Macalester students critique Birthright trip to Israel

By Phineas Rueckert

Birthright trips to Israel have a reputation for being fulfilling, formative experiences for young American Jews. However, with the current turmoil in Israel, “to go on a 10-day trip to Israel and not to have the leaders or other students even mention the word Palestine, to me, is pretty wild,” said Ilana Master ’14. This past J-term, 10 Macalester students took part in Taglit-Birthright trips. Birthright trips are short, guided visits to Israel for Jewish young adults who seek to further their connection to—and understanding of—the Jewish culture and Israeli state. While four of these students applied to Birthright trips independently of Macalester, the other six participated in a program called Israel Free Spirit that was offered to members of the Macalester Jewish Organization (MJO). A national educational group called the Jewish Learning Initiatives on Campus (JLIC) teams up with Taglit-Birthright to run Israel Free Spirit trips. These trips mostly consist of students from Rutgers University and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, but this winter Sasha Lansky ’14 had the idea to bring Macalester students into the picture. “I really wanted to unite the Jewish community at Macalester,” Lansky said. The six Macalester students on the trip, Emma Pulido ’14, Zach Golden ’13, Adam Freedman ’12, Rachel Adler ’12, Lansky and Master, felt that along with its right-wing, nationalistic message, the trip was geared toward, in Freedman’s words, a group of “less interested students.” The Macalester students said they found that while they profited from their time in Israel, they were frustrated (and at times shocked) by the lack of discussion, levelheaded leadership, and seriousness of the Birthright trip. “Nobody was interested in engaging [in conversation],” Lansky said. “It didn’t seem like any of the students wanted to take anything to a higher level.” Before signing up for—and informing other Mac students of—the Birthright trip, Lansky spoke to one of the leaders, a UMass Amherst rabbi. She was told that discussion and openness would be encouraged. “Conflict was never once brought up. We drove through the West Bank and nobody said anything. The first day we saw the green line from 1967 and the wall and nothing happened,” she said. Lansky felt that the leaders never fostered any sense of community amongst the students. The students were never asked to introduce themselves to one another or encouraged to discuss the significance of what they were seeing and doing. “[The American trip leaders] just didn’t know how to facilitate a group,” Lansky said. “Maybe if we had done bonding activities and cared about the people on the trip, it would have been a very different thing.” Because of the lack of discourse amongst students and the pro-right stance of Birthright leaders, Birthright provided its students an incredibly one-sided version of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In fact, the Mac students agreed, it hardly addressed the conflict, if at all. “I knew going into Birthright that, because of its reputation for being pro-Israel, a lot of propaganda was going to be thrown at you, but I thought that at least that propaganda would address [the Israeli-Palestinian conflict],” said Adler. “I was surprised that it didn’t. I at least wanted to hear that [propaganda].” One day on the trip, after a speech from Gil Hoffman, a political correspondent for the Jerusalem post, they asked him a series of “rather pointed” questions. “[Hoffman], first of all, didn’t really know how to respond [to us], and the leadership also didn’t know how to handle us doing that,” said Pulido. “We asked questions about settlements, Jordanian influence on the peace process, etc. One [student] said that [Hoffman] should have been clear that he represents a biased news source. He was angry about the biased news source question and gave rather bland circumventing answers to the other questions,” she said. “The organizers saw that we were upset after his speech and urged us to ask questions, but they told us this in not a very nice way.” Participating students like Master found the trip to be, in many ways, “problematic and challenging,” but also “a powerful learning experience.” The night after Hoffman’s talk, the Macalester group talked with two of the other students on the trip about their political views concerning Israel. The responses that they received from these students were encouraging. “We don’t know if we changed their opinions, but they were open and receptive and challenged us, and we had a really good discussion,” said Lansky. “But why did it take until night number eight for this to happen?” The program lasted 10 days, from January 1 to 11, and consisted of 40 students, two Orthodox rabbis, eight Israeli soldiers and Israeli guides. Birthright trips are open to Jewish youth (ages 18-26), and are completely free, including airfare and lodging. On Birthright trips, students take part in religious, cultural and social activities with the overarching goal to, in its website’s words, “explore the richness of Jewish life, tradition, and spirituality.” There are visits to the Western Wall of the Old Temple, Mount Massada, the Negev Desert and the Dead Sea, as well as other hiking and outdoor activities and cultural events. Although it was not what the Mac students expected, the experience gave them insight into how differently-minded students and people conceive of the world. “I would actually tell people they should [go on a Birthright trip] because it’s a point of view that you need to understand exists in the world,” Pulido said. It provided students with an opportunity to assess their Macalester education in a new setting. “When we go out into the world, we’re not going to be surrounded by Macalester types all the time,” Pulido said. “It’s scary to confront points of view that are so different from yours, but it’s also important to do, and we all learned that and learned from it.” “We didn’t make 40 new best friends,” Master said, “but we learned a lot.” refresh –>