An Unconventional Birthright: One Cynic’s Journey Through Israel
Published on August 16, 2010
shalom. i am here to just say that i am sorry to see that so many have had a wonderful time in israel.unfortunately for those who are older adults like myself did not get to go to israel we can't afford it and i was told by some organizations google free trips for older adults to my surprise i laughed at them and told them there is nothing NOTHING!!! there for older adults we are just plain reform jews we are not orthodox or hasidic,those programs are run them. and we are forced to pay money to go to israel i wish there was someone who could be nice enough to help me to go to israel so i can connect with israel and the jewish people there.but no one is open minded enough to do this so thats ok but very sad to see that. oh well
I am a fellow Jew (and skeptic). I admit, I did go on Birthright this summer and actually had a similar view. It made me almost uncomfortable on the trip, the high degree of 'this is the most amazing trip of my life!!' and 'i love israel' among the majority of college freshman on the trip. Shortly before going on Birthright, I was in SE Asia and traveled a bit by myself/with friends, which made Birthright extremely frustrating on multiple levels. Interestingly enough, although my trip included the same general thing (although mine was non-denominational with many non-observant Jews), we ended up going through Palestinian territory, which definitely made an impact on me. I admit, I did like the guide on a personal level (an extremely funny Israeli) although I definitely took everything with a spoonful of skepticism. Yes, I did spend time thinking about my 'Jewish identity' since it's hard to when you're in a country espoused to be your homeland (and being mistaken for Israeli everywhere I went did not help this!). Although I did like the nature/natural sites, I think the intent of Birthright was lost on me too. You're not alone in this profound dislike of Birthright.
I have a different view about going back to Israel though. Minus the heavy presence of Malaysia stamps, which the Israeli officials LOVED in my passport, resulting officials stamping my passport despite my concerns (directly over one of my Malaysia stamps on the first page!), I plan on going back on my own. (Since my passport has the 'black stamp of death' already, what's the harm?) I know how to travel and I think going back without Birthright would be so much more enjoyable. Although I realize that I got places in Birthright that might have been difficult to get to on my own (oasis in desert), I would have preferred the freedom to enjoy Tel Aviv and get a better feel of Israeli culture. One day, I will return and see it my way.
Thank you for your thoughtful reply. I suppose I will never understand how an alternative opinion is automatically classified as an insult. Questioning is insulting?
So because the state is fragile and new, criticism is not allowed. Politics and Religion are inextricably connected the way you describe it, so one must agree with all or be labeled as offending the entire people? To be critical of the actions of the State makes you a member of the 'other side', which is ?? The other side doesn't automatically mean the destruction of the Jews. That's an overemotional stance, isn't it? Where do you place Uri Avnery? How about Naomi Klein? How about Max Blumenthal? Are they insulting their own right to be Jewish when they speak out about political wrongdoings occurring in Israel?
If Israel is always placed in this untouchable category, the divisions and walls will continue to multiply. In reality, by keeping criticism at bay, you are assuming any and all criticism only wants to destroy. Criticism is necessary for growth, development and accountability which would achieve a recognition that is built on justice and fairness, instead of fear, destruction and military might.
I am beginning to believe that until people in America can freely voice their opinions on the political decisions happening in Israel, peace will be a only a concept. In a true democracy, different viewpoints are encouraged. In our own US Congress, debate about Israel is forbidden. If our elected officials criticize the politics of Israel, their careers are over. Is that America? That doesn't feel right. George Washington in his farewell address warned of "passionate attachments". No, we debate everything in America, one issue should not be allowed to induce such silence....it's really not healthy.
Thank you for your insights. It is particularly interesting to me because I recently had an unfortunate experience when voicing my opinion to one of my best friends when she was espousing the Birthright Program. After listening to her describe the program, the advantages and underscoring that it was totally free, I commented that sometimes "free is relative and that her son might want to pack some skepticism and extra critical review skills." I explained that I had read/heard that trips were a wonderful experience, but often had an agenda of a very nationalistic nature. She didn't take that comment very well. The exchange while short upset her greatly. She considered it an attack on her family, her religion, Israel etc.......called me Anti-Semitic and a host of other names and our 20 plus year friendship is over.
Is it not accepted in some American Jewish circles to be critical of Birthright? Most free trips would have some kind of agenda, especially ones fully funded and in part by the government, how could it not? Isn't that why the alternative Birthright Unplugged was conceived? Do you believe Israel is Judaism? I do not. When the two are conjoined with no separation, it doesn't leave room for discussion much less, error and responsibility. I believe we must be able to speak/be critical about Israeli governmental policies and not be labeled anti.
Go back sans religious organization. Instead of being dragged around the country to significant Jewish sites, discover the country. Discover a nation of people not Jews. Yes, the citizens are Jewish but religion is a minor if existent part of their identity.
My ultimate question reflected the necessity of a Jewish state's role in my own life, and how important being Jewish is to me altogether. Technically, it never really mattered to me day-to-day...but if I led the same live in World War II era Germany, being Jewish would have become my whole life. When I say that I looked deeper into the mirror, I mean I was looking into my cultural heritage and inner identity, even as it reflected on my face.
Hopefully, this answers your question.
As for my own personal realizations, I spent a lot of time reflecting on my Jewish identity. Before I left on the trip, I had an extremely meaningful conversation with a friend my age. A recent college graduate and a Jewish American who's had all the privileges of the free world, he is also both a scholar of apartheid and the grandson of a Holocaust survivor. He drew parallels between the treatment of Palestinians and Black Africans during apartheid, citing a myriad of concerns regarding sociological upset and even Birthright itself. The fact is, Israelis have been attempting to repopulate an area that already had a community, for better or for worse--but why? The answer is a powerful one, one that always brings me deep into reflection: after centuries of anti-Semitism culminated in the mass extermination of the Holocaust, Jews simply had nowhere else to go. Western nations had quotas on survivors they were willing to admit into the country, and Jewish identity was undoubtedly a liability. A Jewish country seemed the best way to survive; conversely, the absence of a Jewish state seemed like the worst.
Well, I learned from both the tour and my own introspective journey. The tour was packed with information about the country's regional diversity (north and south have very different climates, even though they're a short bus trip away from one another), along with religion I learned through practice (as explained with the 'Shabbat setting' example).
The trip also made a point to inform us on current events, but the understandable pride and defensiveness left me feeling like I received incomplete information. My group had a formerly British citizen and comedian explain to us that non-Israeli media was not detailing the 'truth.' I didn't necessarily agree with all he said, but I did recognize the significance of reading between the lines, in all pro and anti-Israeli journalism sources.
This is a fascinating and well written article, giving an insight into the personal journey of a young American. You say you learned something about politics and your identity, but you don't say what. Can you share that?
Israel is not Judaism, but it is a Jewish state with a long political and spiritual history. Jewish prayers often laud Israel, and a conventional toast (which came about before the official existence of the Jewish state) proclaims, "Next year in Jerusalem." Today, Jews are proud of the realization of the Jewish state which has been a dream for so long, and are extremely protective and defensive. Because the nation is fragile and new, any criticism can be seen as unsupportive. Furthermore, war in the Middle East cuts deep divisions. To the modern Jew, offending Israel potentially offends traditional identity from the 'other' side of the conflict.
To me, Birthright sort of felt like the Jewish version of the Wild West. We were presented with 'our land,' where we could feel both a sense of belonging and a sense of freedom to roam the burgeoning oases at liberty. To insult that could be read as insulting the right to be Jewish in a Jewish state, one that has been fought to be obtained for so long. Do you really not see why your friend would feel vulnerable and upset?
As for Birthright Unplugged, I hadn't heard of it until after my disastrous Chabad experience. I'd love to hear from someone who took that trip!
Thanks for your thorough answer!
I asked because, although I know this a travel website and not a political mouthpiece, with Israel it's so difficult to seperate the two. So often the debate over Israel is reduced to sloganeering, and no matter what one sets out to say one finds oneself forced into either a "pro" or "anti" corner. That makes it particularly interesting to hear a perception of the country from an jewish American whose own feelings are ambivalent!
I lived in Israel many years ago for a year or so, as a volunteer, so I feel a connection. Like a lot of people around the world I look for opportunities to express support for the people who live there without being ask to rubber-stamp the brutal repression of displaced people.
A story like yours provides just such an opportunity. Thank you.