HEBRON, OCCUPIED PALESTINE — Five American Jews, who were visiting Israel as part of the Birthright Israel program, ditched the trip yesterday in protest. Instead of continuing on with the trip’s planned itinerary, on the eighth day of their trip the five Americans joined Breaking the Silence, an anti-occupation army veteran’s group, on a tour of Hebron.
One of the five Americans who walked off the trip, Sophie Lasoff, 24, insisted they did not know each other prior to their trip to Israel and had not planned to join Breaking the Silence. Instead, the five “wanted to give Birthright a chance,” says Lasoff. “We didn’t want to do something like that, but we felt that it was the right thing to do.”
Birthright Israel brings young Jewish adults to Israel on a free 10-day trip to tour the country and learn about its history. The program has brought more than 650,000 young Jewish adults to Israel since 1999. One of the five who left the trip contends that Birthright «is not providing the kind of education that we really need… and is telling a one-sided story. This is not fair, and we deserve the truth.» Lasoff explained the five became disappointed with the Birthright program’s treatment of the occupation of Palestine and, as a result, sought out Breaking the Silence, to join their tour.
The five live-streamed their departure from the Birthright tour bus on Facebook. In the video below they can be seen arguing with their tour guide and fellow participants.
Katie Anne, another American who left the tour, said on the livestream:
Birthright gave us a map of Israel that does not denote the West Bank [even though] the director of our Birthright organization admitted that the majority of maps in Israel do include [it]. They keep saying they’re apolitical but this is clearly to the right.»
“Like a lot of you, I came on this trip to be in a community with fellow Jewish youth and to learn. I really valued a lot of the experiences I’ve had,” said Birthright participant Bethany Zaiman, using the mic on the tour bus. As her tour guide attempted to cut her off, Ziaman continued by telling other participants that the five had been repeatedly asking questions throughout the trip in an effort to engage with and learn more about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Zaiman added:
We have not been able to do that and as a result, the five of us will be leaving as we get off the bus and will be going on a trip with Breaking the Silence to learn about the occupation from the perspectives of Palestinians and IDF soldiers.”
The tour guide then reprimanded the five, saying they were “pulling a fast one” on him and “trying to enforce [their] opinions on the rest of the participants.”
“You did not come to learn about Israel, you came to learn about Palestine,” he shouted, adding that the five came “to bash Israel on purpose, and in public in front of all your friends.”
Other tour participants expressed their displeasure with the actions of the five. One went so far as to tell the women that they would be “killed” and “raped” on their West Bank trip.
In addition to live-streaming, the five also posted a statement on Twitter.
After leaving the Birthright tour, the five visited Hebron and Bethlehem with Breaking the Silence.
Breaking the Silence and IfNotNow work to shed light
Breaking the Silence works to expose testimonies of former Israeli soldiers who report on IDF abuses in both the West Bank and in the Gaza Strip. Its members have “taken it upon themselves to expose the public to the reality of everyday life in the occupied territories.”
The group offers “tours of the flashpoint city of Hebron, where several hundred nationalist Israeli settlers live in fortified compounds heavily guarded by the IDF in the midst of 200,000 Palestinian inhabitants whose movements are heavily restricted.”
Dean Issacharoff, Breaking the Silence spokesman, met the five Americans along with other staffers, and thanked them “for deciding to not cooperate with the silence that is protecting the violent and immoral military regime that we’re enforcing on millions of Palestinians.”
Issacharoff called the incident “the first political walkout from a Birthright trip.”
Local Israeli media has been reporting the American’s decision using headlines such as “Left-Wing NGO Crashes Birthright Group to Spread ‘Anti-Occupation’ Info,” from The Jerusalem Post and “Left-wing participants stage Birthright walkout to attend West Bank tour,” from The Times of Israel.
IfNotNow — an American Jewish activist group opposing the Israeli occupation of Palestine and led by young Jews — recently launched a campaign targeting the Birthright Israel program. IfNotNow’s website states:
This summer, an estimated 40,000 young American Jews will embark on a trip to Israel led by Taglit-Birthright. For our entire generation, going on Birthright has been seen as a rite of passage in your Jewish journey. But we can no longer allow a free trip that hides the truth about the Occupation to be synonymous with being a young Jewish person in America.
This summer, we are urging Taglit-Birthright to tell the truth about the Israeli Occupation to the tens of thousands of young American Jews that will participate in its programming.”
Activists working on IfNotNow’s Not Just a Free Trip campaign have been gathering in airports in the U.S. to engage with Jewish youth before they leave on their Birthright trips. Activists are encouraging participants to question their tour guides about Israel’s occupation of Palestine.
A spokesman for IfNotNow, Yonah Lieberman, confirmed that members of IfNotNow met with the Birthright group as they were flying out of New York last week.
Birthright calls itself apolitical but has a manifest agenda
Birthright Israel responded to the protest by the five Americans by saying the program is «an apolitical project and the leading educational initiative in Israel,” adding «since we respect our participants’ abilities to form their own opinion, we reject the promotion of any agenda and any attempt at manipulation or provocation by any political side.»
Haaretz reported last November:
Birthright, the organization that brings young Jewish adults on free, 10-day visits to Israel, has instructed its trip providers to stop including meetings with Israeli Arabs on their itineraries.”
However, Birthright Israel requires that all trips include time spent with Israeli soldiers.
Last year, Haaretz also reported:
Birthright is promoting a free stay for participants who extend their time in Israel beyond the 10 days offered if they choose to remain at a hostel in Jerusalem’s Old City run by an extremist rabbi aligned with radical factions of the settler movement, who encourages those who stay with him to volunteer at illegal Israeli outposts in the West Bank.”
Emma Fiala is MPN’s Editorial Assistant and social media guru. She is also a documentary photographer, mom of two, and an independent journalist. Her stories have been featured on MintPress News, the Anti-Media, Media Roots, and Steemit. Find her on Twitter.