Birthright Trip to Israel- to go or not to go?
July 10, 2014 6:41 PM   Subscribe

The experience sounds amazing but it feels, for lack of a better word, sleazy to go while they're busy bombing Gaza. I want to go really badly but not if I have to pretend to love the IDF.

I'm 26, so this is my last chance to go. I'm supposed to go in mid- August. I've done the whole application thing and accepted the trip dates offered so it's all confirmed and everything. I've been reading different books on Israel all year (among others, Palestine by Joe Sacco, Jerusalem by Guy Delisle, The Other Side of Israel by Susan Nathan and Side by Side: Parallel Histories of Israel-Palestine by and have become really attached to the idea of going.

But now I'm faced with the same moral qualm that plagued me last year ( I ended up not going last year for a different reason -I found a job at the time I was supposed to go - but I was similarly torn).

Should I be going on this trip if I don't support the actions of the Israeli military forces? On the orientation papers, they say we are accompanied by IDF soldiers throughout the whole trip. It seems like they expect us to become BFFs with these soldiers because they tell us to bring along Canadian flags and memorabilia to give as gifts to the soldiers.

On the other hand, the idea of "going back to my roots" and connecting with my Jewish heritage is something that means a lot to me. My Jewish parent (my father.... yes I know in some sects I'm not "Really Jewish" because it's transmitted matrilineally but I don't care!) died when I was very young and for several years after that my mother had a falling out with my father's family, so I had very little exposure to it as a child. My mom was not interested in Judaism and I grew up in a small town in Quebec where the only religious communities were Christian and Bah'ai. It's only in the past 2 years, since finally finishing university and Being An Adult that I wanted to start exploring it. I've always wanted to incorporate a religious practice into my life and I have tried attending church a billion times, but I've never felt like a Christian. I feel much more comfortable calling myself a Jew, I have no idea why. Anyways, this "intensive and immersive' experience feels like a way to catch up on everything I missed out on by not being taught about Judaism throughout childhood.

It seems like going to Israel is such a rich way to become immersed in Jewish cultural and religious traditions.

Also, unrelated point that the fact that I don't have money to travel anywhere makes the prospect of a free trip extremely appealing. I know how much harder it gets to travel once you get older but I won't have any money before then.

Is it wrong to travel to countries with morally corrupt governments? Should I just stay home?

Please, be respectful when you answer. I'm not asking your opinion of Israel/ Palestine, but whether you think there is a space on this trip for someone who is not in love with oppressing Palestinians. Also, whether it is somehow morally wrong to go on vacation in a country that commits a lot of injustices and is corrupt. Is traveling there wrong because their government is evil?
posted by winterportage to Society & Culture (30 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I think you should go, if for no other reason than because I think you will discover that the situation isn't anything like as clearcut as you seem to think it is.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 6:52 PM on July 10, 2014 [13 favorites]

You need to balance this concern "Is it wrong to travel to countries with morally corrupt governments?" (along with being accompanied by IDF) with "the idea of "going back to my roots."" Is it worth the free trip? Birthright is an indoctrinating program. However, given your Jewish roots and desire to reconnect and explore, I think you should go to Israel/Palestine but on your own accord, paying your own way and mitigating the IDF propaganda. Also consider exploring your Judaism through your local synagogue.
posted by whyareyouatriangle at 6:56 PM on July 10, 2014 [6 favorites]

It's a free trip so they can invite you over for tea and propagandize you.

Sure you can get more than that out of the trip.

If you are naturally against violence, war, and murder, then they likely won't persuade you killing is a good idea for any reason.

Nothing is ever "free."
posted by jbenben at 6:56 PM on July 10, 2014 [9 favorites]

I think a lot of people who go on Birthright feel conflicted the way you do. There's even a graphic novel about it (which I highly recommend!).
posted by leesh at 6:56 PM on July 10, 2014 [7 favorites]

I would see it as an opportunity to talk to people from both sides. And to be an ambassador for all the conflicted and distressed Jewish people around the world.

I/P is not going to be resolved in our lifetimes, I believe, but compassionate, intelligent and questioning visitors interacting with either side in good faith is going to be a good thing. No behaviour ever changes without feedback...relevant for both sides.

Be a good ambassador for the many, many others who feel the same as you. Be open to listening but be honest in your interactions. Be respectful at all times, even when you don't agree.

Go. There's not going to be a better time. And you might be surprised at what you learn.
posted by taff at 6:58 PM on July 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

Don't go. Judaism existed before the state of Israel, and it will exist long after. Feeling pressure to travel there is part of their guilt trip because they're well aware Western Jews are feeling less sanguine about their actions. If you don't support those actions, don't lend them legitimacy.
posted by gorbweaver at 7:02 PM on July 10, 2014 [12 favorites]

I say go as well. You seem really invested in what the Israeli government and people should be doing as I am guessing you are not about Myanmar or Turkmenistan so maybe you owe to yourself to investigate more thoroughly.
posted by shothotbot at 7:03 PM on July 10, 2014 [2 favorites]

I don't think it's wrong to travel to countries with morally corrupt governments. If it were, then there would be a lot of countries where one couldn't go.
I would see it as an opportunity to talk to people from both sides.
That's not really how Birthright works. You don't get to wander wherever you want and talk to whomever you want and make up your own mind. Your entire trip will be carefully choreographed to make sure that everything you do serves the planners' purpose, which is to convince you to support Israel.

Is there any chance that you could afford to go to Israel on your own? I think you might have a better, more balanced experience if you didn't go through Birthright. On the other hand, there's nothing to stop you from going back on your own after you go with Birthright. If you do go through Birthright, just be sensitive to the fact that the point of the thing is to indoctrinate you.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 7:09 PM on July 10, 2014 [10 favorites]

Best answer: You could change your flight dates and do Birthright Unplugged afterwards.
posted by the_blizz at 7:18 PM on July 10, 2014 [10 favorites]

> whether you think there is a space on this trip for someone who is not in love with oppressing Palestinians
I went and I'm not super "in love with oppressing Palestinians".

Nothing is ever black and white in that part of the world (nor any part really.) Our own government (assuming US here) has done some really shady things. I got a lot out of the trip, and was certainly not brainwashed as far as i could tell. Talking to the soldiers was actually illuminating as well. You can see how non-homogenized IDF really is, being put together from young people from all walks of life.

Anyhow, my main concern would be security, but generally speaking they try to make sure Taglit groups stay pretty safe.
posted by pyro979 at 7:29 PM on July 10, 2014

Mod note: Folks, charged issues relating to the question or not, remember this is Ask Metafilter and stick to constructive answers to the question and not political debate or metacommentary.
posted by cortex (staff) at 7:31 PM on July 10, 2014 [2 favorites]

My husband is also Jewish from the father, and he says don't go. He lives his life every day, he knows his Great-Uncles were killed in the camps, and his Grandfather came here, and tried to save his family, to no avail. He says to live for the now, know your history, and honor where you are today, and not look back. Certainly don't put yourself at peril for some romantic ideal of Judaism. If it's dangerous, you should not go right now, he says. Rather, pray as you will, and go another time.
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 7:39 PM on July 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

It seems like they expect us to become BFFs with these soldiers because they tell us to bring along Canadian flags and memorabilia to give as gifts to the soldiers.

Yup. On my trip, we were instructed that, while our guards were "not to play with", the soldiers were.

As for your general question, others have mentioned, they have motives. The goal is to get you to see Israel, love Israel, meet some Israelis to connect with, and then in the future either give lots of money to Israel or make aliyah. You're not going to get to wander around and meet Palestinians (although, on my trip, an Israeli Arab did come up to us and give us a piece of her mind, which was interesting); if you see the "security fence" at all, don't count on your tour guide pointing it out.

But to be honest, in terms of "indoctrination" a lot of it was no worse (or better) than the general Israeli history education I had gotten in Hebrew school in the states. And in any conflict, I think it's worth going to see things on the ground- I still remember seeing the Hezbollah flags over the boarder in Lebanon, and buildings that had been hit by rockets- and maybe by being on the trip and questioning the narrative, you'll be able to open other people's eyes.
posted by damayanti at 7:42 PM on July 10, 2014

Best answer: I think you should go. Yes, Birthright exists in order to nudge diaspora Jews like you and me to support Israel. But "supporting Israel" means a lot of different things, as you can see by reading any given issue of Ha'aretz. It is definitely not synonymous with "voting for Bibi" or "supporting annexation of the occupied territories." You clearly care about Israel, care enough to have strong feelings about its policies; I think you can do a better job caring about Israel if you've been there. And you're 26. You're not a thin reed like the college kids who go. You know your mind and you know what questions you want to ask and you know what things you want to see. You should go.
posted by escabeche at 8:06 PM on July 10, 2014 [2 favorites]

You should go because if you care at all about any aspect of the situation, you should go and try to learn the truth of it. I promise you, you are going to be very surprised by what you find there.
posted by fingersandtoes at 8:10 PM on July 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I would go. The government isn't the people.
posted by vapidave at 8:15 PM on July 10, 2014 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Hello, winterportage! My perspective is as someone who opted not to go on a birthright trip (many years ago) partially due to discomfort with traveling as a tourist in a country waging war, and partially to being disillusioned with the whole Judaism business after my Bat Mitzvah didn't give me the amazing faithsparkles I was hoping for. I am Jewish by birth and upbringing, and still identify as Jewish, but am agnostic in belief. Me and Judaism: it's complicated! I have zero regrets about not going. Someone else I was once close to did go on a birthright trip, had an extraordinary experience, and decided to became a rabbi. This is intensely personal decision and at the end of the day, you'll probably have some misgivings about whatever you choose.

For me, one of the ways in which I respect and value most about being Jewish - one of the things that make me proud to claim my Jewishness - is a tradition of dedication to ethics. While I may personally have many differences of opinion with Talmudic scholars on what constitutes right or wrong, Doing the Right Thing is kind of a Jewish obsession. For me, it's at the core of my sense of self as a Jew. (That and my mom's kugel. YMMV.)

Deciding to travel to Israel may be one of the more significant choices you make - and you're making it as a Jew. I would say that your discomfort with this trip is due to the ethical quandry is poses for you: you are asking if it is right or wrong to go, in light of Israel's current activities in Gaza. No one else can answer this for you, but asking it of yourself in light of Jewish values as you understand them is the essence of Judaism, in my opinion.

Maybe you decide the right thing to do is go, and listen and look and take your thoughts back to the US.
Maybe you decide the right thing to do is go, and challenge anti-Palestinian viewpoints you encounter.
Maybe you decide the right thing to do is not to go, and send a letter to Birthright explaining why.

Anyways, this "intensive and immersive' experience feels like a way to catch up on everything I missed out on by not being taught about Judaism throughout childhood.

It seems like going to Israel is such a rich way to become immersed in Jewish cultural and religious traditions.

The promise of immersion and homeland are powerful and seductive. That said, I feel like a lot of what turned me off of my early Conservative Jewish teaching was a heavy emphasis on the idea that Israel was literally the best place to be a Jew, and that we are all displaced, and personally, I just don't buy it. I grew up as one of the two Jewish families in my town. Despite going to Hebrew school and attending services, I didn't actually feel like I was part of a Jewish community until I went to college (Brandeis, the only Jewish sponsored, non-sectarian, 4 year college, hooray!) Finally, I was Living Among the Jews. Despite my ongoing religious ambivalence, the immersion thing was comfortable and unusual in a way I've never experienced again. That sense of Jewish community wasn't important enough for me to make it a priority when I left college, but again, that was me. Many, many others I knew found their faith deepened and now live in Jewish neighborhoods, deeply enmeshed in Jewish community life. This is a complicated question, and one that may miss its mark, but if you decide the right thing to do is not to go, maybe you can find another way to Live Among the Jews without taking this specific trip, or even without visiting Israel at all. Perhaps some Jewish friends or co-op you could stay with in NYC for a few days. Maybe you dedicate that time to finding a synagogue where you feel a sense of belonging, and throw yourself into that?

If you do decide to go, as many other posters have suggested, please go safely. Shalom.
posted by prewar lemonade at 8:27 PM on July 10, 2014 [8 favorites]

Best answer: I understand your internal conflict, but I would go on the birthright trip if I were you. In fact, I did go on the trip a few years ago, and, although there was some not so subtle subtext about wanting everyone to go out and have Jewish babies, and obviously there's an overall "pro-Israel" sentiment, I definitely didn't feel like we were forced to become BFFs with anyone, and the soldiers and guide who led our group were all really wonderful.

I really get where you're coming from as a fellow Jew who is uneasy with a lot of aspects of contemporary Israeli politics. With that being said, it's a free trip to see an amazing country, in a part of the world that's not so easy to get to, and it's a chance to explore a part of your heritage. If I had the chance, I would go again in a heartbeat. Especially since this is your last chance before you age out, I would highly encourage you to do it.

Lastly, for whatever it's worth, although I am Jewish and had a Bat Mitzvah, went to Hebrew school, etc, as an adult I'm as about as un-observant and god-less as they come, and I'm really not happy with a lot of what Israel has done in conflicts over the last several years, and yet, I still thought this was a worthwhile experience.
posted by litera scripta manet at 8:34 PM on July 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

Whoops, I missed that you are from Quebec, not the US! (Or at least, don't mention from being there.) My apologies for the US-centrism there, winterportage.
posted by prewar lemonade at 8:35 PM on July 10, 2014

Best answer: I am Jewish and deeply critical and ashamed of Israeli government policies. I'm also 40 and I wish I had gone when I could have. Your brain will still work whatever they're telling you and you can make your own judgements. I know some people do their own side trips - I don't know exactly how this works.
posted by latkes at 9:25 PM on July 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

Having been on a birthright trip, I say go, but with the caveat that the quality of the trip is contingent on the organizer and the people you are on a bus with for 10 days.

I went when I was not quite 21, and was on a bus with basically 18-year olds who had never really been on a trip without their parents before (and hence didn't know how to hold their liquor or behave with any sort of responsibility). At that point in my life, I was keeping kosher, going to services every week, on the Hillel board, and was pretty enthusiastically Jewish for most of my life. I was raised as a full-fledged supporter of Israel, but this has changed a lot.

I would say that I was a lot less enamored by the Jewish Homeland Indoctrination stuff than a lot of the culturally Jewish/nonobservant kids on the trip who weren't really exposed to it in the past. At least 2 or 3 people on my bus have since made aliyah. I was there because I wanted to walk in the footsteps of my ancestors. I did notice that the only Israeli Arabs that we encountered were the people serving us food. You don't really see any of the poverty in the Palestinian areas. And you really aren't allowed to wander off into the Palestinian areas anyway. The security wall was only just being constructed when I was going, and the soldiers did point it out at the time.

Otherwise, things I really enjoyed: eating fresh pastries at the markets, seeing Hannah Senesh's grave at the memorial, the whole town of Tzfat, floating in the Dead Sea (it's dumb, but you have to do it), walking in Jaffa, standing at the Western Wall.

tl;dr: If you are a free-thinking person, you aren't going to be taken in by the preachiness and indoctrination. Go for the trip, make up your own mind. Extend if you can, and go to the occupied territories if you want. There are at least a few options that you will probably have to explore on your own, since I'm sure they won't be condoned or allowed to advertise at your Mega Event.
posted by honeybee413 at 9:56 PM on July 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

I think you should absolutely go, and I think you'd be surprised at the variety of opinions of Israelis on this topic, even among IDF soldiers. When I was backpacking a couple of years ago, I ran into a lot of Israeli backpackers who had just gotten out of the army (I think they get some cash when they're finished, and a lot of them travel). I had some really interesting political conversations with them, and they're not all remotely in lock-step on these issues. Keep in mind that IDF is conscripted, not volunteer, so includes a broad swathe of the population.
posted by empath at 9:58 PM on July 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: One of the best things you can do when you have a strong feeling about something is to go experience that something up close to see if your feelings are still valid or need to be adjusted. You have more credibility to yourself and to others when you have first hand experience with something.
posted by Dansaman at 10:15 PM on July 10, 2014

Go. Absolutely go. But keep your eyes open and be willing to accept that, just as with everything else in life, the truth resists simplicity.
posted by guster4lovers at 10:23 PM on July 10, 2014

(I say that as a non-Jew who visited Israel for three weeks and stayed with my ex - an Israeli who was in IDF and supported Israel without question or hesitation. Other than some VERY uncomfortable unannounced time in the occupied territories, which I would have refused to go to had I known that's where we were going, it was an amazing experience and I learned a hell of a lot. Just not always the things that he/other Israelis wanted me to learn)
posted by guster4lovers at 10:25 PM on July 10, 2014

Best answer: Do it. Come back, tell us all about it.

If you are having problems with going, and having an IDF soldier along with you, just look at it this way:
If he's here collecting flags and small knick knacks...I know what he's not doing.

Good luck.
posted by hal_c_on at 11:36 PM on July 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I went on a Birthright trip last year at 24. Keep in mind that Birthright trips vary widely by trip organizer, and that the 22-26 trips tend to have a more thoughtful tone than some of the 18-22 trips. The two American chaperones* on my trip, while they both loved Israel, were very open-minded and definitely had mixed feelings on the political situation. I had a lot of interesting conversations with them and a few other people on the trip who had similar feelings to yours about the situation. I don't think any of the American participants had any sort of unconditional support for Israel.

On my trip we did have an Israeli Arab speak to us. This was at a peace center (I don't remember the name) so he was probably more gentle on Israel than most, but he was still quite critical of Israel and the way they treated both Israeli Arabs and the Palestinians. Enough to inspire a bit of a rant from our Israeli tour guide on the bus ride later. A rant at which everyone rolled their eyes, including the American chaperones (who are employed by the trip organizer). This was true of much of the "rah rah rah Israel" propaganda. I was a bit worried about it going in, but it's all pretty ham-handed and obvious, and at least on my trip, people tried to move past it pretty quickly.

Something one of the trip chaperones said that stuck with me was that ultimately the point of the trip is not to discuss the I/P conflict. Some amount of that is inevitable, but Israel is so much more than the conflict and the trip tries to show you that. And yes, they show you the good things and they want you to like it, but as someone who expected it to be a high-pressure sales pitch, my experience was very very much not that.

Overall, I'm very glad I went and would recommend going. That said, if you're still unsure, I would contact your trip provider and see if they can put you in touch with anyone who's gone on a trip with them. Yes, it'll be a biased sample, but it can still give you an idea as to whether you'll be on one of the more open-minded trips.

*They're not really chaperones, just Americans (or I guess for you Canadians) who are in their 20s or 30s, have been to Israel and speak Hebrew and do some of the coordinating/logistics/programming stuff.
posted by matildatakesovertheworld at 12:41 AM on July 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

Your entire trip will be carefully choreographed to make sure that everything you do serves the planners' purpose, which is to convince you to support Israel.

That's fine; you can support Israel in making progressive, compassionate and realistic change. You will hardly be alone among Jews in supporting that position.
posted by DarlingBri at 1:22 AM on July 11, 2014 [2 favorites]

Going to Israel doesn't equal supporting the actions of the government. The only reason I might hesitate is if I thought it would be dangerous. I'm old enough to remember several wars there. You'll learn a lot.
posted by theora55 at 10:17 AM on July 11, 2014

Response by poster: Thank you so much for your input, everyone. It has really helped me to hear from other Jewish people, and others who have also been on the trip itself.

Ultimately I think I'll probably go for the sake of knowledge. I'll learn more by going than I will by staying home, and I don't think I'm in danger of being brainwashed into believing that any sort of oppression is justified.

Birthright Unplugged sounds amazing and if anyone has more information about that I would really appreciate having it (the website seems to say you need to be a part of an "invited group" to go?).
posted by winterportage at 3:24 PM on July 12, 2014

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