned daily commutes into feats of endurance, bends in the road where Israeli soldiers shot dead suspected attackers, olive groves where trees withered because settlers had poisoned their roots. These were sites our Bat Mitzvah tour guide had breezed by, had called “too dangerous.” That was code, I was beginning to understand, for too Palestinian. This trip opened my eyes to a very different Israel. How could I have missed all of this?
By the time I got to Yale, I’d still never taken a fun trip to Israel with my peers, and, in light of all I’d seen, something about that memory of carefree, halva-eating teens on the “safe” side of the pre-1967 armistice line made me hesitate. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to “do Birthright” anymore. What was this trip anyway?
Ask and you’ll hear it all: it’s a party, a hook-up fest, a spiritual awakening, pro-Israel propaganda. It’s where you get brainwashed, connect with religion, find your future spouse.
You may also hear nothing at all; many people, wary of the polarized political backlash, don’t like to talk about it. And that’s not surprising because to talk about Birthright is to talk about Israel and Palestine, places occupied by opposing political views and intense, emotional personal narratives.
What one can definitely say about this free and rather mysterious trip to Israel is that it’s offered to young adult Jews. Those who have converted to Judaism or those with only one Jewish parent can also attend. This extraordinary opportunity, gift, obligation — however you define it — is afforded to Jewish Americans based on the concept that they are bestowed, by birth, with the right to visit their biblical homeland at least once in their lives.
Since 1999, upwards of 650,000 young Jews have taken advantage of Birthright. The experience typically lasts 10 days, winding through the small country, roughly the size of New Jersey, with stops at many landmark Judaic sites, such as the Western Wall, The World Holocaust Remembrance Center, Masada and the Dead Sea. On every Birthright trip, around eight Israeli Defense Force soldiers join the trip for a few days.
Birthright is “neither political nor religious in nature,” according to the Israel Outdoors website, the trip organizer Yale uses, and it’s meant especially for “those who may not have a close relationship to Israel.” As pure as that sounds, the money supporting all Taglit-Birthright trips has long raised suspicions about the Birthright agenda.
Support comes from Taglit-Birthright, a nonprofit organization sponsored by the Israeli government and a group of philanthropists — most notably U.S. businessman Sheldon Adelson. A staunch Trump and Netanyahu supporter, GOP mega-donor, and the current CEO of Las Vegas Sands Corp., Adelson has funneled more than $410 million into Taglit-Birthright. Although Adelson’s representatives claim that he has no say over the Birthright itinerary, a 2017 article in the Israeli daily Haaretz reported that after Adelson was brought onto the Birthright board, the trip itineraries dropped the participant meetings with Israeli Arabs.
Despite its admirable website promise, Birthright to me appeared steeped in the region’s inescapable tangle of politics and religion. But what does this mean when our University gets involved, in hopes of acting as a neutral arbiter? How could Yale’s mission of a “free exchange of ideas” infiltrate a place where people could not move freely?
Nathan Isaacs ’20 entered Blue State Coffee, conscious that we were just a couple doors down from the Joseph Slifka Center for Jewish Life at Yale. He had come back from the Yale Birthright only a few months ago, a trip he said that was inspired mostly by his fascination with the archaeology and history of Israel. “A lot of Jewish people talk about feeling a connection with the land — and feeling like you have some sort of tie to it, and I didn’t actually feel like that, and I wanted to go and see what I felt,” he said. “I felt a connection more to the history than to the present.”
Twice a year, during winter and summer breaks, around 28 students like Nathan go on Yale’s Birthright trip. The experience is organized through the Slifka Center’s partnership with the Israel Outdoors Birthright trip organizer, and uses the organization’s “most balanced itinerary offered” according to the Israel Outdoors website. Activities include whistle-stop bus tours at sites like the Dead Sea, hiking up Masada to see the sunrise and riding camels in the southern Negev desert with the formerly-nomadic Bedouin tribes. Meetings with Israeli speakers, organized through Israel Outdoors, including a member of the Israeli Parliament and a political figure close to former President Shimon Peres who was known for two-state solution peace initiatives, are sprinkled among the many activities.
Several Yalies report feeling the strength of the Yale affiliation even halfway across the world. The trip fosters an environment of free inquiry, much like the one on campus, with a focus on re-evaluating one’s own beliefs and analyzing the geopolitics surrounding Israel’s statehood.
“My biggest takeaway was that, yes, there’s a lot of conflict occurring that we can talk about for many, many, many hours but there’s also this sense of coexistence,” said Isaacs. He was “moved to tears” at the Western Wall, the holiest Jewish site, because right above that was the Dome of the Rock, the third holiest Islamic site, and that was just two blocks from the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, where, legend has it, Jesus died after bearing the cross and was later resurrected. Although Isaacs acknowledged Israel’s geopolitical challenges — “I’m not sweeping them under the rug” — in this mingling of religions and cultures, he believes “there is a lot of room for peace.”
Ed Gelernt ’20, who went on a Birthright in 2017, said he thought the trip was “well balanced.” He mentioned visiting the wall separating Israeli and Palestinian areas. “We got off the bus at various points and the tour guide told us about various narratives regarding the conflict.” At one point, his friend entered Blue State, where we were talking, and waved to Gelernt, who said, “We’re talking about our Birthright trip!” His friend, who was on the same trip, joined us, and the two started reminiscing about how great Chen, their main tour guide, was and how they didn’t like the other Israeli tour guide who took them around the wall. When I told him the interview was being recorded, Ed’s friend asked that his name not be used and quickly left.
Driving around and stopping at the Israeli West Bank barrier is not an official feature of a typical Birthright trip. On one Birthright group last December, the way in which the wall was ignored prompted three Jewish Americans to walk off their trip in protest.
On Gelernt’s 2017 Birthright, though, students did stop at a viewpoint to look at and discuss the barrier. “We look at the wall, we look at the the division,” said Nissim Roffe ’21, who also went on the 2017 Birthright trip. Uri Cohen, Slifka Center executive director, said he did not know of any specific tour of the separation wall that occurs on recent trips, but several of the 2017 trip participants interviewed by the News spoke about their experience touring the barrier. The trip leaders of Yale Birthright didn’t respond to my multiple requests for comment.
Many of the Yale students I spoke to said they didn’t let the suspicious politics of the program’s funders stand in the way of the opportunity.
“Even though I’m knowing that some donor in Las Vegas is paying for a third of the trip and is inclined to policies I’m not aligned with, I can keep that in mind and be conscious about that and still have my own experience,” said Roffe. “Who would say no to this?”
Rosa Shapiro-Thompson ’20 would, and has. She is part Jewish, but doesn’t feel very connected to the religion. She never even considered going on Birthright. “I wouldn’t feel comfortable given the ideology of the programs and the funders.” she said. Jack Schleifer ’20, the president of OneVoice at Yale — an educational activism group dedicated to facilitating safe spaces to discuss the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on college campuses — wrestled with what it would mean for him, someone who is a quarter Jewish and has no palpable connection to the religion, to say yes. “If so many people are struggling to have access to an area that means so much to them, should I, as an American, pretty removed from all of that, really be taking the resources to go there?” Shleifer said. “I’ve feared that there would be a lot of propaganda if I were to go. And that it would be really trying to convince me of a certain narrative.”
A 2014 study conducted a group at Brandeis University supports that. The researchers looked at several Birthright trips and found that people return from the trip feeling “very much” aligned with Israel — and significantly more likely to approve of Israel’s response to Gaza than Americans who haven’t attended the trip.
“Obviously I’ve always been pro-Israel,” said Alyssa Fagel ’20, who went on Birthright in 2017. “It was a Birthright trip. I would say everyone was.” She found the trip justified her previously held notions of Israel and the Palestinian conflict. “I had definitely read the news and seen some stuff on social media, and I think I know that there are two sides to every issue, but learning through speaking to people and hearing what they had to say about the conflict made me realize that I’m not just pro-Israel because I’m Jewish but also because of the other circumstances surrounding the conflict.”
She, like others on the trip, found that talking to the eight Israeli soldiers accompanying them provided perspective and insight into the reality of life in the country. Ali Futter ’19, who also attended the winter break 2017 trip, felt an “instant connection with them” based solely on their shared Judaism. Fagel felt they showed her “how the nationalism of Israel is so incredible.” Futter spoke to me seated on a comfy couch in the Slifka Center. “If there’s any mission of Birthright, I believe it’s to allow students to realize they have a home in Israel,” she said.
But the question remains: What “Israel” are they seeing? The participants I spoke to seemed satisfied with their largely one-sided tour: talking to Israeli soldiers, hearing from Israeli speakers and guides, and staying in Israeli territory. Was a visit to the Israeli side of the wall and driving past the Palestinian areas enough? When I asked Futter what she noticed driving past these areas, she made a few attempts to describe her observations, ultimately finding it hard or perhaps uncomfortable to put into words. “I’m afraid to say anything,” she said.
Many believe this kind of reticence to engage with the complexity of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict may reflect a larger issue at Yale.
Ali Futter’s twin sister Lauren went on her Birthright trip through the University of Chicago, where a petition by an anti-occupation organization called IfNotNow was circulating the school with measures to balance the trip with Palestinian perspectives. Columbia University holds an annual “Apartheid Week” that targets Birthright in its push to rally the campus against the Israeli occupation.
After Gelernt’s Yale Birthright trip, he and his friends began to notice — to their surprise — that there was little campuswide interest in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Schleifer, informed from his time leading OneVoice, said that “despite how passionate of a campus Yale is, I feel like there isn’t much activism or enthusiasm around discussing the Israel-Palestine conflict.”
Nika Zarazvand ’20, the president of Yale Students for Justice in Palestine, said that she thinks this is primarily due to the combining of Judaism and Israel, the merging of religion and politics, on campus. “There’s a massive Israeli flag hanging from the Slifka Center for Jewish Life, which represents how state and Judaism become conflated,” she said. “So criticism of Israel as an ethnic nation-state can be conflated with anti-Semitism.”
This normalization is reinforced by the fact that there are very few student groups or classes talking about the occupation on campus. “Yale isn’t even at a place of debate yet, since you have to start with acknowledgement first,” Zarazvand said. “At Yale, we are still arguing over whether Zionism is a problem, so Palestinian students at Yale find it hard to engage.”
In 2012, Uriel Epshtein ’14, a sophomore at the time, said he found campus dialogue regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict shallow and falsely dichotomous. He started the Peace and Dialogue Leadership Initiative, or PDLI, to create a space on campus dedicated to nuanced discussions of how the U.S. interacts with the Middle East, particularly Israel and Palestine.
As a counterpoint to Birthright, PDLI offers a yearlong fellowship with a pro-two-state solution mission to student leaders of diverse political and religious views and backgrounds on campus. The main component of the fellowship is a mostly fully funded trip to Israel and Palestine during spring break.
The PDLI fellowship is highly competitive. Only a very select group of students on campus are given the opportunity: the leaders of political campus organizations, those with an academic background in the region, students who are deemed deft at arguing all sides of an issue. It’s available at both Yale and West Point, and so on each PDLI trip, students from the two schools mix. This is an essential part of the mission of PDLI for Epshtein, as he hopes the fellowship can help ameliorate civil-military relations and facilitate understanding of the military tactics used by Israelis and Palestinians during the conflict.
An essential element of PDLI, according to Elias Mastakouris ’20 — PDLI’s current president — is being able to understand that “people [with whom the fellows engage and meet] are going to speak and a lot of the time you’re going to hate what they say and hate the conclusions that they come to, but they all represent a sort of partial truth based off of personal experience. Some are more true than others, but they’re all voices you need to hear in order to understand the reality of the conflict.”
Understanding the reality of the conflict means also going into the West Bank, which, as former PDLI fellow Jinchen Zou ’18 said, “really matters and contextualizes what you’re hearing with real people and real places.”
In the words of Noah Amsel ’20, a 2018 PDLI fellow, “Birthright is about connecting to Israeli history, culture, and society; PDLI is about studying a specific political conflict in all its gritty details. If peace in the Middle East were achieved tomorrow, PDLI would cease to exist, but Birthright would continue largely unchanged.”
Yet peace in the Middle East will not be achieved tomorrow. So, when it comes to engaging with Birthright, and with the conflict at large, here’s where I’m at: It’s time for a change.