This article is part of a roundtable on the ethical response to Birthright. Click here to read the rest of the conversation.
AS AN ANTI-OCCUPATION MOVEMENT led by young people, IfNotNow has had to figure out how to engage with the 40,000 young Jews that participate in the largest Jewish educational program about Israel every year: Birthright. We always knew that Birthright had a political agenda that our peers were simply not aware of, one that obscures and rationalizes the occupation. IfNotNow organized the #NotJustAFreeTrip campaign to expose this agenda to American Jews, with the ultimate goal of undermining the central role Birthright’s propaganda campaign held in our community and getting our generation to sign up for the anti-occupation movement rather than Birthright trips.
During the summer of 2018, after a series of actions that provided Birthright participants with information as they arrived at their airport for their trips, we began to look for opportunities to challenge Birthright on their trips directly. This led IfNotNow members to support Birthright participants in walking off their trips. After nine days on my own Birthright trip, I walked off the bus with four other women. We immediately went with Breaking the Silence, an activist group consisting of IDF veterans who oppose the occupation, to see the brutality and banality of the Israeli military occupation in Hebron. It was the first time that Birthright participants had publicly walked off their trips to make a political point.
A few weeks later, Birthright participants on two seperate trips walked off their buses at the same time, choosing to visit with Palestinians in East Jerusalem facing evictions rather than tour the City of David (which uses the funds raised from tourism to finance the evictions). In the fall, Birthright’s leadership grew terrified of yet another round of walk-offs, so they changed their Code of Conduct to prevent participants from “hijacking discussions.” This set the stage for Birthright to kick three participants off their winter 2018 trip for asking questions about the separation wall.
In the aftermath, IfNotNow fielded questions from across the political spectrum as to why we supported participants in walking off Birthright trips. Israel’s liberal defenders would ask why we left the trips instead of staying and continuing to ask questions. In fact, I did attempt to ask questions in an effort to change the minds of the 40 other people on my trip. But my questions were dismissed and ignored as we regularly drove past the separation wall without any acknowledgment of what lies on the other side. By contrast, when we walked off, we were able to livestream the whole thing to Facebook and to alert international media. Videos and articles about our action (including in the New York Times) went viral, allowing us to reach millions and to challenge the widely accepted notion that Birthright is apolitical. By the end of the summer of 2018, if you were an American Jew between the ages of 18 and 26 googling “Birthright” to sign up for a trip, you would see articles and videos about our actions. The media coverage generated by these actions did far more good than asking questions of our tour guides did.
Left-wing critics would ask why we went on the trips at all, instead of respecting the campaign to boycott Israel. While other campaigns seek to withhold participation in Birthright altogether (i.e., Jewish Voice for Peace’s Return the Birthright campaign), we built this campaign to change the hearts and minds of the young Jews across the US who are eligible to go on Birthright and regard it as a rite of passage. To do this, we made the choice to meet our peers where they were. The overwhelming majority of American Jews have no idea how systematically the Israeli government denies Palestinian human rights. To write off young Jews who have never been exposed to the truth would be to squander an opportunity to educate them and bring them into the movement to end the occupation.
To be clear, from the start IfNotNow’s #NotJustAFreeTrip campaign shared the same goal as those that have been boycotting Birthright for years: to expose the organization’s political agenda and to remove it from its place at the center of the American Jewish community. And it was effective: Registration for some Birthright trips dropped by as much as half in the winter after the walk-offs, and the organization had to spend considerable energy fighting back against our attacks for the entirety of our campaign.
Having successfully exposed Birthright’s lies on its home turf, our final task was to prove to our generation that Birthright would never change. College students affiliated with IfNotNow took the lead, getting arrested while demanding a meeting at Birthright’s headquarters in New York and confronting their campus Hillels in sit-ins and protests. This culminated in a call to #BreakUpWithBirthright, which urged young American Jews to publicly commit to refuse to go on Birthright and to discourage friends from going.
Confronting Birthright head-on rather than boycotting it had clear results, and did real damage to the organization. This campaign is a reminder that the broader movement for Palestinian freedom is more powerful when we work together, using multiple strategies to attack the institutions upholding the Israeli government’s military occupation.