Should you go on a Birthright Israel trip?

Tel Aviv street art

It will soon be time for the Taglit / Birthright Israel 2023 summer season, and if you’re a young Jewish person eligible for this (in)famous free trip to the holy land, you may be wondering whether you should go on one of these trips. There is plenty of controversy in Jewish circles about these trips, and rightly so. This post aims to give you some perspective DIY Tel Aviv’s left-wing, liberal Israeli point of view.

Birthright Israel 2023

2023 is going to be an interesting year for Birthright Israel, as its long-time sugar daddy, Sheldon Adelson, is no longer with us.  Sheldon’s widow isn’t as keen to (almost) singlehandedly fund this venture anymore and is significantly reducing her donation. As a result of both this and the rising cost of flights to Israel, Birthright has had to cut about a third of its trip places.

This is probably OK, though, as young American Jews are increasingly struggling to reconcile their own liberal views with the occupation, the grotesque religious fanaticism, and rising fascism in Israel, so there may be less demand for these trips anyway.

As an aside, I only just realised recently that Sheldon Adelson was the largest single donor to the Birthright organisation. Apart from shelling out heaps of cash to this project, he’s also the man who put Netanyahu in power. As far as I’m concerned, he’s one of the reasons Israel is going to hell, and I hope that’s where he is right now.

Why should you go on a Birthright Israel trip?

A free trip to an exotic country (which also happens to supposedly be the source of a large part of your identity) is hard to pass up. There are lots of really great things about Israel (I should know, I write about them), and lots of lovely people trying to make a life for themselves in a difficult, complex reality. If I were given the opportunity to learn about another country for free, I’d probably take it.

OK, so much of this trip is a bit North Korea (that’s how us Israelis see Brithright trips), but you still get to see some cool places, meet new people, get drunk, and maybe get laid.

But let’s talk about Jewish identity for a sec, because that’s supposedly the reason most people go on these trips.

Much of what they tell you about Israel and Israelis is wrong.

The difference between Israeli and Jewish identity

Smoke weed every day except Shabbat
This T-shirt for sale in Tel Aviv is designed especially for Jewish tourists. We smoke on Shabbat too.

I was born and raised in Israel, so my lived experience is very different to that of my American and British Jewish friends. This is something that’s really fundamental to your understanding of Israel and Israelis if you’re a diaspora Jew, especially in light of what Birthright is trying to sell you about Israel.

As an Israeli, antisemitism is mostly something you read about in the newspaper. It happens abroad, not here. Unlike diaspora, and especially American  Jews, we are not pushing against it. We don’t need to externalise our Jewishness to turn it into a part of our identity and set us apart from others.

Jewish identity is something that’s forced on us all our lives in Israel. It’s something that’s assumed about us whether we like it or not. Those of us who are cosmopolitan, secular and liberal take it for granted and externalise other parts of our identity to set ourselves apart.  We grow up trying to make ourselves look more like other subcultures we learn about from TV, the Internet, or our visits abroad. Those of us who are not actively religious are not that interested in our Jewish identity and definitely don’t feel the need to go on about it.

Me and my friends and relatives have tattoos and don’t wear any Jewish symbols. We don’t see religion as fun and cool. For us this is the reason buses don’t run on the weekends, the reason you can’t get decent food in most places during Passover, and the reason we have to go to a different country if we want to marry someone who’s not Jewish.

Orthodox Judaism has got Israel by the balls, and unlike Reform Judaism, it’s conservative, misogynistic, and not suited for modern times at all.

The most common form of actively observing religious Judaism in Israel without being outright religious is probably the Masotrim / Shomrei Masoret group, which picks and chooses what parts of traditional Judaism to follow, and is big on Jewish identity. Unlike Reform Judaism, though, it’s generally far from liberal.

Talking to my British and American Jewish friends has taught me how different Jewish life is abroad, but that sense of feeling “othered” and holding onto Jewish traditions for a sense of belonging and identity is not something I’ve experienced myself, even when living in London.

It’s my Israeli identity I hold onto, which is to do with customs, food, and the rest of the stuff immigrants hold onto. Yes, some of these things might also cross with Jewishness, because Israel is a Jewish country. Others,  I share with my Palestinian and other Middle Eastern immigrant friends, because Israeli identity is also about being Middle Eastern, coming from what is frequently a war zone, and being visibly less white.

Hummus in Tel Aviv
As a secular Israeli abroad, hummus is a bigger part of my culinary identity than matzah

I’ve read testimonials by Taglit / Birthright participants talking about how they felt a sense of togetherness and belonging around their Jewishness for the first time, and that’s great, but it’s not what Israel is like. Should you decide to move to Israel following a Birthright trip, you will quickly discover that you are both considered, and feel like an outsider. There’s a reason expats, even Jewish ones, tend to stick together here.

You will also quickly discover that Reform Judaism is not officially recognised by Israel. You’ll be Jewish enough to make aliya and get a passport, sure. But if you want to marry or worship your way, you’re in for a few nasty shocks.

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The Birthright Israel controversy

Apart from having a reputation of being a place where young Americans go to get legally drunk (so much so that many Birthright trip organisers now have very strict rules around alcohol consumption), and women get sexually assaulted, there are also the ethical and moral implications involved with being the Israeli government’s guest.

Even the name is stupid. In Hebrew, it’s called “Taglit”, which means “discovery”. Calling it “birthright” is already indoctrination, telling people they have a right to this country by the mere virtue of being Jewish.

Now, I do believe that there should be a Jewish state, and that all Jews should have the right to come and live here if they are crazy enough to do so. But I also acknowledge the fact that Palestinians have a right to their ancestral  land too. At the moment, most can’t even visit it, let alone claim compensation for having lost it or live anywhere near it.

Why Birthright is full of shit

Us Israelis laugh at the whole concept of Birthright, as we know much of the stuff offered to trip participants as truth about life in Israel is absolute bullshit. From refusing to let trip participants even speak with Arabs, to presenting Israel as a friendly, Jewish-inclusive happy-go-lucky place, it paints a false picture of what life here is really like.

I once watched a Birthright tour guide break out a volley ball in the middle of Nahalat Binyamin Street in Tel Aviv, and the group burst into a spontaneous ball game in the middle of the pedestrianised area. I wouldn’t be surprised if it was presented to the group as a normal part of life in this “crazy country”. Unfortunately, when we say “crazy country”  in Israel we actually mean things like this and this.

Is it ethical to go on a Birthright trip?

Is it ethical and moral to go on a free trip to a country that’s designated as “yours” by virtue of your ethnicity alone, while Palestinians are prevented from even visiting the house their literal parents or grandparents grew up in?

This is a question that’s being asked more often nowadays, and opinions differ wildly.

Some young Jews are turning down this opportunity, hoping their public refusal will expose more young Jews to the issues Birthright tries to sweep under the rug.

Others take the free trip, hoping to learn more about Israel while they’re here, in spite of Birthright’s obvious bias and indoctrination activity.

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So should you go on a birthright Israel trip or not?

Being given a free trip to a foreign country is a pretty cool thing, and a great privilege.  My personal view is that you should never give up privilege unless it directly benefits someone who lacks it. Alternatively, if you do have privilege, you should use it to benefit those who don’t.

If you’ve been curious about Israel and think it might be the home you’ve always lacked, or if you are feeling pretty Zionist right now, then you should probably go. Many Jews make aliya, and while many regret it and go back home, many stay in Israel and embrace the Israeli lifestyle. You won’t know if it’s for you unless you go.

Do take this opportunity to see more of Israel than what the Israeli government wants to show you, though. Even if you’re only going so you can get legally drunk before the age of 21. You won’t get the real picture unless you do.

In this context of giving up privilege, I feel that giving up a spot on a trip is only worth doing if you share the reasons for this decision with others in a broad forum. Otherwise it does nothing. You’re not giving your spot to a Palestinian, as they’re not allowed to visit Israel. You’re likely giving it to someone else, who may be just the sort of person Israel will indoctrinate.

So if your personal moral compass won’t allow you to make use of your privilege while others are denied that right, be vocal about it. Comment on forums and on articles about it, go on Reddit and on Quora and join debates, tell your friends, tell your family, make a big deal out of it.

Otherwise, you’re not really benefitting anyone. You’re just making yourself feel like a better person for being true to your principles. It’s a warm, fuzzy feeling, but it’s not actually helping anyone.

Alternatively, you should take the free trip, then stay longer and get to know the real Israel. Go tour east Jerusalem and the Palestinian territories, speak to Palestinians, speak to Israeli left wing activists, speak to Jews who made aliya about what it’s really like for them here, learn about social justice causes, maybe volunteer or otherwise support organisations that really need it right now.

Of course, asking awkward questions is always fun. Ask if you could marry your non-Jewish girlfriend in Israel, or if you, a woman, can go pray with the men at the Wailing Wall. Hell, ask what the current government’s views are about gay people. See what happens.

You could also try and subvert more people on your trip, encouraging them to join you on your real Israel discovery tour post-trip.

Life in Israel is very complex, and I’m sure whatever you’ve been told about it is at least somewhat wrong. Use this opportunity to learn more and form your own opinion, then share it with others.

I guarantee you this is not what Israel and the Sheldon Adelson foundation wants, and you’d be using their money to get you to and from Israel, which is nowadays REALLY expensive.

Things to do in Israel after a Birthright trip

Apart from just enjoying some time away from the propaganda machine of the Israeli government, enjoying the beach in Tel Aviv, and maybe touring some parts of Israel your trip missed out, there are things you can actively do to make your Birthright trip more ethical, and use it to benefit others.

Nablus is not on the Birthright itinerary

Join a better study tour

The New Israel Fund donates so much money to good causes in Israel / Palestine, that you can’t accuse it of being anti-Israeli. Their study tours will give you the wide perspective that’s needed to try and understand the local situation far better than Birthright. Unfortunately, they are not free, but if you can afford it, you should go.

Visit East Jerusalem and the Palestinian territories

Green Olive tours offer some really good tours to east Jerusalem, and several cities in the Palestinian territories, as well of some great “Introduction to Palestine” and “Israel and Palestine” tours. If you’re looking for a broader perspective, I can’t recommend them enough. They are a joint Israeli / Palestinian collective and dedicated to fostering peace and ending the occupation.

The tours are designed for tourists, so are interesting and fun. You will get to see the darker sides of the occupation, because that’s part of life here, but you’ll also get to enjoy yourself along the way and meet interesting people.

If you’ve enjoyed Tel Aviv and have always been told Palestinians are religious fanatics and / or monsters, a visit to Ramallah should put that idea to rest.  Ramallah is a really cool city, and locals are easily as switched on and cosmopolitan and those in Tel Aviv.

Bethlehem is probably the most hyped, as it features not only Jesus stuff, but also Banksy’s “Walled Off Hotel” and gallery, plus a chance to spray your own graffiti on the hideous Israeli separation wall.

If you’re feeling more hardcore, a visit to Nablus or Jenin (once Israel finishes this round of shooting it up and it’s safe to go again) will help drive some points home.

Apart from these tours, you can join one of the tours organised by Breaking the Silence. They often tour Hebron (army permitting), which should show you some things the Israeli government works very hard to hide.

Machsom Watch also organise interesting tours.

These tours will be a lot less fun than those designed by Green Olive Tours, because they are designed specifically to show the harsh reality of living under Israeli rule as a Palestinian. It is, however, the actual reality.

Learn about the Nakba from a Jewish / Israeli viewpoint

The displacement and genocide of Palestinians in 1948 is a topic that needs to be discussed more often. Growing up in Israel, you are never taught about this in schools, so this is something many Israelis aren’t even aware of. Thankfully, things are slowly coming into the open now, at least in some circles.

It’s not difficult to find Palestinian / BDS sites talking about the right of return, but if you’re a young Jewish person grappling with your views around Israel, you might benefit from seeing what some Israelis have to say about what it means to be living on land that used to be owned by others. Zochrot is a good place to start.

Get some real interactions

Hang out with locals, meet real people, read left wing independent press like +972 Magazine, have real conversations about life in Israel. It can be as simple as sitting in a café or going to a party, queer event (if that’s your thing), screening, etc. or you can specifically connect with organisations or go to places where local lefties and / or expats hang out.

This site is about Tel Aviv, so I will offer options for doing this in Tel Aviv.

If it’s the latter you’re interested in, try Solidarity House, where you can attend some events (though they are often in Hebrew) or volunteer for local good causes. Their site is Hebrew only, but Google Translate works. The Yafa café in Jaffa is a good place to go to learn about the conflict and learn Arabic locally.

The All That’s Left Collective, and Rabbis for Human Rights are good to check out too.

If you want to be surrounded by local Jewish expats who may have moved to Israel for ideological (or other) reasons and get a gist of the general vibe, you can try hanging out in Café Xoho or Nola Bakery in the old north part of Tel Aviv.

Tell people what you’ve seen and experienced in Israel

This is the important part, as, increasingly, Birthright tours are more about raising an army of Israel-evangelists than convincing people to move here. So spread the word, but spread your words, not theirs.

I don’t have the answer to the Israel / Palestine situation, and you probably won’t either, but whatever solution ends up happening, it will come as a result of more people having a better idea of what’s going on.

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