Like military recruitment and bake sales, the Birthright Israel table has become a staple on college campuses throughout the world, but particularly in America. “Are you Jewish?” the students behind the table may ask you as you walk by. The poster below them reads, “More than just a free trip to Israel.”
Some return from their Birthright trips glowing, boasting of the sights they’ve seen and their newfound connection to a home away from home. Others return skeptical of their ten days in a foreign place, feeling that their introduction to the country is missing pieces. No matter their individual reactions to the trip, Birthright Israel is increasingly polarizing on college campuses—but why?
What is Birthright?
Since 1999, the organization Birthright Israel has offered all-expenses-paid trips to Israel to Jewish people around the world between the ages of 18 and 26. Yes, you read correctly: This really is a free trip.
Why? The organization, funded by both the Israeli government and individual donors, “seeks to ensure the future of the Jewish people by strengthening Jewish identity, Jewish communities, and connection with Israel,” according to its website. In the past two decades, it has sent nearly 700,000 young Jewish people on Birthright trips.
The idea is that, if young Jews have the chance to visit Israel during this formative time in their lives, they are more likely to want to continue Jewish traditions and to marry within the religion—since they’ll get a chance to meet a bunch of other Jews their age. According to the organization, Birthright participants are 54 percent more likely to say it’s very important to marry someone Jewish than Jews who have not attended Birthright.
Birthright was a direct response to high rates of American Jews marrying non-Jews. "The vision is to ensure the continued existence of the Jewish people because of the very high rate of assimilation," a spokesman for the organization said in 2006.
Birthright trips are usually organized by separate Jewish and/or Israeli groups like Hillel and Amazing Israel, though they are all funded by Birthright Israel.
Who can go on Birthright?
To attend Birthright, you have to check a few specific boxes. One, you have to be Jewish, defined by Birthright as having at least one Jewish birth parent or having converted through a recognized Jewish denomination. Two, you have to be between 18 and 26 (though they’ve recently begun offering trips to those between 27 and 32 with limited availability). And three, you have to have lived outside of Israel since at least the age of 12. Birthright is deliberately aimed at young Jews who may have little familiarity or connection with Israel.
What Happens on Birthright?
Birthright trips are known for their packed 10-day itinerary that includes visits to landmarks like Jerusalem’s Western Wall, “a Zionist heritage site,” and the Dead Sea. Each day involves around 15 hours of programming—often outdoor activities like hiking, climbing, swimming, and riding camels.
A medic and an armed escort who has served in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) accompany each tour group as they sightsee, party, and so on.
Birthright is big on its “educational core,” which involves visiting institutions and businesses devoted to Israeli statehood, arts, and more. “Every trip includes a multi-day Mifgash (encounter) with your Israeli peers,” reads the Birthright website. These peers are almost always young IDF soldiers.
Despite Birthright’s goal of strengthening Jewish identity among its travelers, the trip is not known for being deeply religious. Participants celebrate Shabbat together, but the amount of time that specific Birthright trips devote to religious practices and/or education differs depending on the group that organizes each individual trip. (While different groups can organize Birthright trips, they are all funded by Birthright Israel and follow the organization’s principle guidelines.)
Instead, Birthright is more focused on socialization. The program is known to host EDM-filled “mega events” that one attendee likened to Coachella. These events often work to recruit the audience “to become ambassadors for Israel… to lobby governments and sway public opinion in Israel’s favor,” as one Birthright donor asked of the crowd during a 2018 mega event.
While Birthright forbids drinking alcohol during the majority of the trip with exceptions, Birthright has become known for liberal drinking and fostering a prevalent, sometimes toxic, hook-up culture. In her round-up of “The 15 Things That Really Happen On Birthright,” Anna Breslaw lists “highly encouraged mating activities” and “severe levels of intoxication.”
Why Is Birthright controversial?
Despite Birthright becoming something of a right of passage for American Jews, many oppose its existence. The unifying sentiment across nearly all criticism of Birthright is that the program’s existence is an affront to Palestinians and spreads misinformation about how Israel came to be.
The issue begins with the organization’s name and the premise upon which the entire program was built: the birthright. This idea is that by birth, despite having no familial connections to Israel, Jews across the world have the right to visit Israel. It mirrors Israel’s Law of Return, which grants all Jews, regardless of where they were born, the right to settle and eventually become citizens of Israel. What some take issue with is that this right is not granted to Palestinians who were born in cities and villages that Israel has since occupied or settled. In fact, the Israeli government does not recognize Palestinian refugees’ right of return, a stance that defies international law. This means that a Palestinian born in the city of Haifa in 1945 who was displaced by Zionist militaries in 1948 would not be allowed to return to Haifa today, but a Jewish person from Michigan whose family has never stepped foot in or near Haifa can be invited for free via Birthright Israel.
Birthright’s planned hangouts with the IDF, among the most condemned militaries in the eyes of international human rights organizations, have also raised eyebrows. The organization calls these meetings “the most effective and transformative element in the Birthright Israel experience.”
Many also take issue with how Birthright is funded. In addition to the Israeli government, Birthright is funded by around 35,000 individual donors. But some of Birthright’s top donors include billionaires like Sheldon Adelson, a big Trump donor, who last year alone donated $70 million to the organization.
Since its inception, Birthright has been accused of peddling state propaganda, given the organization’s explicit goal of motivating young people to support Israel and that it is funded by the Israeli government.
What does it mean to “walk-off” of Birthright?
Name and premise aside, many take issue with the way Birthright trips are conducted. Despite Birthright’s claims that it is “unequivocally” apolitical, the organization also says it is “committed to the State of Israel as a sovereign, Jewish and democratic state, and upholds its standing as the historic and eternal homeland of the Jewish people.” The educational aspects of the trip include little to no discussion about Palestine or the occupation unless they are brought up by attendees, and no meetings with Palestinians or trips to Palestinian areas that are occupied by Israel like the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem. Many participants have recorded or reported extremely negative responses from Birthright organizers when they’ve attempted to bring up Palestine during their trips.
This aspect of the trip has encouraged many Jews on Birthright over the years to walk-off or separate with their Birthright groups in order to visit with Palestinians in the West Bank. Walking off is strictly prohibited by Birthright and seen as an act of resistance. It’s resulted in people being asked to leave the program early. But it is encouraged by groups like IfNotNow, a Jewish-American organization against the Israeli occupation of Palestine.
After walking-off her Birthright trip to visit a Palestinian Bedouin village, Risa Nagel wrote in the Huffington Post, “It’s a moral failure for the largest organization that educates American Jews about Israel to tell a false narrative that obscures the truth about the occupation and its effects on Palestinians. If I didn’t walk off Birthright, I would have gone back home without hearing about the settlements, the West Bank, or the lives of Palestinians.”
Despite more people choosing to walk-off their Birthright trips, the organization maintains that it does not consider the political beliefs of its applicants.
How popular is Birthright?
Today, 25 percent of American Jews between 18 and 29 believe the U.S. gives Israel too much support, compared to six percent of American Jews over the age of 50. While these numbers and the fact that the number of students who choose to partake in Birthright walk-offs is growing may signify trouble ahead for Birthright, today the program remains extremely popular.
“I came out of the trip with a renewed sense of identity,” wrote student Ali Senal of her Birthright trip, “and, even more shockingly, I had decided to move to Israel when I graduate in two years.”
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This article originally appeared on VICE US.