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Why Some LA Jewish Millennials Are Walking Off Their 'Birthright Israel' Trips

After leaving their Birthright tour, Elon Glickman (center) and other IfNotNow activists visited Khan-al-Ahmar, a bedouin Palestinian village slated for demolition. (Photo courtesy of Elon Glickman)

This summer, some L.A. locals with Jewish American activist group IfNotNow walked off their Birthright buses to protest the program's perceived silence on Israel's occupation of Palestinian lands — and to hear directly from Palestinians.

The Birthright protests and rise of IfNotNow highlight a generational shift in the American Jewish community, with social justice-driven millennials criticizing Israel's policies in ways their parents and grandparents mostly haven't.

Trying to "disrupt the dialogue," these young organizers are calling out the Jewish institutions that raised them — Jewish day schools, summer camps, youth groups and Birthright Israel.

THE FIRST TO WALK OFF

Growing up, the question wasn't if Danielle Raskin would go on a Birthright trip, but when?

"It was like a rite of passage as a young American Jew," Raskin said. "Every summer, my newsfeed is just filled with the same pictures of people riding camels, and on top of Masada, and covered in Dead Sea mud."

The 22-year-old L.A. local finally made the free trip to Israel in June. But on the last day, Raskin walked off her Birthright bus with four other members of a Jewish American activist group called IfNotNow.

By then, she'd been on the trip for nine days. At no point had the guides talked about the conflicts that had been going on: violence in Gaza, the American embassy moving to Jerusalem.

"It felt like they had a responsibility to talk about the occupation," Raskin said. "Especially as the largest education provider of young American Jews on Israel. When that didn't happen, it was very frustrating."

When Raskin and her group left the bus, they traveled to the West Bank city of Hebron to see conditions for themselves.

A map of Israel provided by Mayanot, a Birthright Israel tour provider, doesn't demarcate the West Bank. (Photo by Danielle Raskin / LAist)

BIRTHRIGHT'S ORIGINS AND MISSION

The walk-offs represent a drop in the bucket compared to the more than 40,000 Jewish young people — mostly from the U.S. — who go on the free Birthright trips each year.

The trips are paid for and organized by Taglit-Birthright Israel, a nonprofit heritage tour provider, funded by the State of Israel, U.S. Jewish organizations and some big money donors like casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, who gave $70 million to Birthright this year.

The organization bills its popular heritage tours for 18 to 32-year olds as educational and apolitical, and claims tour guides do not take any positions or promote opinions.

"We embrace diverse viewpoints, especially from participants, as long as they are expressed respectfully," a Birthright Israel spokesperson said. "Participants who forcefully impose their political agendas will be asked to leave the trip, forfeit their trip deposit and be responsible for funding their return home."

Birthright was founded in 1999 in response to findings that a majority of Jews were marrying non-Jews, said social psychologist Leonard Saxe, who runs the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University. The organization's explicit goal was to strengthen Jewish identity and connection to Israel among Jewish people in the U.S. and rest of the world.

Saxe says early critics dismissed the program as "Steinhardt's stupidity" and "Bronfman's Blunder," referring to Birthright founders, philanthropists Michael Steinhardt and Charles Bronfman.

"They didn't think that 10 days could really change the trajectory of a young Jew's connection with Israel," said Saxe, who was new to his job at the time and persuaded the founders to allow him to study the results of what he calls "a social experiment.".

Since then he has gathered survey data on more than 600,000 participants — and applicants who didn't go on Birthright trips.

His findings? Taking the trip basically doubles one's likelihood of saying they feel "very much" connected to Israel. And participants are more likely to marry a Jewish spouse or raise their children Jewish, even a decade after the trip.

WHAT BIRTHRIGHTERS DO AND DON'T DO

Birthright says its tours embrace diverse viewpoints and don't promote political positions or opinions, but the 10-day tours don't include meeting with any Palestinians. The organization also recently canceled meetups with Israeli Arabs.

Participants tour historic and religious sites like Israel's Holocaust memorial, Yad Vashem, and its national cemetery, Mount Herzl, in the company of Israeli Defense Forces soldiers, many around their own age.

"They join you about halfway through your trip, so you get the experience of not only traveling in Israel, but traveling with Israelis," said Noa Kretchmer, who went on a Birthright trip for L.A. entertainment industry professionals this summer.

The 22-year-old born in Israel and raised in California says the trip is about connecting with Israel.

"That's what Birthright did for me. It gave me an even deeper relationship with my land. To me, Birthright is not about discussing the political conflict in Israel specifically."

At an 18th anniversary Birthright gala this year, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressed thousands of participants from around the world.

"Birthright has infused life in Jewish identity to thousands and thousands of Jewish men and women," Netanyahu said. "And nothing better conveys that identity than your visit here in Israel. You see it here yourself."

#NOTJUSTAFREETRIP

The IfNotNow activists who walked off their trip visited Hebron, which appeared deserted. Credit: Sophie Lasoff

Those challenging the scope of the Birthright tours say they were not shown the full picture, something that troubled the IfNotNow activists even before they signed up for the trip. Founded in 2014 by Los Angeles local Simone Zimmerman, IfNotNow is a growing movement of young Jewish American progressives who want to end Jewish American support for the occupation.

Elon Glickman walked off his Birthright bus in July. By then the L.A. native was already troubled by his childhood education.

Now 25, Glickman was raised in LA's Jewish community, attending K-12 Jewish day school, summer camps and youth groups. But Glickman says he didn't learn the truth about Israel-Palestine until arriving at Oberlin College and hearing new questions from students.

"They asked me, 'What do I think about settlements? What do I think about the green line?' And I realized that I just didn't even know what those things were," Glickman said.

Settlements, he now knows, are Israeli Jewish communities built on Palestinian lands, which the Israeli military has occupied since 1967. They're condemned by the United Nations as violations of international law. The green line is the 'pre-1967' border, established when Israel was formed.

"IfNotNow is doing many campaigns to raise the issue that our community has never told us what's happening, and I think targeting Birthright is one really powerful way to do that," he said. "They have access to more young people than arguably any other institution in the Jewish world today. And at best, they're selling an incomplete narrative, and at worst, they're selling a lie."

Glickman started working with IfNotNow two years ago. He's met outgoing Birthright trips at California airports to discuss the occupation as part of IfNotNow's #NotJustAFreeTrip campaign, and left his Birthright Israel bus this summer after days of trying to get tour guides to discuss Israel's treatment of Palestine.

Glickman asked lots of questions — like why the map provided didn't show the West Bank, or why they weren't going to speak with any Palestinians.

He and others went to East Jerusalem to meet a Palestinian family facing eviction threats from right-wing settlement groups. Murad Sumreen thanked them from the roof of the home where his family's lived for generations.

"We're not well-known in the media," Sumreen told the group in an exchange captured on Facebook live. "People need to see what's happening. The settlers are taking houses by force. It's not like what the rest of the world thinks. This is what is really happening: they're kicking people out of this house."

Glickman says American Jews need to understand what's happening here, but Birthright isn't helping.

"It's a propaganda trip," Glickman said. "It's literally a trip that is meant to inspire unconditional support for Israel. It's meant to make us think that the occupation doesn't exist. If they're going to give you a free trip but ask you to stay silent, then it's not a gift anymore. It's a bribe."

In response to questions from KPCC/LAist, Birthright officials said they embrace diverse viewpoints, especially from participants, as long as they are expressed respectfully. They acknowledged Birthrighters sometimes leave the trip, which they attributed to a variety of reasons, including medical emergencies.

Through a spokesperson, they also said participants who "forcefully impose their political agendas will be asked to leave the trip, forfeit their trip deposit and be responsible for funding their return home."

Glickman's group, for example, raised money on Kickstarter for their trip home after their Birthright flights were canceled.

A GENERATIONAL SHIFT

After leaving the Birthright bus, Elon Glickman and fellow IfNotNow activists joined with an anti-occupation group of former IDF soldiers called Breaking the Silence in, Hebron. (Photo courtesy of Elon Glickman)

Glickman's outspoken activism has put him at odds with many in the L.A. Jewish community where he was raised.

"We've had some contentious conversations, because, above all, I do support Israel, and I do believe the Jews have to have a homeland," said Lori Glickman, Elon's mom.

She thinks IfNotNow's goal of ending Jewish American support for the occupation probably doesn't go far enough.

"I'm a much more 'what are you going to do about it?' person," said Lori Glickman. "Awareness is great, and then what? What are you doing to resolve the conflict? Everybody's aware, but it continues."

"Well, I think that's the problem," Elon interrupted. "Not everybody is aware."

"It's literally a trip that is meant to inspire unconditional support for Israel. It's meant to make us think that the occupation doesn't exist. If they're going to give you a free trip but ask you to stay silent, then it's not a gift anymore. It's a bribe."

Less than 40 percent of American Jews surveyed by Pew said the Israeli government is making a sincere effort to establish peace with Palestinians. Just a quarter of those aged 18-29 felt that way.

UCLA Jewish history professor David Myers said previous generations have a heroic view of Israel: a David facing off against an army of Goliaths. Not today's millennials.

"It's a generation in many respects cut off from the memory of the Holocaust, one that hardly knows of the existential threat that Jews faced, and a generation that has a very different understanding of Israel," Myers said. "So, Israel is not David facing an army of Goliaths, but quite the opposite: Goliath, oppressing a David, in the form of the Palestinian people.

Myers says it's not that IfNotNow's members are less connected to their Jewish identities, or even to Israel. They're just asking a different question.

Every generation asks a different question," Myers said. "The previous generation asked the question, 'How will the Jews survive?' This generation — the IfNotNow generation — asks, 'How can we as Jews live a moral existence?'"

That's a question Elon Glickman is struggling to answer.

"If we want to get back to our Jewish values, ones of questioning, of standing up for what's right, of repairing the world, we have to look at the occupation," Glickman said.

His mother Lori might not agree with everything Elon's doing, but she's proud he's trying to put the Jewish values she raised him with into action.

"He's following his beliefs, and I really respect that," she said. "While I was kind of taught that, it was a different generation. I was also kind of taught 'don't make waves.' I think he's braver than I am."

Correction: In an earlier version of this story, a caption misidentified an organization that provides a map that doesn't demarcate the West Bank. LAist regrets the error.


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