Simi Valley, a scrubby, dry swatch of land in Southern California, will always hold a special place in my heart. It’s home to the sleepaway camp where I spent most of my childhood summers eating popsicles, tie-dying and celebrating Jewish traditions.
Each year, one day was set aside for my other home away from home — Israel. Blue and white streamers festooned the dance pavilion. Falafel and hummus replaced the normal dining hall grub. The Israeli staff members, or shlichim, taught us conversational Hebrew, that the Holy Land invented instant messaging and that Natalie Portman was an Israeli citizen.
Never was there any mention of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The silence surrounding the conflict was not unique to my experience at sleepaway camp; it was the elephant in every Jewish room I inhabited. Despite the liberal and Reform nature of my upbringing, it seemed as though the adults in my life had come to the unspoken agreement that Israel was off-limits.
This policy of total avoidance points to how deeply polarizing it has become in the Jewish community. So painful and personal is the nature of the conflict that sweeping it under the rug is preferable to the fallout that could result from discussing it.
As a consequence, I grew up blissfully ignorant to what was going on halfway around the world. “Zionism, two-state solution” — sometimes I heard these words, but their meanings escaped me. By the time I was a teenager, I decided to eschew the politics and considered myself Jewish only in terms of culture and heritage.
When I got to college, personal and political events started to poke at the bubble of isolation I had enjoyed as a child. On campus, I heard murmurs about Boycott, Divest and Sanctions, the Palestinian-led movement against Israeli occupation. Once or twice, I was made Spokesperson For All Jews when asked to share my stance on the conflict, a position I was deeply uncomfortable with. My discomfort was compounded by the fact that, for the first time in my life, I wasn’t surrounded by other Jews. I had no one immediately near with whom I could share my feelings.
My attempts to research the conflict were no help either. Accounts of history and geopolitics in the Middle East either felt tainted by bias or overwhelmingly complicated. I gave up trying. By no coincidence, I began to feel alienated from my Jewish identity.
Some online research revealed that these feelings were symptomatic of a fairly common ailment known as being a Jew of the diaspora. Even better, there was a cure: Birthright, a 10-day, all-expenses-paid vacation to the Holy Land for which anyone of Jewish descent is eligible. Birthright is widely viewed as a rite of passage, the honorary event of the Jewish life cycle that fits between becoming a bat mitzvah and marrying under a chuppah.
I had always planned on going on Birthright for the fun, free experience it promised. In light of my identity crisis, the trip took on potentially added significance. Here was a chance for me to not only reconnect with my identity, but also to gain an understanding of the political situation.
Though I was apprehensive about receiving a biased perspective, I was assuaged by Birthright’s website. Nestled between images of hummus and teens slathered in Dead Sea mud was this: “Birthright Israel is committed to a culture of open discussion and dialogue about all issues,” including geopolitics. Even if the information I received was heavily slanted, at least there would be plenty of conversation about the conflict.
Shortly after arriving, I figured out that this was not the case. Our program was led by an Israeli tour guide who, like all Israel-born citizens, had served in the Israeli Defense Forces. Ten or so active soldiers, most of whom were my age, accompanied us for the duration of the trip. Between the military presence and the outwardly pro-Israel students in my group, it was clear that there was an ideological majority. Those in the minority, who questioned or opposed the policies of the Israeli government, were intimidated into silence by means both subtle and overt.
If I am entitled to go on Birthright and make Israel my home, it should be my right to hold its government accountable for its actions.
A couple days in, we visited the border of the Gaza Strip. Staring into the scorched, open landscape, our tour guide lectured on the tragic history and status of the region. Gunshots from a nearby military training camp punctuated every word. At the end of his speech, he opened the floor to questions. Someone brought up the likelihood that apartheid would occur in lieu of a two-state solution. An exchange ensued, throughout which our guide cut her off repeatedly, raised his voice and physically got in her face.
Another opportunity presented itself in Jerusalem during a group activity. Each group was given index cards listing various Jewish values. We were instructed to come to a unanimous agreement about how they should be ranked. As several cards concerned Israel and Zionism, a heated debate ensued. Too nervous to contribute, I watched the self-proclaimed Zionists in my group tear the opposition to shreds while the trip leaders looked on. No consensus could be reached. Yet when it was time to present, a boy in my group included “Be a Zionist” as one of our top values anyway.
Considering the makeup of our group, the handling of the conflict disappointed but did not surprise me. As the days wore on, it became a landmine that everyone learned to sidestep. Mention of Gaza or the West Bank produced tension and almost always led to a debate that ended embarrassingly for the challenger. It simply wasn’t worth the discomfort. My friends and I resigned to exchanging furtive glances and tried to enjoy the leisure and cultural activities on the itinerary.
Whatever uneasy peace I had made with Birthright flew out the window at the tail end of our trip.
All I knew prior to attending the 2018 Birthright Israel Summer Mega Event was that it was in Jerusalem and that all 5,000 Birthright participants in Israel at the time would be there. Entering the arena, I found myself in a sea of young adults rocking out to EDM in sync with the lights pulsating from the Coachella-sized stage. Uniformed soldiers stood guard at the periphery.
To roaring applause, the emcee kicked off the night by playing a massive videorecording of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He congratulated Birthright on 18 years of existence and its participants on “playing an active role in one of the greatest stories ever told: the rebirth of the Jewish state.”
What ensued was a brazen, two-hour propaganda show, from which I learned about the grand purpose of this trip.
The billionaires bankrolling Israel and Birthright want me to defend the actions of the Israeli government unconditionally on my campus, in my community, in my country of origin. If Birthright had its way, I would marry another like-minded Jew, have kids and move to Israel, where they would join the IDF.
I know this because Sheldon Adelson and his wife, Miri, told me in person. That’s right: Sheldon Adelson, business mogul and philanthropist, chairman and CEO of Las Vegas Sands, the 15th richest American, worth more money than I can comprehend, was present at the Mega Event.
“BDS is trying to make headway on campuses all over the world and we’re going to fight back. They’re telling lies…about genocide and apartheid. There’s none of that here,” Adelson said. “That’s [South Africa]…it’s not here in Israel. The Arabs have better living condition[s] than they do in most countries.”
“It is up to you to become ambassadors for Israel,” his wife added. “It is up to you to be our soldiers abroad…ready to lobby governments and sway public opinion in Israel’s favor.”
After exiting the stage, uniformed soldiers performed an upbeat pop song. Clips of bombs going off, soldiers outfitted in gas masks, and IDF training camps played on loop in the background.
In the tradition of the Jews before me, I will keep asking questions, even when it leads to uncomfortable conversations.
The profound outrage I experienced in the wake of the Mega Event is shared by people on both ends of the political spectrum. Critics on the left are angry that what launched as a heritage trip has been co-opted under the agenda of the current administration. Those closer to the right and center argue that politics should be kept out of Birthright altogether.
Essentially, these perspectives are two sides of the same coin. And both are sorely mistaken.
In a Jerusalem Post article titled “Keep Politics Out of Birthright Israel,” the author insists that “Birthright is as neutral as can be,” that it is one of the “last institutions in Israel that is still considered unaffiliated, bi-partisan.”
How can Birthright be considered unaffiliated and bipartisan when it was founded under a Zionist, right-wing prime minister? When it is in large part funded by billionaires such as Adelson, a prominent Republican donor and Trump supporter? When the only speaker invited to give a formal lecture on the conflict identifies as staunchly pro-Israel?
Birthright has been political since its inception, and will remain so until peace is achieved in the Middle East. Israel has been at war since its establishment; the military is a part of everyday life for its citizens. That Birthright is led by Israeli soldiers and that it takes place in Israel obliterates the possibility of political neutrality.
Absurdly, the leaders of Birthright Israel refuse to speak on political issues unless faced with criticism of Birthright itself. This July, when five Birthright participants split with their group to join an anti-occupation tour, Charles Bronfman, co-founder of Birthright Israel remarked that they have “no right to criticize what you don’t pay for, to criticize our homeland.”
This hypocrisy is what angers me most. All my life I have been told that Israel is my second homeland, that I can gain citizenship and emigrate there at the drop of a hat. Yet according to the leaders of Birthright Israel, I have no right to criticize the government that rules over the land of my ancestors.
Netanyahu claims that Israel is a “thriving democracy.” If that were true, I would be encouraged to question those in power rather than be subjugated by the leaders of my Birthright trip.
If I am entitled to go on Birthright and make Israel my home, it should be my right to hold its government accountable for its actions.
I’d never been to Israel before. I had no personal connection to it outside my religious affiliation. Yet I am supposedly entitled to this land while the people who have inhabited it for centuries are being pushed out against their will.
After the 10-day trip, I returned to the U.S. physically and emotionally exhausted. In many ways, I got exactly what I wanted out of Birthright: I repaired my relationship with Jewish identity, I gained exposure to a new culture and I received firsthand insight into the horrors of war.
Most importantly, I walked away with a new perspective on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and my relationship to it as an American Jew. Whatever notions I previously held about sequestering my identity to the cultural aspects of Judaism disappeared. I now realize that I have a moral obligation to educate myself on the conflict as long as Israel is linked to Judaism. I cannot look away when world events demand otherwise.
I have always been proud to be Jewish and I always will be. I am proud to hail from a people who have endured the worst, who exult knowledge and prioritize social justice above all else. But I am not proud of the way that the Jewish community fails to foster dialogue about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And I am not proud that Israel’s leaders have exploited Birthright — and young Jews like myself — for their own political motives.
In the tradition of the Jews before me, I will keep asking questions, even when it leads to uncomfortable conversations. It goes without saying that the conflict is convoluted beyond measure and that the silence surrounding it is rooted in a legacy of pain and suffering.
But silence has never been our style. Time to break it.
Harper Lambert implores her fellow Jews to engage in difficult conversations about the Israel-Palestinian conflict.
I implore people on /both sides/ (namely SJP who has yet to accept the invitation) to engage in difficult, /open-minded/ conversation about the conflict
Wow, you had a completely different experience with Birthright than I did. There were hardly any staunchly pro-Israel people in my group, and we talked openly about about the conflict, including criticism of Israel, regularly. Even the guides were very neutral and accommodating for multiple viewpoints, and seemed to encourage healthy debate. I’m sorry you had such a terrible experience, and I certainly hope yours isn’t representative of Birthright as a whole. Just know that they’re luckily not all like that, and Taglit does do some good still. And of course, you’re not alone in wanting more open-kinded discussion amongst… Read more »
I am glad to see such an article in print and applaud Harper for having the courage to write it. There are no words that can paper over the injustices done to the Palestinians in the name of all Jews just three years after the liberation of the Nazi concentration camps. I have made two extended visits to Israel over a space of 20 years, not with the thought that it was in any way my homeland, but as a journalist and photographer, and was dismayed but not surprised at the level of anti-Arab racism I found there on both… Read more »
Brush up on your Arabic and go to the land of the Palestinians. Kids are taught to remove all Jews from the earth.
It is ironic that the Israelis hate the Palestinians, because the Palestinians have nothing but love and affection for Jews. I also appreciate reading one more time about how Jews control all the world’s governments.
Excellent and sincere article. Thank you for sharing your experiences.
My pregnant born-again Christian cousin visited Israel and was brutally murdered by a Palestinian trying to rid the world of Jews. Removing Jews from the world is taught to all Palestinian children. A hateful group.