I finally made it to Israel – and because only tour groups can get into the country, I decided to come in on a Birthright trip. Although initially it was a strategic decision to get myself into Israel when I couldn’t do it any other way, I’m so glad I experienced Birthright and I highly recommend other Jews do the same – especially young, left-leaning American Jews whose friends are all convinced Israel is an Apartheid state.
Birthright is available to young people with Jewish heritage aged 18-32, who live outside of Israel, and want to come visit the world’s only Jewish state. You don’t actually have to be Jewish according to halacha (Jewish law) – you just have to have some Jewish heritage and Jewish identity that you are interested in exploring further. Although the trip is provided for free by Jewish benefactors who definitely have an interests in increasing not only the number of Jews in Israel, but the overall image of the Jewish state, Birthright was neither dogmatic nor pedantic.
My group was an unusually small bunch of 14 working professionals. Many of the group were teachers with summers off, and the rest simply took time off work to take the trip. If there was a conservative among us, it was me – and I’m not exactly conservative. The group on the whole was quite left-leaning and, with the exception of me and one other guy, came from major cities in California like San Francisco, L.A., and San Diego. One of our group has parents specializing in international law who teach at Stanford and many of us have friends and family members with strong opinions about Israel – mostly negative.
We departed out of San Francisco on July 18th and arrived on July 19th, jet-lagged but excited. The first three hours after arrival were spent getting tested for Covid – twice by the State of Israel (one PCR, one fingerpick for antibodies), and another PCR by the Birthright trip that would deliver results much faster, allowing us to get on our way towards our first destination.
We slept three to a room. There were six girls, eight guys, and the beginning of our trip was filled with little icebreakers to help us get to know each other. We shared our expectations of the trip, met our funny and energetic tour guide, Nitsan, and by 10:30 the next morning were on our way to northern Israel.
The first stop was in the Golan Heights, where we walked through old Syrian bomb shelters and trenches which were reused by Israel in the 67 war. We could look directly into Syria, where the sprawling mountains are ancient calderas, now filled with neat rows of agriculture. In past trips, Nitsan told us, you could actually hear the gunfire and explosions from the Syrian civil war. Thanks to the ruthless Iranian- and Russian-supported campaign of Bashar al-Assad, the Shi’a minority remains empowered and now the country is trying to pull itself together. The result was a quiet, contemplative overlook towards a border you would never know was there if you didn’t know it was there.
Later, we took a tour through Haifa, one of Israel’s industrial hotspots and the most racially and ethnically mixed part of Israel. In one neighborhood, more than 10 different languages are spoken at home, including Arabic, Russian, Ukrainian, Amharic, English, and, of course, Hebrew. Our tour guide was a member of an urban kibbutz that was involved in increasing community access to bomb shelters, which fall on Arab, secular Jews, and religious Jews alike.
Throughout our trip, we stayed in Nazareth (a large, predominantly Arab city in the north), a Bedouin camp, Jerusalem, and Tel Aviv. We went rafting down the Jordan River, and when campers farther along the river accidentally set their campsite on fire, we had to crash the campsite of an Arab family. They were not too pleased to have a sudden overflow of dozens of dripping people standing on the shore next to them, but they accommodated us and all the other Arab and Jewish rafters until the fire could be put out and we could go on our merry way.
I mention all this because while it is no secret that Arabs and Jews often share a tense mutual dislike, for the most part people in Israel get along quite well. In the recent flare-up between Gaza and Israel, there were ugly clashes between Jews and Arabs in mixed cities. Although international media portrayed this as an overflow of resentment from oppressed Arabs by oppressor Jews, about 90% of the destruction was caused by young Arab men with preexisting criminal records. Both Jews and Arabs suffer when hostilities escalate, and very few people have an interest in heightening tensions between the groups.
Midway through the tour, we had a lecture from Iftah Burman, a PhD student at Bar-Ilan University, about the Arab-Israeli and Israeli-Palestinian conflicts. Later, when we went to Sderot and stood by the border with Gaza, we had a further discussion about the situation in Gaza. It has long been believed that the broader Arab-Israeli conflict would not be solved until the “Palestinian situation” was addressed. The Abraham Accords and shifting geopolitical realities have proved that to be untrue. Other Arab countries don’t give a shit about Palestinians unless appearing to do so serves a public-relations purpose. As evidence, look at how Egypt did not and does not want authority over the Gaza strip (which Egypt also blockades, a fact conveniently overlooked by anti-Israel activists), Jordan does not want West Bank Palestinians in its country, and Lebanon refuses to let Palestinian refugees own property, become doctors or lawyers, or often even leave the filthy, run-down refugee camps in its territory. Iran is happy to sacrifice Palestinian lives in its long-running religious jihad against Israel.
I know more about Israeli history than most American Jews, and definitively more than almost all Americans who believe themselves to be on the “right side of history” when siding with the Palestinians. However, for many of the Birthright participants, this was the first time they were hearing Israeli history, including the history of its wars and conflict, in-depth. Iftah Burman was not a biased presenter. Although he couldn’t go into extreme depth because of time limitations, everything he said was factually true. He was careful to present the Arab narrative, and acknowledge places were Israel could have acted (and can still act) with greater care towards its Arab citizens.
Before and after the lectures, I found it particularly interesting to talk with the participant whose parents are lecturers at Yale. Like many Americans, he bases his morality on the oppressor/oppressed paradigm that emerged after the Civil Rights era. Believing the weaker of two groups to naturally be the more moral, he and I had multiple conversations during our hours on the bus during which he expressed his intuition that Israel surely needed to do things differently. The casualty disparity between Israelis and Palestinians at every conflict, he believed, proved this. Further, he expressed disdain for the concept of borders and countries in general, and to him the notion of the Jewish state was one of the worst forms of racialized jingoism.
Over the course of the trip, we talked extensively. I was genuinely curious about the principles and information he based his opinions on, and was disappointed (but not surprised) to discover that with a little prodding, his theories fell apart. I don’t think I’m more qualified to form an opinion about these issues than anyone else, but having lived outside of the U.S. in more than one place now, it is so glaringly obvious that the good-hearted American “Can’t we all just get along?” is a consequence of the fact that, whatever we may say about racial relations in America, we actually do, for the most part, get along. Our neighbors are not hostile and our complete and utter lack of physical security threats endows us with a sense of goodwill that is sweet but totally naive when applied to other situations.
He’s a smart guy, and I don’t think I was trying to persuade him to have my exact opinions. My point is that he could think for himself. But by the end of the trip, he admitted that he thought Israel was, in fact, a moral military entity. He still thought they could do more, but was unsure of what such action might look like (for what it’s worth, I also think Israel could do more and are generally moving in that direction anyway). He admitted that yes, the occupation was ugly, but any viable alternative was worse and a total pull-out of the West Bank would result in the eventual death of untold numbers of people, both Israeli and Palestinian, Arab and Jew. He knows about the sick, cynical willingness of Hamas to sacrifice its own people for public relations points.
The truth is that it’s easy to have lofty ideas about what Israel should do when you’re sitting in your airy San Diego apartment with your well-educated friends. But it’s much harder to visit Sderot, where the playground structures double as bomb shelters, or look at the large cement security wall that keeps Hamas from shooting directly into Israeli homes, or look into Gaza over which Israeli UAVs and monitoring balloons hover constantly on the lookout for projectiles, or see the piles of remnants of homemade bombs shelled indiscriminately into civilian territory, or or or – and not see that although there may be a major military power imbalance, there is absolutely no moral equivalency between the Israeli military and the Palestinian militants.
During our afternoon at the Western Wall, we visited the Conservative and Reform portion of the wall where non-Orthodox people have more leniency and privacy to do things their way. Our group participated in the Birthright tradition of having Bar and Bat Mitzvahs for those of us who did not have one growing up. These are minor replicas of the real thing – you simply familiarize yourself with your Torah portion and share your thoughts about it.
I was born on the first day of Rosh Hashanah in 1990. My parshah is called Ha’azinu (Deuteronomy 32) and in it, Moses exhorts the people of Israel to remember the preciousness of the Torah and the land of Israel. You don’t have to be religious to derive value out of this parshah; I found it incredibly pertinent to my situation and Israel’s situation on the modern geopolitical and social stage. I shared my feelings with the group that, after thousands of years of diaspora and yearning for a homeland, Jews finally have one – one that they have to protect with their lives from people on all sides who are explicitly and eagerly calling for its destruction. I do not believe that Jews have an obligation to return to Israel. But I do believe that Jews, especially those living in secure, secular countries like America, do have an obligation not to align themselves with the people calling for the death of every Jew in Israel. Israel would not exist but for the people who risked or sacrificed their lives to create and sustain it. There is no guarantee it will continue into the future.
When American Jews march with Palestinians who call for a one-state solution, cry “From the River to the Sea,” and attack Jews dining in public and threaten to rape their daughters, they fail to see themselves as part of yet another movement where secular Jews throw religious Jews under the bus in order to save themselves. Yet that is exactly what they are doing, and in this iteration they are as unlikely to be successful as in the past. When the anti-Semites finish with the religious Jews, they’ll come for the secular ones. They always do.
I understand that the peer pressure is fierce. The social justice agenda du jour is obsessed with freeing the Palestinians with complete disregard as to what that actually means. University campuses all over the U.S. are hotbeds of anti-Semitism, condemning Israel, both in student groups and teacher’s unions. Publicly identifying as a religious Jew is becoming more and more dangerous. Young, liberal, secular Jews stand to lose a lot by refusing to go along with the anti-Israel crusade. Yet a cursory glance at the facts easily disprove actuations of genocide, ethnic cleansing, apartheid, and settler-colonialism. On the part of liberal Jews, this isn’t about truth and justice; it’s about group identity and moral virtue signaling. On the part of the Palestinian liberation movement, this isn’t about dismantling an Apartheid state or earning the nonexistent right of return; it’s about removing every single Jew from the land of Israel, and if that means killing them all, so be it.
Criticizing Israel in America is easy. Visiting Israel and seeing the truth for yourself will change your perspective completely. I understand that there are groups in Israel who align themselves with anti-Israel interests under the guise of human rights. I also believe that there are legitimate concerns over the human rights of the Palestinians. I will believe the claims of groups like B’Tselem when they begin to act with integrity (although they do some good work, they lie or dissemble constantly when it serves their purposes) and propose solutions that don’t end in the violent death of Jews and Arabs alike.
I strongly encourage American Jews to visit Israel with a serious, humble, and open mind. Birthright is a wonderful experience and there are several options available to fit the interests and activity levels of everyone. You will learn things you didn’t know, see things you’ve never seen, and be blessed with the opportunity to appreciate the things in Judaism which are well worth holding on to.