It began last June 18 with five members of IfNotNow being ejected from Kennedy Airport for encouraging Taglit-Birthright participants to ask about Israel’s treatment of Palestinians. Ten days later, five IfNotNow activists walked off a Birthright trip after complaining that their questions about the occupation were not welcome. Less than a month later, eight more IfNotNow activists walked off a Birthright trip.
Birthright leaders condemned those actions. But now, in an escalation of the tensions between IfNotNow activists and the group that organizes free trips to Israel, Birthright recently added a new clause in the Code of Conduct section of its contract all participants must sign.
It states that “to ensure the trip’s overall integrity and educational mission … (it will not permit efforts) to manipulate its open climate.” Those attempting “to coerce, force or suppress opinions, hijack a discussion or create an unwarranted provocation” face ejection from the trip. That clause was enforced for the first time last week during the fifth day of the free 10-day trip after three IfNotNow activists on the trip began asking about Israeli treatment of Palestinians.
One of the three, Emily Bloch, 29, of Boston, told NJJN that she had asked the guide about Israel’s West Bank separation or security wall when their bus passed it.
“He talked a little about it without mentioning the effect the wall has on the lives of Palestinians,” she recalled. “He talked for a long time about what the wall meant for Israelis and why it was erected. He said crazy terrorists would come across the border, and said all Israelis wanted to be able to work freely … in a safe environment. I asked if we were going to hear any other perspectives; I wanted to hear what life was like for Palestinians. … He said he didn’t know of anyone who would be able to do that.
“Then another person [on the trip] jumped in and asked about nuanced views, and another person was filming it all,” Bloch continued. “The whole trip was being filmed, but this was the first time it was an issue.… The tour guide got in the face of the person who had been filming and said stop filming; he yelled at her.”
Bloch said that portion of the film was then deleted and the three of them were told they were being ejected from the tour.
“They said they felt like Birthright was not able to meet our needs,” she recalled. “We said our needs are to hear a diversity of viewpoints and they said they could not meet our needs on this trip.… I wanted to hear from Palestinians or anybody with a different perspective. Asking questions is the most Jewish thing somebody can do.”
Bloch added that unlike the 13 IfNotNow activists last summer, she had not planned to walk off from the tour.
Alyssa Rubin, a spokesperson for IfNotNow, said Birthright was “using this Code of Conduct to silence discussion about the occupation. She [Bloch] asked about the relationship between the border wall and the wall [Donald] Trump wants to build. It seems the conversation escalated and less than two hours later they were being asked to leave the trip. They knew each other before [the trip] and made the decision to go knowing that Birthright is not open to these conversations. But they wanted to go and challenge Birthright to open up to this conversation. They did not expect that asking a single question would get them expelled from the trip.… They got in touch with us after they were kicked off.”
But Gil Troy, the lay chair of Birthright Israel’s international education committee, insisted that the three, as well as the other 13, “came with a specific agenda … to hijack the conversation for their own political aims.… We discovered this summer that we have to protect the group of 40 from the politics of the three. If you come with an agenda, you have stolen a free trip from someone else who wanted to come with an open heart.”
Contrary to Bloch’s claims, Troy said he cannot believe the three were ejected from the trip for asking one question.
“Birthright tour educators are not stupid,” he said. “It’s incomprehensible to me that simply asking one question would get someone thrown off the program. Since December 1999, more than 650,000 participants have gone on Birthright trips and have come home happy and challenged and inspired by having their intelligence questioned. I have engaged in those conversations myself. There is no question you can ask that is unacceptable. If we don’t ask the rough questions here, where will we?”
Troy continued: “The notion that these IfNotNow participants are coming like knights in shining armor to save us and the entire American community from a conversation where we don’t acknowledge that the Palestinians exist is insulting to all of us. It insults the entire Birthright education process, which is about learning and thinking and experiencing and challenging and questioning and charting your own Jewish journey.”
Although IfNotNow has gained the spotlight by sending participants to disrupt Birthright tours, there are other Jewish groups that also oppose Birthright. J Street U, the campus arm of J Street, which bills itself as a pro-Israel, pro-peace advocacy group, has a campaign calling on Birthright to incorporate the Palestinian narrative into its trips. And Jewish Voice for Peace, a group that supports an economic, cultural, and academic boycott of Israel, calls for boycotting Birthright trips altogether.
“It’s called ‘Return the Birthright’ and we started it a couple of years ago,” said Rebecca Vilkomerson, the group’s executive director. “My feeling is that it has contributed as much as IfNotNow to the drop in people attending.”
The Israeli newspaper Haaretz said it found that some of Birthright’s key trip providers have experienced a drop in attendance of from 20 to 50 percent this winter season (December through March) compared to a year ago.
Along with Bloch, Shira Tiffany of Boston, who was filming the tour, and Ben Doernberg of Virginia were the other two participants ejected. Doernberg tweeted about it, writing that the tour guide had “launched into a monologue about Palestinian suicide bombers and put 100% of the blame on them [Palestinians].” He said they had asked about “the lack of nuance and whether we’d be getting any perspectives from any Palestinians, or people who advocate for Palestinian rights.…
“I can’t think of anything less Jewish than to kick someone off for asking questions, for wanting to hear multiple perspectives, for caring about the freedom of everyone who lives in Israel/Palestine.… Demanding that young Jews keep their values quiet in exchange for plane tickets is not a gift, it’s a bribe.”
But Shlomo “Momo” Lifshitz, former president of Oranim, at one time the largest Birthright trip provider, told NJJN that he has no sympathy for such participants.
“We are tired of these young kids who have no clue and think they know better than those who live in Israel about what is right and wrong,” he said by phone from Israel. “We are not happy with the fence, but we don’t have any other choice. These children, young people, are coming to Israel on a free trip, half of which is paid for by the State of Israel, in order to fight against Israel.
“The agenda of Birthright is clear — to build a Jewish family. I do not love the Birthright authorities, but to blame Birthright and its managers and donors is unacceptable to me. There is no chance in the world they were kicked off the trip just because they asked questions.… If you don’t want the gift, don’t take it. Nobody is forcing anybody to come. But if they do, they need to have a little bit of respect.”
Bloch said that after they were told they were being ejected from the trip, they were told they had broken “the rules and regulations. We asked which ones” and didn’t get an answer.
A spokesman for Birthright said in a statement: “When activists aggressively disrupt the experience of the other participants then, like in any organized group experience, we have to ask them to leave regardless of their agenda. Birthright Israel always welcomes participants’ views and questions, which are essential to the success of the experience, so long as they are shared in a constructive and respectful manner. We will not condone any coordinated plans to ruin the experience for others in order to promote a specific agenda.”
Stewart Ain is a staff writer for The New York Jewish Week, NJJN’s sister publication.