When I go on my Taglit Birthright trip in August, I won’t be like most of the other students on my trip. Most of them have not been engaged with Israel in the same way I have. I haven’t been engaged with Israel in the same way they have.
None of the other students will be traveling on an Israeli passport or carrying an army exemption note at all times. Many of them have been integrated into the Jewish American community since preschool, whereas I spent half a year in Hebrew School after moving to New York before our family realized I would not gain any Hebrew from the program. I barely know any prayer tunes, even though my family does kabbalat Shabbat every Friday. I will be the only student coming on this trip from an Israeli perspective and not a Jewish one.
I am not nervous about this trip because I am an outsider or because I am an insider; I am nervous because I lie somewhere in between.
I love Israel. It was my first home. Israel reminds me of ice cream and apricots and the beach and my large extended family. I also love the United States and associate it with grassy backyards, French fries, fireworks on the Fourth of July, and the New York Subway. Even though I love the US, I am allowed, nay encouraged, to criticize its policies. SCOTUS just effectively made gay marriage legal in all 50 states, but I am welcome to point to other pressing issues in the LGBTQ community and say “thank you for letting me marry a woman, but there are still other, pressing issues affecting queer individuals.” I can criticize this country’s immigration policies and cite issues with the incarceration system. People might disagree with me, they might yell at me, but no one will find my criticisms completely unacceptable on the grounds that they critique US policy.
The famous American exceptionalism does not lead others to judge me for openly acknowledging flaws. Why then, are there forces within the Jewish American community that, if not actually restrictive, are certainly discouraging of criticizing Israeli policies?
Some of my friends are shocked when I tell them I am nervous about Birthright. They have been on Birthright and loved it, or have only heard good things about the trips from friends. But how can I not be nervous when other friends have told me that they don’t remember hearing the word “Palestinian” once on the trip? Or when I read articles like “How Israel is Failing the Pro-Israel Cause” by a Birthright alumnus who described how Birthright “fails to broach the more difficult topics quite literally rooted in the land of Israel-Palestine, therefore doing little to educate us on key facts that define the everyday reality of living in a land wrought with conflict, and how to use those facts in challenging conversations to come.”
These Birthright trips do not describe the Israel I know.
I have spent my entire life engaged with Israel in some respects. My parents taught me to think critically, and I don’t remember when I “found out” about the Occupation, unlike many of my peers on this trip. My mom remembers how when I was two-years-old, she had to hush me when I would point to pictures and exclaim “Arafat!” in public. My parents took me to Meretz meetings as a baby, and 6-month-old me was at the rally where Prime Minister Rabin was assassinated. I love Israel, but I do not love everything it does. I do not support the Occupation, or the building or expansion of settlements. I also do not support all of its economic policies or education policies.
Guess which objections I suspect will be contradicted or diminished if I voice them during my Birthright trip?
I’m hoping none of them. I’m hoping my Birthright leaders and peers facilitate an open discussion of what is going on in Israel right now. I’m hoping that after we visit the Kotel, we have a conversation about how the Temple Mount presents a serious issue in the peace process. I’m hoping that when we visit the Dead Sea, we can look out at Jordan and honestly discuss Israel’s history. I’m hoping that speaking about the Occupation won’t be a taboo.
I’m not only afraid that my voice will be silenced. I’m afraid about who will do the silencing.
It’s easy to forget about bad things when you’re experiencing something new. When you’re lounging on a Tel Aviv beach with new friends, the Occupation seems far away. Even when you’re in Jerusalem, you can blind yourself to the obvious signs. I don’t want to let ten days in Israel go by in a state of wonder. I don’t want to forget how important peace is to me. I don’t want to lie to myself and tell myself the Occupation isn’t that bad. I don’t want my new friends to think Israel is a perfect paradise. I don’t want to come home and feel ashamed because even though I had the opportunity to engage 39 other bright UChicago students in a thoughtful discussion of Israel, I let them play in a surface-level fantasy version of the country I call my birthplace.
I’m not alone. There are many progressive American Jews within the Jewish community who are anti-Occupation and who want to see a brighter future for Israelis and Palestinians. There is a good chance that among those 39 other students, there are others who want to learn about and understand Israel on a deeper level. I’m afraid Birthright won’t let them, and I’m afraid that I will let them down.