I went on a Birthright trip when I was 20. I didn’t know anything about Israel or Palestine, and I kind of wanted to keep it that way rather than delve into what appeared to be an endlessly complicated, exasperating web of politics. I did not want to have an opinion on this; it seemed to be a subject too hopeless to be worth wading through all the controversy. But Birthright didn’t seem particularly political, and it blatantly claims not to be; it’s ten free days of traveling, fun and cultural learning in Israel for Jewish young adults. So many people I knew were coming back from these trips saying that it was the best experience of their lives. How could I say no?
Throughout my entire trip, something felt “off” on a gut level. My conscience felt unsettled the entire time, and I didn’t know why. I couldn’t shake the feeling that there was something being hidden from us, and that kept me from getting as lost in the fun and fanfare of Birthright as my peers were. So when I got back to the United States, I sat down and set off on a long trek through endless lectures, books, studies, conferences, articles and straight-up propaganda from both pro-Israel (Zionist) and anti-Occupation (non-Zionist) sides, and everything in between. In the midst of all that reading and listening, I began to write – I needed to process what I was learning and what I’d just experienced on Birthright. That writing turned into a thesis, that thesis turned into a series of lectures at several universities. Needless to say, I ended up taking a stance that I never intended to take.
What became abundantly clear – even after experiencing and seeking out so much from the pro-Israel side of things – is that Israel enacts many layers of systemic oppression and human rights violations upon the Palestinian people on a daily basis. There are sometimes violent acts of retaliation from Palestinians – in the form of Hamas rockets, stabbing attacks, all of those things the news publicizes- and these acts of violence are obviously worthy of full condemnation. But unlike what I’d assumed before, this was not a case of two sides with roughly equal power and resources that just hate each other and just hopelessly can’t coexist. In reality, this is one colonial power – a group with large sums of money and resources (largely in the form of $3.5 billion of annual aid from the U.S.) – claiming ownership over a piece of land and ethnically cleansing the population that had been there for, at the very least, many generations prior. Not only are the death tolls (especially civilian death tolls) exponentially higher when it comes to Palestinians killed by Israel than the other way around, but the actual power structure is similarly skewed. This is what the term “Israeli Occupation” refers to. It encompasses genocide, rampant violations of international law, large-scale racism, colonialism and de facto grand apartheid. All of that is the undeniably relevant context in which Birthright trips take place.
To be fair, I did have several people tell me that their Birthright trips included some propaganda. They sort of chuckled and shook their heads when mentioning it, like a funny little side note. But when I asked them to go into detail about what this propaganda was, what its aims were, and in what forms it was presented, no one was really able to answer, which automatically made me curious. After all, a Birthright trip costs roughly $3,000 per participant (covered by the Israeli government, big-name right-wing Zionist billionaires like Sheldon Adelson, and various Zionist organizations all over the world), and according to Birthright’s own website, over 500,000 people have gone on these trips. That’s over $1,500,000,000 and counting. This alone should abolish the idea that Birthright has no political agenda: no one gathers and spends that kind of money for no reason.
Birthright’s agenda can be broken down into four overarching goals:
- To bolster Jewish-Israeli demographics by A) increasing rates of intrafaith (NOT interfaith) marriage and procreation and B) encouraging Jews to feel a sense of ownership over the land and move to Israel permanently
- To get young Jews to develop and maintain a personal fiscal relationship with Israel through commerce and donations and support the national fiscal relationship between Israel and their home country
- To get young Jews to develop a strong Jewish identity that is inextricably and unconditionally tied to political Zionism
- To build participants’ unconditional support of the IDF through the Mifgash program
1. Demographic warfare has been a huge component of Israel’s conquest since its founding in 1948. Founded openly with the mission to keep Jews at 80% or more of the land’s population and Palestinians at 20% or less, Israel has always been clear that one of their key strategies in obtaining and maintaining power is to obtain and maintain a population majority. This “strength in numbers” idea is fairly straightforward and has been a focus of countless groups seeking power throughout the ages. But it’s no small feat to go against the nature of human demographics and maintain a fixed population ratio; it requires a lot of work, none of which is ethical. Israel has engaged in forced sterilization, large massacres, forced migrations, the withholding of basic resources in attempt to get Palestinians to leave on their own accord, etc. But on a more basic level, Israel has always targeted the Palestinian birthrate as a threat, and actively worked to compete against it by trying to raise the Israeli Jewish birthrate and encourage more Jews from around the world to immigrate to Israel.
One unexpected message I heard often during Birthright was that Jews should not be dating or marrying non-Jews. There was a huge emphasis on finding Jewish partners and making Jewish babies (my tour guide actually announced, verbatim, “What is the one thing we want from you? Jewish babies,” in an only-half-joking way). Sometimes there was even blatant mention of the Palestinian birthrate and suggestion that we should be working to catch up. I eventually learned that one of the founders of Birthright themselves was acting in response to the fact that Jews were marrying non-Jews, which he viewed as a crisis of community3. One report found Birthright alumni to be 57% more likely to marry Jewish partners than non-alumni2. All of this is part of a decades-old strategy.
Of course, throughout the trip we were also persistently encouraged to make aliyah – to immigrate to Israel. By 2010, over 17,000 Birthright alumni had already moved to Israel. The Law of Return allows Jewish people to do this but forbids Palestinians to return to the homes from which they and their families were expelled. That fact was never mentioned, but instead we participants were constantly pushed to feel personal ownership over the land. In my notes, I tried to keep a tally of how many times the phrases, “This is YOUR land,” and, “This is YOUR home,” were used. I eventually lost count. The eerily Manifest Destiny-esque refrain of, “This is yours. Come claim it,” was unending.
Here I was, an American citizen who had a home in the U.S., had never been to this land or cared much about it before, being told that this was MY land and my “real home” and that I belonged there. Meanwhile, there were millions of people whose families have (or had, until being forcibly removed from the land) been here for generations being told that this is not their home and they don’t belong here. And meanwhile, the land is rife with serious resource limitations that make it difficult to accommodate even the current population, and Israel often forces Palestinians to bear the brunt of those shortages. What’s more, Palestinian homes and livelihoods in these lands are being actively destroyed. An estimated 27,000+ Palestinian homes – not to mention agriculture and infrastructure – have been demolished between 1967-2012 by the Israeli government. A Palestinian family would likely be displaced to make room for me if I were to move there. Who was I to feel entitled to a sense of place in this land when others- people for whom this truly was home- were being violently denied it?
The eerily Manifest Destiny-esque refrain of, “This is yours. Come claim it,” was unending.
2. It’s no secret that money is power in today’s world, and it plays no small role in the Israeli Occupation. At first, the cash flow aspect of Birthright didn’t seem significant to me. Yeah, hundreds and thousands of young people were being brought to Israel and actively encouraged to spend money at every opportunity (shopping was a huge part of our daily itinerary. One day they made us sit in a dark room at an Ahava store and watch an Ahava infomercial), but wasn’t that canceled out by how much money was spent on bringing us there in the first place? Then I thought about the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement: the foremost worldwide movement against the Israeli Occupation, BDS seeks to nonviolently pressure Israel to comply with international law and grant Palestinians equal human rights. Birthright and its affiliated groups have started countless anti-BDS campaigns, along with expensive programs, product lines and fund-raisers to obtain capital from Birthright alumni.
To counteract the BDS movement, Birthright and affiliated Zionist organizations seek to encourage people all around the world to have individual financial relationships with Israel, and to continue them once their trip is over. But on a much larger scale, Israel relies heavily on fiscal relationships with other countries, especially the United States. Fun fact: IDF Commander-in-Chief, Gabi Ashkenazi, once let it slip that over a three-year period, American taxpayers put more money toward the Israeli defense budget than Israelis did. At some point it became real to me that whether or not I wanted them to, my own tax dollars were financing the bombs that fell on Gaza and the machine gun with which my friend’s young son was shot. Birthright seeks to have its participants be fully on board with that.
3. At first, one of the things I loved most about Birthright was its focus on fostering Jewish identity within each of its participants. It didn’t matter how we practiced our faith or whether we had any religious practice at all, it didn’t matter if we were fully ethnically Jewish or just had one Jewish grandparent, it didn’t matter if we grew up immersed in Jewish culture or if we grew up as the only Jew in town; we were encouraged to form whatever sort of Jewish identity was meaningful to us. Since Jewish identity is important to me and also quite personal, I loved that. But I eventually caught on to the subtext (which sometimes was actually spoken outright): “Your allegiance to Israel needs to be at the core of your Jewish identity.” We were taught to see Zionism as an inseparable component of being a Jew, meaning that we were traitors to our people if we didn’t unconditionally support Israel. Ideological diversity and independent thought were, simply put, not encouraged in this arena.
4. The Israeli military (commonly referred to as the Israel Defense Forces) is the primary agent enforcing the Occupation on the ground each day. The checkpoints, the home demolitions, the night raids/child arrests, the holding of innocent people for extended periods of time with no trial, the mass bombings, the maintenance of the siege on Gaza, etc.- all of that is enacted by the Israeli military (for more information on this, check out the book Our Harsh Logic, which chronicles the experiences of Israeli soldiers in their own words). So naturally, Birthright has a very close relationship with the Israeli military, namely the Mifgash program. Mifgash is Hebrew for “encounter”, and this program sends a number of Israeli soldiers with every single Birthright group. Most Birthright alumni will tell you that these encounters with young Israeli soldiers are the best part of the trip; it’s seen as meaningful cultural exchange and an opportunity to learn and build friendships (and also to hook up). From a strategic perspective, it’s seen as mutually beneficial for both parties. For the Israeli military (according to official reports by their own Behavioral Science Department), goals of the Mifgash program include strengthening Zionist Jewish identity and “reinforc[ing] the value of military service” for each soldier4. In other words, the program helps the soldiers to “buy into” their own military service and the politics for which they were drafted to fight. For Birthright, this program gets its own participants to “buy into” the IDF and become lifelong supporters of this powerful foreign military.
This enhancement of “image value”, as the IDF’s Behavioral Science Department puts it, is how Birthright participants become personally and emotionally invested in one of the world’s most powerful and least ethical military forces. This partnership creates a whole demographic of people unconditionally supporting the actions of a nation’s military on the basis of assumed morality and personal loyalty. You’d think today’s young people would be savvy enough to see through that, but I see it play out even to this day among my fellow Birthright alumni.
So how does Birthright go about enacting this whole agenda when there are so many different trips and trip organizers? There’s got to be a huge amount of variability from trip to trip, right? Yes and no. The Birthright curriculum is very standardized; each trip is built around the same main itinerary and framework. The creator of Birthright’s curriculum, Barry Chazan, actually wrote a book called Ten Days of Birthright Israel outlining exactly how and why he engineered it the way he did. I only ever started using the word “brainwashing” to describe Birthright’s methods after I read Chazan’s book, particularly the sections in which he describes the “cognitive, emotional and behavioral” manipulation of each participant’s experience1, p.97.
First, Birthright starts by focusing on “blank slate Jews”: young adults who do not have strong Jewish religious, cultural or political affiliations1, p.98. “Blank slate Jews” are desirable because they have everything to learn and their Jewish learning can be easily molded by those providing the education. Birthright then employs “Kurt Lewin’s change model of unfreezing, change and re-freezing”1, p.98 everything participants come in thinking about Israel. To make this possible, the participants are overwhelmed physically, mentally and emotionally by their group’s itinerary. Participants get very little sleep during those ten days and the itinerary is jam-packed with very strategically-placed physical and emotional roller-coasters1, p.98. Participants have facts (well, “facts”) thrown at them a mile a minute and adrenaline rushes are quickly followed by heartbreaking memorials or departures. As a result, there’s no ability whatsoever for participants to process what they’re experiencing, let alone think about the experiences of others.
In order to deflect blame for the human rights violations that were never discussed, Birthright used a tactic that’s common in American Zionism: the painting of Jews as perpetual victims due to the history of atrocities that we have suffered. It’s the idea that because we have been so gravely oppressed, we can’t ever be considered oppressors. By this logic, any act of violence we commit – no matter how brutal or unprovoked – is justifiable self-defense. Of course in reality, two wrongs do not make a right, no matter the magnitude of the original wrong. However, I heard a lot of Birthright rhetoric centering around the question of, “What if the Holocaust were to happen again?”, and framing Israel as a sort of insurance policy to keep that from happening. That rhetoric attempts to excuse the extreme cruelty we’re committing right now by reasoning that we could, hypothetically, experience cruelty again in the future. Obviously, this is not ethically or logically sound.
On top of this, Birthright fed us huge doses of racially-driven blame and Islamaphobic fearmongering. Muslims, Arabs and Palestinians were painted as dirty, sketchy and dysfunctional at best, and a lot of the familiar “Jew-hating terrorist” narratives were present in full force every time a tour guide or speaker would refer to Palestinians. The primary political speaker brought in to talk to us said, and I quote, that the “[The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict] is not about conflict. It’s about the problems in the Arab world.” He went on to claim that the current Arab world is so dysfunctional that it’s about to go up in flames, and that it will have to “reincarnate, re-create and re-define”, hopefully in a way that’s more accommodating of Israel’s conquest. We were told time and time again that Israel yearned and strove for peace while Palestinians consistently rejected it.
Oppression is not our birthright.
Thus was the narrative: “We want peace, but they don’t because they are savages who want to kill us; it’s their fault.” Birthright participants are typically kept far away from Palestinian people, Palestinian spaces (aside from the “Bedouin tent”, which doesn’t count because it’s fake and just a tourist attraction whose Bedouin laborers live in villages that Israel consistently seeks to demolish) and any non-Zionist narratives, so there was no one and nothing to counter what we were being told. The Occupation was made invisible to us, as was the humanity of these people who were being blamed for so much. As for wanting peace, I eventually came to understand that “Israel wants peace” actually meant “Israel wants to continue enacting the same atrocities every day – from expanding the settlements to allocating 4/5 of Gaza’s water to Israeli Jews instead of Gazans – it just wants Palestinians to be quiet and complicit about it.”
Birthright is so much more than ten days of fun, learning and cultural experience. It plays a significant role with very real implications when it comes to human rights in the Middle East. If you would like to see all this in action via a hilarious Max Blumenthal YouTube video, here you go and you’re welcome. If you are a fellow young diaspora Jew who would like to learn more about Israel, please put that curiosity to good use and start doing your own research. Be an inquisitive, independent thinker who’s full of questions – even when those questions are unwelcome – just as our people’s traditions teach us to be. Remember that true Jewish values emphasize compassion and justice, and there are actually a lot of Jews who hold onto these values and stand against the Occupation. But in the face of an agenda like this, please just be anything but careless, and please be anything but naive. Oppression is not our birthright.
1. Chazan, Barry, and Leonard Saxe. Ten Days of Birthright Israel: A Journey in Young Adult Identity. Lebanon, NH: University Press of New England, 2008. Print.
2. Gamoran, Adam. “Measuring Cause and Effect in Jewish Education.” University of Wisconsin-Madison. Lecture.
3. Saxe, Leonard, Benjamin Phillips, et al. “Intermarriage: The Impact and Lessons of Taglit-Birthright Israel.” Contemporary Jewry. Brandeis University, 20 Nov 2010. 9 Jan 2013.
4. Israel. IDF Behavioral Sciences Department. Taglit–birthright israel & the I.D.F. Tel Aviv: Israel Defense Forces, 2006. Print.