After reading, then re-reading Jason Willick’s Monday column “Why we love Israel,” I was upset. I was not upset about the way he portrayed right-wing Israelis, and I am far from a supporter of Sheldon Adelson. Rather, I was upset how the article comes across as a generalization about the Birthright experience, as one operated by hot-headed rightists and supporters of settlers, where brainwashing about the devil incarnate that is “Modern Islam” is rife. It is this sort of sordid idea of the “Birthright experience” that might corrupt an altogether powerful, if not engaging and challenging, trip.
I will admit that I am biased in my support for Birthright. I had likely a life-changing experience, going on a Birthright bus in the summertime between my freshman and sophomore year at Berkeley. I went with limited to no knowledge about Israel and as a lapsed “cultural Jew.” I did not come back immediately chanting “Am Yisrael Hi” — a popular nationalist chorus which translates to “The people of Israel live” — but it did spark an interest in Judaism, social justice and Israeli politics. Those interests evolved into internships, joining Jewish clubs — even starting one called Challah for Hunger — becoming a part of the Jewish community at Cal mostly through Berkeley Hillel and ultimately the decision to study abroad in Israel last semester. It was perhaps the best semester I have had in college, which is undoubtedly rooted in the first time I went to Israel on Birthright.
I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge that Birthright spins a certain narrative about Israel. I know plenty of students like Willick who did not enjoy the trip because of “Zionist propaganda” and feelings that Birthright organizers were being disingenuous to the experience of what living in Israel and being Israeli is really like. I too remember feeling that way at times and did what Willick did. I challenged my peers and guides to sharpen their opinions and be clear in their reasoning and rationale. In fact, I think questioning is what is missing most from the 10-day whirlwind that Birthright takes its participants on. It is the responsibility of the trip facilitators to create an open space for dialogue throughout the trip and the responsibility of the students to continue to ask questions.
I also commend Willick for going on the trip, for some skeptical Jews eligible for the trip would maybe not go so far as to sign up and experience it firsthand. However, I am saddened to hear that the off-putting, mostly political experiences he had have negatively colored so many of his thoughts about Israel. It is a shame politics were at the forefront of what should be and is billed as a Jewish trip, for Jewish students. Birthright has the potential for being a point of entry into better understanding Israel through a Jewish lens, not a political gun-scope. I know this is an ideal that Birthright can aspire to, but for the time being, following the model of questioning and dialoguing is the best thing participants can do when it comes to ideological issues surrounding politics and policy.
In the last paragraph, Willick mentions he left Israel filled with fear. As someone who is also concerned about the internal and external policies of the currently elected government, I hope fear inspires more than words. I hope it inspires him to continue to question his relationship with Israel as a political entity, or in any other form in which that relationship manifests itself. I hope that questioning will lead to action, and will to either go back to Israel or work from Berkeley to make the kind of change he hopes to see. Maybe then Willick will see the value of Birthright not as a sinister experience, but a point of entry into an evolving relationship with Israel.
Ben Brint is a senior at UC Berkeley and traveled to Israel through Birthright.
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