'No Brainwashing!': A Skeptic Goes on Birthright


The best way to visit Israel as a Jew is to do so naively. Go when you’re very young. Don’t look to your left, or to your right. You will love it. Return as an adult, however, and the magic is hard to recreate.

When I came to Israel for the first time, I was sixteen. It was summertime, I’d just gotten my braces off, and I was pretty confident that I was about to fall in love (I was not). A few days into my trip—a seven-week program sponsored by USY, a Jewish youth organization—Hezbollah ambushed two Humvees patrolling the border, killing three Israeli soldiers and capturing two more. Although the Lebanese government denied involvement, Israel declared the raid an “act of war.” So war broke out.

For an hour or two, we were terrified, pelting our trip leaders with wide-eyed questions, mostly regarding our own safety. Very quickly, however, we fell back into teen oblivion. This one got a hand job on the bus, that one’s talking shit about her roommate. We would hear when an Israeli soldier died, a few girls might cry, and then we’d move on. Our hotly anticipated trip to Tel Aviv was cancelled at the last minute due to security concerns; all activities in the north were out of the question. “I’m so sick of Jerusalem,” we whined. Like everything else in our prickly, hormonal lives, the Second Lebanon War was an minor irritant. We did not watch the news, nor were we informed of the rising Lebanese death toll.

One day, we went on a camping trip outside the city. On our lunch break I ate an entire can of corn; to this day, I am not sure why. As we resumed our hike, I trailed behind and hobbled off the dusty path, white-faced and dripping with sweat. Half-crawling, I slid into the arms of a thorny bush that I hoped would shield me from view as I either died or, worse, got diarrhea in front of Daniel Goldberg. I was preparing myself for this horror when, a few feet away, a miracle occurred: a girl on my trip was having an asthma attack. I couldn’t believe my luck. Slithering out of my hiding spot, I caught up with the group and announced that she needed me to go with her to the hospital—we weren’t that close, but, I figured, she was hardly in a position to say otherwise.

My food poisoning/corn overdose quickly dealt with, I ended up trapped in that emergency room, wedged between my gasping sort-of-friend and one of our trip leaders for close to eight hours. To me, it seemed like some bizarre alternate reality—an elderly amputee in a wheelchair hissing at me in Hebrew, the occasional limping IDF soldier wandering through—but its chaos wasn’t so different than that of any other hospital emergency room. What was different, at least for me, was the scene playing out on television: dead Lebanese children being shoved into black body bags, over and over and over again.

I want to say that seeing those images changed me, that my selfish adolescent mini-brain suddenly understood, on some level, that I was being subjected to atrocious half-truths, that this country being presented as my playground was something so much darker. But it didn’t, not at first. Eight hours and one new inhaler later, I closed my eyes and walked back out into the world. “Can we get McDonalds?” I begged.

A month after I got home, the silver ring I’d had engraved with a poem by Israeli World War II hero Hannah Senesh fell down my bathroom drain. As my mom scrambled unsuccessfully to get it out, I cried in giant, heaving gasps, feeling like something much bigger had been lost.

Today, nearly 10 years later, I don’t think about Israel with wistful nostalgia; I don’t look at its actions with the dewy eyes of a 16-year-old. Like many liberal American Jews increasingly at odds with Israel’s crumbling democracy, it is hard for me to feel proud of that place. When Birthright opened its doors to participants who’d previously toured Israel, I was tempted to go—free trip! new friends!—but also, obviously, totally conflicted, especially after last summer’s devastating operation in Gaza (during which Birthright was business as usual: “It’s almost as if we’re in this bubble,” a participant told BuzzFeed).

Another, less emotionally fraught reason I was hesitant to go on Birthright is the fact that it’s a highly condensed 10-day version of a trip I had already taken. I knew that the happy sense of discovery I’d experienced in 2006 would not be coloring this trip, and suspected that the missing layer of excitement would separate me from the other participants. And I’d always thought that if I returned to Israel, it would be on my own terms, certainly not a second round on the propaganda train. But more than that, I imagined I’d be witnessing my peers fall in love with Israel in a way that I no longer could. I imagined resenting them for it. I imagined that I would be the only one to ask about Gaza. I anticipated feeling superior.

But despite this, I was tempted. Although I don’t live in Israel—or donate to Israel, or pay taxes to Israel (at least directly), or write blog posts urging support of Israeli policy—I feel complicit. When I hear a non-Jew say “Israeli apartheid” or “state-sanctioned terrorism,” I get a breathless, hurt feeling in my gut, like when a friend insults your sibling with words you’ve used yourself. As treacly as it sounds, I feel like I left a piece of myself there in 2006, and part of me always wanted to go back. And then, the clincher: “You should write about it,” my editor told me. So I went.

Since its founding, over 400,000 people have gone on Birthright. The program, founded in 1999, sponsors free 10-day trips to Israel for Jewish young adults ages 18-26, mostly from the U.S. and Canada; the idea, according to the website, was “to address the growing divide between Diaspora Jewish youth and the land and people of Israel.” For a chunk of most Birthright trips, a handful of young Israelis (usually soldiers, sometimes college students) join the tour. About a quarter of funding (each trip costs roughly $120,000) comes from the Israeli government; much of the rest is donated by a slew of controversial figures, most notably Sheldon Adelson, a major Republican donor and casino owner who in 2011 called the Palestinians “an invented people.” Adelson recently gave the organization $40 million.

On the drive from the airport to the Golan Heights, our first destination and one not internationally recognized as Israeli territory, my anxiety was on an upswing. What if I hated everyone? What if I had just thrown away 10 perfectly good vacation days? As I looked out the window, however, I was soothed. It was a strange reaction, because there’s nothing particularly peaceful about Israel, but still it’s what I felt. The land was brown and green, dotted with giant prickly pear cacti and eucalyptus trees; a man rode a horse through a small brown field under a hill housing several half-finished Arab-Israeli mansions. Our Israeli tour guide responded gamely to a barrage of enthusiastic questioning, explaining the difference between Arab Israelis and Palestinians and various intricate dichotomies within Israeli society, such as the faint underlying tension between Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews and liberal resentment against Israel’s fast-growing ultra-orthodox communities. “No brainwashing!” he said cheerfully.

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. Before going on the trip, my friend who’d gone a few years earlier told me that the experience is “basically just getting blackout drunk every night and standing in the desert hungover, not listening while someone tries to teach you history.” In addition to its solid reputation as a right-wing Zionist propaganda tour, Birthright is legendary for being a drunken, sexual shitshow; back in 2013, Gawker editor Leah Beckmann described one particular evening as “a curly-haired cauldron of writhing hanky panky.” Tragically, my trip was a far cry from the Roman orgy I’d been anticipating—there were hookups, for sure, but almost everyone was in a relationship and the drinking was notably tame.

There were other surprises. “Birthright’s overstimulation brings about a deadening of feeling. It’s hard to imagine the suffering of others when you’re having the time of your life,” wrote Kiera Feldman for The Nation. “On Birthright, dissent is for fun-suckers.” While I assume that some trips are like this, mine was not. Most of the participants were very interested in learning about the conflict; our questions were encouraged, and our dissent was accepted willingly. “War is not sexy,” our tour guide instructed us. A reserve soldier, he spent two weeks last August just outside the border of Gaza, shitting in his helmet and sleeping outside, under threat of gunfire, because it was 110 degrees inside of his tank.

He was quite liberal, surprisingly liberal, if you knew what to ask, but also exceedingly measured. He worked with a script, of course—the point of the trip is to show us a good time, and to encourage us to associate that good time with the State of Israel; this goal is not straightforwardly compatible with a full, open dialogue about present-day Israeli policy. But he did not lie to us, which was one of my main expectations going into the trip; many Birthright guides, I have learned, would not bother to say, “And there is the Gaza Strip, to your left,” or “We’re entering the West Bank right now, does anyone have any questions?”

But despite the fact that we had an open-minded guide, and that most of the people on the trip were kind and bright-eyed and eager to learn, there were moments when ideological suppression reared its head clearly and unpleasantly. For instance, in a discussion group atop Mount Herzl on ways to improve the trip, I asked one of our trip leaders (staff includes two American trip leaders, one Israeli tour guide, and one Israeli guard/medic) if we could hear more about the Palestinian experience. “Birthright is a strictly apolitical trip,” she barked at me, going on to explain that Birthright is just a “taste” of Israel, and that we were welcome to do research on our own after the trip. My friend raised his hand. “I’m sorry, but this is implicitly political. We’re sitting in a military graveyard filled with soldiers who died fighting Palestinians.”

My group also included four aggressively conservative siblings hailing from the deep South, who came armed with bro tanks and quotes from Fox News. They bewildered their largely coastal, liberal co-participants. One night early in the trip, one of them informed me, drunkenly, that “a woman should never be president.” I stared at him. He turned to one of the Israelis on our trip and said, “Fuck the Arabs, am I right?!” The soldier laughed, passing around an iPhone photo he’d taken of a Palestinian man he’d beaten up. The subject was in a prison uniform, his face was bruised and bloody. He stared straight at the camera. He had been throwing stones.

Nothing was quite how I remembered it. Climbing Mount Masada at sunrise was not the epic, backbreaking trek stored in my mind; it was over in 15 minutes. “Fuck yeah!” a male participant howled as an F16 whizzed a few hundred feet above us. And the “Bedouin Tent” experience that night—to be clear, no actual Bedouin communities were involved, nor were their tents—was not the chilled-out starry sleepover I’d done previously; it was more like an ecstatic sober dance party in the desert for sex-starved baby Zionists.

Instead of one group, there were around eight, most of them ages 18-22 (my group was ages 22-26). A line of exhausted, bedraggled camels led us in a small circle, just enough time for everyone to take a selfie. Afterwards, we walked through the encampment, Israeli flags waving all around and what sounded like Israeli porn music playing on the loudspeakers. Brightly patterned mattresses were strewn around the ground and inside the tents. A man in a traditional garment passed us small cups of Bedouin coffee; at that point, he could have screamed “Breed!” and I don’t think anyone would have blinked. Later, we walked through the party, staring openmouthed as hundreds of participants jumped up and down to a club remix of Sia’s “Titanium.” “This is so weird,” my friend whispered to me.

A visit to the Western Wall (also known as the Wailing Wall, or the Kotel) is one of the landmark moments of the trip. Afterwards, some people in my group would complain that it was touristy. I didn’t notice, or care, because I’d taken a caffeine pill to wake myself up after four hours of sleep and it was giving me a mild-to-moderate panic attack. The sun, already bright on the gleaming white stone ground, was burning into my eyes. I felt a little bit like I’d just eaten a too-strong edible, the scene in front of me appeared as a terrifying Hasidic-themed video game. I approached the Wall, gulping water.

The women’s side of the Wailing Wall is smaller, less of a party. In fact, a huge crowd of young women were standing on chairs in order to look over the divider to the men’s section, where Bar Mitzvahs and other ceremonies were taking place. What would it be like, I remember thinking, as I began writing an “Are You There, God?” style letter on my allotted piece of paper, to grow up around this kind of energy? Would I have been different if, at the age of three, and four, and five, I’d skipped through the crumpled remnants of fallen prayers?

I walked up to it, tentatively. The last time I was here, I’d had a Siddur. That trip had been much more religious in nature; my friends were crying as we mouthed the words silently in one long line, holding hands. This time, I was empty-handed, and alone, and potentially having a heart attack, and I certainly didn’t remember the prayers. I leaned my head awkwardly into the wall, trying to breathe. The woman next to me was keening, rubbing her wet cheeks back and forth onto the stones. I placed my folded wish into a crack in the wall. I tried to be careful, but as I pushed it in, another flew out onto the ground.

On the fourth day of the trip, we went rafting down the Jordan River, an anemic and highly contentious waterway separating Jordan and Israel. We pinged helplessly from side to side of narrow river, erupting with laughter each time our half-sunken raft struck land. We soon ran into trouble, as groups of paddle-wielding middle school-aged boys were holding court at various strategic points throughout our three-hour ride, slamming their paddles into the water at each helpless drifter-by.

It was fun, at first: each time we approached these makeshift checkpoints, we would shriek, and protest, and paddle furiously around our attackers; then, almost immediately, we’d give in and start splashing them back. The third time we did this, I locked eyes with a boy who was maybe 14 or 15. He was wearing jeans in the water. “Leave, Americans!” we started to hear. His gaze was fierce, unfriendly. Splashes became waves. We realized, somewhat belatedly, that they were probably not Israelis. Our tour guide explained later that the teenagers were from Tamra, an Arab city in the Lower Galilee. I asked him what their lives were like. He paused for a long time. “Better than some.”

The next group liked us even less, it appeared. A raft of five or six boys grabbed onto ours; it looked as though they were trying to tip us over. When one boy snatched my paddle, the girl next to me tried to yank it back. “Stop!” she yelled, and, climbing over me, started hitting his hands. I shrank back in horror, becoming halfway shoved underneath my inflatable seat. Another raft from my group approached. The shouting grew louder. A girl from our trip climbed out of her boat, across my legs, and into the teenagers’ boat, smacking one of them several times in the arm. They let go of our paddle, and we floated away.

“Did someone in our group just punch a Palestinian child?” someone on my raft muttered. “He was at least 16, and pretty fucking big,” another protested. The girl behind me started crying. “I don’t think you guys understand what just happened,” she said wildly. “They hate us.” My roommate rolled her eyes and spun around. “We do understand,” she snapped. “Everyone understands. What we just experienced was a microcosm of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.” She laughed. “The Five-Minute War.”

As a pair of extremely symmetrical, extremely tanned Israelis hauled our boat out of the water, we explained that there were kids splashing people in the river. “They attacked us,” said the girl who had been crying. The men looked at each other, then at us. “We’ll take care of it,” one of them said, nodding grimly.

More than anything, Birthright felt like one giant Monopoly board. We trooped, happily exhausted, from one heavily promoted location to the next, each crowded mostly with other people on Birthright trips. The best and worst thing about Birthright is the complete lack of participant autonomy; a few years spent working in front of a computer will make hanging out outside and doing as you’re told for 10 days sound like the most brilliant plan in the world. It’s also, thanks to the sleepless, jam-packed nature of the trip, nearly impossible to come out of it with any kind of unified sense of your own experience, much less a sophisticated take on a society that’s only revealed its shiniest, most digestible bits.

As I write this, I’m in a hotel room in Tel Aviv, back in Israel just a month after Birthright on a press delegation trip sponsored by the America-Israel Friendship League. Shiny, digestible bits are on full display. It’s a beautiful country and a generous opportunity, but it’s hard to ignore the fact that this is my third time visiting Israel on a trip designed to foster support for the Israeli government. I’ve been spending a lot of time lately trying to deduce the extent to which I’m being misled.

Israel’s policy of segregation and occupation is a ghastly, heartbreaking case of historical circularity, layer upon layer of unaddressed trauma transforming the Jewish state into something very close to its own worst enemy. And as the liberal world slowly backs away from this tiny, vulnerable, reckless mess of a country, trips like these seem like a wasted opportunity to foster a vital dialogue within Jewish and non-Jewish communities. Doesn’t Israel want its supporters to be educated enough to hold their own in a debate, even that education brings with it potentially unwelcome ideas and criticisms?

From what I’ve seen so far, the answer is no.

Contact the author at [email protected].

Photo by Ellie Shechet.

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