Last June, I enthusiastically signed up for Taglit-Birthright for the chance to take a free 10-day trip around Israel. I’m proud to be a Jew and saw Birthright as an opportunity to deepen my Jewish identity. Five months after returning from Birthright, I joined Students for Justice in Palestine, while most of my Birthright peers joined pro-Israel groups.
While Birthright claims to be an apolitical organization, even the most politically apathetic Birthright alumni will tell you that there’s an agenda. During my trip, it became clear that with more than 330,000 participants to date, Birthright plays no small part in the Zionist movement.
My Birthright group members didn’t seem to mind the propaganda we were immersed in each day. We listened to catchy Zionist jingles on the bus, attended the Mega Event in Jerusalem and heard formal lectures on the “dysfunction of the Arab World” while our tour guide made causal and persistent anti-Arab remarks.
When I returned from Israel, I felt the need to process my Birthright experience. This turned into nine months of research, a 30-page paper and an independent study. The disheartening conclusion I came to was that Birthright’s Zionist political agenda carries serious negative implications for the Palestinian people and peace in the Middle East.
I was happy that Birthright wanted me to strengthen my Jewish identity. I saw nothing wrong with being encouraged to date other Jews and have Jewish babies. Our tour guide told us that since Palestinians have a higher birthrate than Israeli Jews, we Jews need to catch up in order to remain in power. It was clear that they wanted my Jewish identity — and that of all Birthright participants — to be unconditionally Zionist. There was no room for diversity of political opinion in the Birthright vision of what Jewish community should be.
During all Birthright trips, participants interact with soldiers from the Israeli Defense Forces. This is often regarded as the best part of the trip, and indeed, our soldiers were wonderful. I later learned from an IDF report that these soldier-participant encounters are meant to encourage Americans to unconditionally support actions of the Israeli army based on assumed morality and personal loyalty.
My peers and I were encouraged to consider making aliyah, which means emigrating to Israel permanently. Even Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu encouraged aliyah in his address to thousands of participants at a Birthright Mega Event. It hit me that there is an entire race of people being denied return to the homes they were driven from on that land. While I would be granted equal citizenship if I moved to Israel, Arab Israelis and Palestinians currently have to deal with segregated public transportation systems and separate and unequal legal systems. But I saw none of this firsthand; my Birthright trip did not allow for encounters with Arabs or Palestinians.
My goal now is not to discourage others from going on Birthright. Rather, I implore the Jewish community to think independently, become informed and do not be fooled into letting prescribed political norms or propaganda constitute an opinion. I implore anyone going on Birthright to examine the implications of the curriculum in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict and the international struggle for peace.
Katya Andersson is a senior music education major. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.