I Drank the Birthright Kool-Aid, and It Tasted Like Manischewitz

very grape-y

One month ago today I bit the bullet and actually went on the dreaded Birthright trip. I know- I’m about as surprised as you are, given what you could call my original dead-set hesitation to participating in a radically propagandistic venture. It turns out that a mix of guilt tripping from my non-Jewish friends, being able to go with my best friend, and the prospect of riding a camel was enough to get me to call my own bluff.

So I went.

Lina and I spent approximately 48 hours in transit between San Francisco and Tel Aviv, where we were suddenly living on a bus with 38 extremely East Coast Jews (and later eight Israeli soldiers). Talk about a trip.

The next ten days followed my gradual transition from (basically) refusing to participate, to almost entirely giving in and participating (aside from my iron clad distain for dancing in circles). There was an assortment of hiking, shopping, eating, busing, and listening to great tales of history from our tour guide, Ariel. Oh, and the not unexpected, light-hearted doses of propaganda. It does make sense, to be fair. You, an 18-26 year old with a Jewish relative somewhere in the family tree, get to go to Israel and do all sorts of crazy shit for ten days, for free. All they ask in return is that you come back to Israel, marry a fellow Jew, and have Jewish babies so our people don’t die out.

Seems totally legit to me.

In all seriousness, I did have a great time on Birthright. In addition to witnessing an onstage proposal (one of the most joyful, high energy moments I’ve ever experienced), I met some awesome people, I finally got to see a part of the world I’ve spent several years studying, and most importantly I got to do something crazy with my best friend. I’m hesitant to get too into the religious aspect of things, as I’ve always connected more with the cultural side of Judaism, and I think that still holds true. To be honest I like anything that gets everyone together for dinner. Also hesitant to get into the political side of things, except to say that everything looks different on the ground.

If you have the opportunity to go on Birthright I’d say go for it. Whether or not you need to have Jewish babies to repay the debt, well, that part is up to you.

joyful noises

Post-proposal celebrating

Why I’m Not Ready To Drink The Birthright Kool-Aid

Whose Birthright is it anyway?

Today I got a text message from Birthright letting me know that registration for winter trips is now available. Registration and assignment for these trips is extremely competitive due to a limited number of spots, yet I took no action.

For those of you who don’t know, Birthright is a program that sends Jews under the age of 25 (who have never been) to Israel for free. Friends of mine who have gone on the trip swear by it, and regale me with stories of adventures and partying. “It was so fun!” they say, “and it’s free!” My non-Jewish friends also harp on this point when birthright comes up. “It’s a free trip to another country!” I’m unsettled by the propagandic spin of the Birthright trip, during which the organization hopes participants will (in the course of ten days) find “nice Jewish partners to have nice Jewish babies with.” When I express my feelings about this friends retort with, “just go on the trip and extend your stay so you can see Israel on your terms.”

Sure a free trip to a foreign country is a sweet opportunity, but to be completely honest, I’m just not ready to drink the Kool-Aid.

As a child I attended Hebrew school twice a week, learning the merits of Reform Judaism and bagels. From ages 5-16 I accepted the explanation that Israel was the rightful home of the Jews, a place we were assigned in a religious housing lottery by (none other than) God, and a mystical faraway land accurately depicted in various Rugrats Jewish holiday specials. My basic viewpoint as a child was thus: Jews and Israel = good, people who oppressed them = bad.

Then I went to college.

I thoroughly studied the history and politics of both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from the ground up. Ironically enough, this resulted in my feeling entirely unqualified to form an opinion on the matter. Who am I to decide which group is in the right, and what does being right even mean at this point? From what I understand a vicious cycle of hate has been spiraling out of control (for a very, very long time). The worst part is that the situation seems to be largely perpetuated by government politics (and interests), leaving peaceful Israelis and Palestinians caught (literally) in the crossfire.

If you think you are ‘right’ about one side of this conflict or the other you will never be part of the solution.

Every day Palestinians are forced to wait hours in checkpoints while Israelis (and Birthright participants- ahem Americans) can move freely throughout the country, crossing whatever borders they please. I can’t help feeling like I’m being stared in the face by the sad and sick irony of the Israeli government treating the Palestinians with actions that echo the persecution of the Jews during the Holocaust.

Talk about bad karma. (Not to mention breaking the 6th commandment).

I may decide that I want to go to Israel someday, but when I do it will most certainly be on my own terms.

For those of you eagerly applying to the next round of Birthright my hope is not to discourage you from doing so. My aim is simply to encourage you to remove your blinders, to keep an open mind to the interpretation of history, and to stick to something more natural than Kool-Aid,

like water.