This op-ed is written in collaboration with a large group of students who participated in Tufts Birthright trips to Israel. We were deeply disturbed with the way that a recent op-ed, “Whose Birthright?” and the accompanying zine of the same title portrayed the nature of our trip and characterized us as participants.
Each of us had a unique experience, connecting with some parts more than others and finding different points of resonance, but overall we found this to be a multi-layered and dynamic experience, and one that was deeply important in each of our respective, Jewish journeys.
Perhaps the instance that best illustrates the nature of the Tufts Birthright Israel trip was, after a particularly long day spent traveling from Tzfat to Haifa to Tel Aviv, our conversation with Birthright Israel’s International Vice President of Education, Zohar Raviv. We were happy to get the chance to meet someone from the institutional side of Birthright Israel and address the organization’s larger agenda.
He started his talk by asserting that while many participants come on the trip hoping to return with their questions answered, this is not Birthright’s goal. He went on to say that the experience should cause us to ask more questions, complicate our positions, and bring us into a larger conversation. For me, this statement resonated. As Americans, I do not think it is our place to come up with the answers for Israelis and Palestinians. Growing up, however, many of us were taught that there is an inherent connection between Judaism and Israel. We came on Birthright because we felt that it was our responsibility to come to our own conclusions by experiencing Israel firsthand. This is exactly what I saw happening on my trip.
While our busy schedule prevented us from getting as deep into certain topics as some of us would have liked, many of us spoke with the Israelis on the bus and learned more about their diverse perspectives. In between sharing jokes and stories, some conversations inevitably moved into political discourse, but that is how we bonded. There were people on all ends of the political spectrum, but the time we spent getting to know each other and the friendships we formed ensured that we listened to one another and treated each other with respect. The trip continued this way. Our days were packed full with programming, some about the conflict and others not, and some that were not academic at all but served as a way to have fun and get to know each other and the land. We became a community and identified by our bus number, 548.
One of the last programs on the trip was a visit to Israel’s largest military cemetery: Mt. Herzl, in Jerusalem. We walked past the graves of fallen soldiers, most of whom were born in Israel, but some whom had come from all around the world to fight for a country they believed in. Some of our Israeli companions who felt comfortable shared stories of their own loved ones who died while serving in the army. Regardless of the political differences among us, in those moments ascending Mt. Herzl it felt like we were all there for one another to provide comfort and to show respect.
We moved on to the graves of the past Israeli prime ministers also buried at Mt. Herzl and saw Yitzhak Rabin’s grave, standing taller than the rest as a testament to the man who was assassinated for his faith in peace. We ascended to the top of the mountain to the grave of Theodor Herzl, a founder of modern Zionism. Here our tour guide explained that we will always have a home in Israel.
This sentiment felt like a strange one to share at a cemetery. Why would anyone want to ‘claim a birthright’ to a land with such a contentious history? I understood a deeper meaning to what our tour guide was saying. As Jews we will always be welcome in Israel, but it is not as easy as getting on the plane. To claim that one has a connection to Israel means accepting the inherent responsibilities and consequences that come with it. To each person that means something else. To the soldiers buried in the mountain we were standing on, it meant defending their country, their families and their people. To Rabin it meant working for peace at all costs. For many of us it started with a ten-day trip to Israel where we engaged in a deeper exploration of our Judaism and our connection to a global Jewish community.
Today, almost one year after my trip, I still feel the strong connection to Israel that I’ve always had. As for my fellow participants, some feel a connection they never had before while others left with more questions than answers. What is important is that all of these outcomes were formed through critical thought and discussion. I recognize that this trip was one step in a larger education. What I saw was a group of 48 Americans and Israelis excited to meet new people and learn from one another about both their shared peoplehood and their diverse backgrounds and experiences. Regardless of one’s politics, to paint us collectively as shallow and thoughtless is not only disrespectful but far from the truth. As American Jews we found our Birthright experience to be a valuable beginning on continuing our journey to discover our identity. We acknowledge the existence of Palestinian narratives and connection to the land. However, those narratives do not negate ours just as our narratives should not exclude the possibility for peace and co-existence.
Attached to this op-ed are collected statements from other Birthright participants on bus 548 and other Tufts trips.
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