The Birthright Question

The trips are down sharply this winter. It has me thinking about why I never went.

A young man wearing a hooded black jacket holds up a sign saying "BIRTHRIGHT IS A SHONDE" in a crowd of protesters in midtown Manhattan.
Jewish activists stage a protest against Birthright ahead of its 18th anniversary gala, in New York, on April 15. Atilgan Ozdil/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

If Birthright is a rite of passage for some Jewish-American young adults, for others, so is spending what feels like one’s entire post-adolescence not being able to decide whether to go on Birthright. In college I clicked through countless Facebook albums of classmates who’d gone on the trip and afterward posted pictures of themselves atop camels or floating in the Dead Sea, and I continued to think about going on and off throughout my mid-20s. Could I get the time off work? Would I feel like an un-bat mitvah’ed, never-went-to-Jewish-sleepaway-camp odd girl out? I expected the question to become moot when I aged out of eligibility. But last year, Birthright changed its upper age limit from 26 to 32, doing its part to contribute to stereotypes about millennials delaying real adulthood—and prolonging a decision that has grown fraught in a different way for many people like me.

What’s stopped me from claiming my free trip to Israel? Don’t I want to see the Wailing Wall and sleep toe-to-toe in a giant tent with a bunch of near-strangers? I still sometimes get texts from a recruiter who must have found my number on some old list. My friends who have gone say they had a great time, that you can just ignore the propaganda. But I remain ambivalent: I’ve never totally been able to put into words why I didn’t go, but a new report has it on my mind yet again.

Haaretz, the Israeli newspaper, wrote this week that participation in Birthright is down markedly this winter, especially among Jews from the United States. Despite trip providers’ claims of a record year in 2017 (with 48,000 trip-goers) and a final tally for 2018 that may also end up a record, the December-to-March winter season of Birthright has seen an “unprecedented” drop-off in participation, according to the paper. Some trip providers speculated that the declining numbers are because of “the well-documented fact that young American Jews are growing increasingly disengaged from Israel,” citing protests against Birthright and its exclusion of Palestinian voices. For their part, Birthright organizers said the decline was due to registration opening during Jewish holy days.

Whatever the explanation, protests against Birthright do seem to be gaining ground. IfNotNow, an activist group that opposes Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and other organizations have emerged in recent years to argue that Birthright “curates an experience that deliberately obscures the Occupation and the truth about Israel from view.” Over the summer, IfNotNow inspired several Birthright participants to leave their groups midtrip, walkouts meant to draw attention to Birthright’s complicity with Israeli policy. INN activists have also shown up at airports to see off departing Birthright participants with anti-occupation pamphlets and rhetoric.

Birthright’s ties to the right wing—Sheldon Adelson is its largest individual donor—and Zionism have always troubled many potential participants, but NBC has reported that the Trump administration may have deepened suspicion of the program, given widespread opposition to his policies and his close ties to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Questioning Birthright can seem like a natural extension of questioning Israeli policy, because, for all the organization’s claims of non-indoctrination, Birthright trips present only a very specific version of Israeli life: “Trying to understand Israel by going on Birthright is sort of like trying to understand the United States by riding a float in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade,” Jezebel once wrote.

Critics of groups like INN say that uniting Jews against Birthright, the occupation, and Israel’s rightward turn is easy compared with the harder work of trying to build a broader platform that Jews will want to unite around. But I admit their messaging is working on me. I’d be lying if I said I’ve always had political objections to Birthright: Circa college, my concerns were more to the tune of not wanting to give up parts of my summer or winter breaks and worrying I wouldn’t make friends on the trip. But as I’ve gotten older, instead of thinking of not having gone on Birthright as a nondecision I reached by default and procrastination, I count myself among the American Jews who were never quite able to buy into what the program was selling. In my 30s, well beyond the age I thought Birthright would be an option for me, my ambivalence is seeming more and more like it was the right answer for me all along. If I do see Israel some day, it’ll likely be when I can afford to pay for the trip myself—on my own terms.