Two smiling faces, hands held up in the shape of a heart, posed in front of a rocky desert and lit by a glowing sunset. This seemingly innocuous photo was posted to UC Berkeley’s official Instagram page with the caption “Loving our time in Israel (with the amazing Berkeley Hillel). Mazel Tov! Go Bears!” But the comments reveal a darker side of this seemingly harmless photo. Flooding the comment section was the resounding response, “Free Palestine.”
The inflammatory response that this post received got me thinking about my complicated relationship with Israel. As a left-leaning Jew, am I allowed to criticize the actions of a country that I’ve been taught to claim as my spiritual home? And is visiting this country with an organization like Birthright Israel endorsing a political view that I do not hold?
Birthright has existed for nearly 20 years as an opportunity for Jewish youth between the ages 18 and 32 to visit Israel free of charge. This trip, fully funded by a group of Jewish philanthropists, has been traditionally viewed as a right of passage in the Jewish community and attempts to foster a connection between Jewish youth and Israel.
As for myself, I will never go on Birthright, and here is why I don’t think you should either.
Since I was five years old, I spent every Sunday with a small group of Jewish kids at my temple. Hebrew school was a place where I met other people like me: kids whose families celebrated Shabbat on Fridays, whose ancestors also came to America fleeing the horrors of World War II, who wanted to party it up at their own bar or bat mitzvahs in the future.
My experience was unique in that I was brought up in a reformed sect of Judaism, one that explored how traditional ideas could be reexamined in a modern context. At Hebrew school, whether making crafts celebrating the Jewish holidays or in song sessions with the cantor, we were always encouraged to ask questions. As we got older, this extended to encouragement to question the texts we were learning about. There was a surprising amount of recognition that parables written thousands of years ago could reasonably be considered outdated today. The emphasis was always on taking from Judaism what you wanted. Nothing was strictly imposed on us except for good morals and the occasional splash of Zionism.
That’s right: Pro-Israel rhetoric ran forcefully through the underlying messages of my generally progressive temple on a regular basis.
In seventh grade, we learned about the Jewish holy sites in Israel but not about the complicated histories of bloody political conflicts that gave us access to them. In eighth grade, we learned about the Israeli Defense Forces, but nothing about who they were fighting against. And in my high school confirmation class, we sat through PowerPoint presentations highlighting the incredible success of Israel’s recent technological advances without any reference to their equally fast-growing weapons technology.
Never once was there any mention of Palestine.
Is visiting this country with an organization like Birthright Israel endorsing a political view that I do not hold?
Similarly, the United States was actually one of the first nations to recognize Israel’s sovereignty in 1948 and has remained a steadfast ally since then. While this alliance may have devolved from a moral stance into something more akin to a strategic asset, positive relations between the U.S. and Israel have remained surprisingly constant throughout the turbulent histories of both countries. The United States has also historically played a significant role as a mediator in the Israel-Palestine conflict, a role that has increasingly favored Israel as a result of the budding love affair between U.S. President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
The two make quite the couple. Where previous Democratic American presidents have pushed Netanyahu to consider a two-state solution, the Israeli Prime Minister has found that he can now trade ideas on voter suppression and the building of walls with our current President. Both fond of bullying members of the press and unwilling to engage in negotiation with Palestine, it comes as no surprise that both leaders appeal to the racists and absolutists of the right wings of their respective countries. Both have been served multiple indictment charges — Trump for obstruction of justice and abuse of power and Netanyahu for breach of trust — in their respective nations.
To consummate their blossoming relationship, it seems that Trump believes that he and Jared Kushner can single handedly succeed where almost a century of diplomatic relations surrounding Israel and Palesine could not. While confidently boasting to have finally found a viable path to a Palestinian state, this claim only distracts from further disregard for Palestinian rights. Trump’s so-called “peace plan” concedes to labeling Palestine a state as it continues to cement its dependence on Israel. Trump’s proposal divides up Palestinian territories and surrounds them with Israeli ones, essentially giving Israel total security and economic control over Palestinian lands and rendering any Palestinian government powerless. Since its proposal, the plan has largely been viewed as a call for Israel to annex the West Bank territory, but no action has been taken yet.
As the Israel-Palestine conflict continues to escalate, I find that despite any hypothetical connection to Israel that my Jewish identity might encompass, I remain utterly repulsed by its government’s repeated aggressions as an occupying power, as well as the actions of “my own country” in support of this abuse of power. I have been openly and loudly critical of President Trump, and now I’m starting to recognize that his actions are being mirrored by Prime Minister Netanyahu. While many liberal American Jews don’t think twice about criticizing the various horrific actions of our President, they are reluctant to extend the same criticism to Israel’s Prime Minister because of the link between Judaism and Israel.
This link is largely perpetuated by the idea that Israel exists as a Jewish birthright. Birthright, under the guise of being an apolitical educational experience, largely promotes Israeli military propaganda and ignores any Palestinian narratives about the reality of life under Israeli military rule.
This program ignores the current reality of occupation, features various pro-Israel speakers and conveniently avoids bringing young Jews to the West Bank.
The Jewish claim to Israel is at best a questionable one. In reality, the land was won in a brutal series of wars that repeatedly displaced and exiled the indigenous population of Palestinians. This history is intentionally ignored by the glorified education experience that Birthright provides. This program ignores the current reality of occupation, features various pro-Israel speakers and conveniently avoids bringing young Jews to the West Bank.
A recently added staple of the Birthright experience is what the organization calls a “Mega Event,” which can only be described as a glorified propaganda show. Modeled after music festivals, the event is headlined by popular Israeli bands and is put on specifically for the participants of Birthright. However, the event is funded primarily by pro-Israel billionaires, including Las Vegas tycoon Sheldon Adelson. That’s right, one of Trump’s largest donors throughout his 2016 election is also funding Birthright. The man who influenced Trump’s decision to violate the Iran nuclear deal and to move the U.S. embassy Israel to Jerusalem is also who was chosen to speak at one of the largest Birthright events of the year in 2018. By supporting Birthright, these are the people and political messages you are endorsing.
What once was universally viewed as a Jewish rite of passage has now become a source of protest. Participants in Birthright are now beginning to walk off the trip in protest of the lack of attention it pays to the realities of Israeli occupation. This is the beginning of a more modern resistance that refuses to let Jewish identity be manipulated for the Israeli government’s political motives.
Birthright does not build Jewish community. It encourages blind faith to an oppressive state and right-wing regime.
I refuse to be the same kind of “progressive” that the temple of my childhood unwittingly perpetuated — the convenient kind of progressive. The kind that allows you to pick and choose which human rights abuses deserve scorn. The kind that gives blind allegiance to the Israeli government. The aspects of my Jewish upbringing that I love and treasure have taught me to be critical and ask all the questions that I can about things that others claim to be fact. Being Jewish has always helped fuel my social activism. Staying silent now would be nothing less than hypocritical.
Emily Kocis is tired of her Jewish identity being manipulated for a country’s political gain.