Thursday, October 29, 2020

Birthright Walkoffs: a changing Jewish-American youth view of Israel

By Naomi Kundera - July 24, 2018
Section: [Main News] [Features]
Tags: [Jews] [youth]

Ten days on an all-expenses paid trip to “the promised land” is not easily forgone by an American in their twenties. Add on the consumed imagery of Tel Aviv being a party capital and the prospect of finding a nice Jewish spouse and the Birthright trip becomes that much more enticing.
But more and more young, Jewish Americans are starting to see Birthright for what it really is: a right-wing tool to propagate a narrative which keeps the occupation in the shadows.
“When I signed up for birthright… I signed up with the intention of asking questions, as did some of the others that did walk off,” Hallie Berkson-Gold, 26, told Palestine Monitor.
“But as we were getting discussions going, there was still some glaring pieces of information that were not factual or missing entirely.”
Berkson-Gold was one of eight young Jewish Americans who walked off their Birthright trip last week.
A few among these eight came to this decision after asking hard-hitting questions about the occupation to their tour guide.
Palestine Monitor was told their guide mentioned nothing about the enormous separation wall they were driving by, and ignored most of their questions.
In the end, their tour guide told them that Birthright was “not going to provide [them] the information they were looking for,” and that they, “really didn’t have a place on the trip,” if they were going to continue asking about the Palestinian narrative.
So, they decided to leave.
The outcasted group contacted some activist organizations who helped them get in touch with people willing to share the whole story about the occupation with them.
A tour of Hebron with Breaking the Silence and a visit to a family in East Jerusalem facing imminent eviction were among some actions on the group’s itinerary.
Shift in perception on Israel
Young Jews in America have been collectively realizing that what they’ve been told about Israel by members of their community hasn’t been adding up to the reality on the ground, Berkson-Gold explained to Palestine Monitor.
“I think that there’s a huge shift in perception [regarding Israel] in my generation of millennials.”
Although her fellow Jewish peers might be at different stages of understanding what’s really going on in Israel, Berkson-Gold expressed that other Jews her age, “are actively anti-occupation or at least questioning and doubting everything they’ve been taught.”
The 2014 war on Gaza was an eye-opening event for millennials that shifted the conversation about the Israel-Palestine conflict. It casted a light on the atrocious capabilities of Israel in a similar way the First Intifada did for the generation before them.
“Everything that has been happening in Gaza now with the Israeli soldiers shooting unarmed Palestinian protesters has really brought back critical viewpoints [of Israel] as of late.”  
Becoming critical of the one-sided narrative
For around 50,000 American Jews every year, Birthright is the only way young Jews will ever see Israel. It is the dominant force in the conversation about Israel among this demographic.
“Talking to other young American Jews there is a sort of hesitation around birthright,” Corinne Curcie, 24, said. Curcie is another Birthright deserter from last week’s group.
People back in the United States (US) sort of, “pause and say, 'what am I actually supporting [by] doing this? Am I empowering Israel or a message that I don’t believe in?’” she explained.
The shifting perception of Israel among Jewish- American youth comes at a time when Birthright seems to be doubling down on its goal of perpetuating a one-sided narrative.
Sheldon Adelson, co-founder of and big-time donor to Birthright, is a known right-wing pro-Israel millionaire. But over the past two years he has gone full-on, no-smoke-screen liaison for the Israeli narrative in the US.
Last year at the American-Israeli Council (AIC) conference Adelson declared the organization - unlike other Jewish groups in the US, including the lobbying group the American-Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) - to be “an unequivocal support organization for Israel.”
“There’ll be no political correctness,” he said at the conference. “There’ll be no questions about whether we can keep the White House door open to us.”
Adelson charted course for AIC to oppose the AIPAC policies of supporting a two-state solution and continued aid to Palestinians.
If his money doesn’t make his message clear then maybe him flipping off protestors at the Birthright anniversary gala last April and calling them “stupid left-wing Jews” does.
Whether one believes in Birthright ever being a well-intended way for diaspora Jews to reconnect with their Jewish identity or not, it is clear that the people funding the program has an agenda for it.
And the right-wing, one-sided narrative just isn’t sitting well with today’s generation of American Jews.
Reaction by the youth of America’s Jews today probably has a lot to do with a culmination of political factors going on in the US today.
Dr. Marc Dollinger, professor of Jewish studies and author of Quest for Inclusion: Jews and Liberalism in Modern America, explained to Palestine Monitor that American Jewish politics follow more from the larger American political culture than anything distinctly Jewish.
Today’s political culture there is a, "notion that one must engage, one must be an activist, one must resist, one must risk their power and privilege to achieve a larger goal,” he said.
 “I think that IfNotNow embodies all of that.”
At the beginning of this summer, the US-based Jewish activist group IfNotNow launched a campaign called “Not Just a Free Trip.”
This campaign urges the 40,000 American Jews set to go on Birthright this summer to hold the organizing groups accountable and to tell the truth about the occupation.
IfNotNow is just one example of a many peaceful, leaderless actions in protest to oppressive forces that have been occurring all over the country over the last decade.
“I see this as generational,” Dollinger explained. “I see this as a reflection of the progressive [Jewish] left. And I see this as a function and reaction to larger social justice movements in the era of Black Lives Matter… and in Trump’s America too.”
Rather than a definite trend, Dollinger sees the young Jewish American perspective on Israel as merely a reflection of the current political culture.
IfNotNow and the young people that walked off their Birthright trip are, “the next generation of the American-Jewish youth critique of Israel and Zionism, set now around the occupation and Palestinians because that is the issue of this generation.”
Leftist youth movements are in and they are powerful. Young liberal Jews in the US have just found their power too in opposing Israel.

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