The Ugly Hypocrisy And Islamophobia Of My Birthright Trip To Israel

Jerusalem’s Western Wall (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)
I was expecting an enriching, educational experience. I was shocked and saddened by what I discovered instead.

There are a few things that society says you have no right to dislike, no matter how arbitrary or unreasonable it is to suggest that everyone like it: dogs, for one. (Anyone is allowed any opinion of cats, but if you dislike dogs, you are morally bankrupt. Why is this?)

Another thing you are only allowed to have a high opinion of? Birthright.

For the goys and the uninitiated Jews, Taglit Birthright Israel is an organization that provides 10-day, nearly-all-expenses-paid trips to Israel for Jews aged 18–26 who have never gone on an organized tour before. The premise is that it allows young people from the diaspora to connect with the once and future homeland, as well as form bonds and understanding with young Israelis of today. It does this by putting you on a bus with other people around your age, usually centered around a group of university students, though there are also J-Date-style buses, Orthodox buses, and other themed trips.

You are only allowed to have a high opinion of Birthright.

I can’t lie. It’s really cool that somebody who never met me would want to spend a lot of money so I could visit a bunch of historical landmarks, learn some key phrases in Hebrew, and eat mountains of falafel and shwarma.

But to butcher an aphorism, lunches on Birthright are actually not free. By the end, and even now, six years after I went, I regretted the whole thing and wished I hadn’t done it.

It started with the airport check-in. El Al, Israel’s airline, is known for having especially tight security, which is no surprise. It’s actually efficient and far more effective than the ridiculous, mostly worthless “security” measures the United States employs, and I respect that they take the more human approach over the filthy, asinine method of removing shoes and banning yogurt — they ask questions, wipe your suitcase with something that picks up gun residue, I guess, and look you in the eyes and somehow know. But being aggressively asked questions (even if it’s Interrogation Lite compared to Guantanamo) is dehumanizing and uncomfortable in its own right, even if it sounds reasonable in theory.

“Is your mother Jewish?” the agent asked me first.

“Yes.”

“Is your father?”

“No.” (He’s Catholic.)

“Did you have a bat mitzvah?”

“No.” (Seventh grade was the year I decided that religious activity was not for me — and the year I decided that social activities on Friday nights were far more fun than studying for an event that would not, as it would for my classmates, culminate in a very expensive, fancy party.)

“Do you speak Hebrew?”

“No.” (I took Spanish, French, and Portuguese in high school and college.)

“Do you read Hebrew?”

“No.” (See above.)

The questions went on and on, and I could see her mentally checking off, “bad Jew, bad Jew” as I answered each question. I think the only person who had a worse experience was the guy who had a stamp in his passport from Egypt.

I could see her mentally checking off, ‘bad Jew, bad Jew’ as I answered each question.

This was December, between the two semesters in which I served as a Hillel fellow with five other college students — a year in which I tried desperately to find ways to connect with my Jewish self and my Jewish peers and felt, over and over again, that they didn’t find me legitimately or sufficiently Jewish.

I’m not sure whether it was the fact that I came from an interfaith family or the fact that “interfaith” doesn’t really adequately describe the secular, agnostic Judaism that is my family’s heritage; or the fact that I am biracial (black and white) and cannot pass for white; or the fact that I was adopted as a newborn and did not pass through a Jewish birth canal; or the fact that, to the extent that we practice religiously at all, my family belonged to a reform congregation, not conservative or Orthodox; or the fact that I’ve never uttered the phrase “matzo ball” or referred to a head covering as a “kippa,” when my family uses the Yiddish version of just about everything (that would be “canedlach” and “yarmulke”). At any rate, the feeling that I was other, less than, and unwelcome was palpable over and over again that year.

So I felt like I was failing a test when I stood at JFK airport with my suitcase. Why, I wanted to ask the agent, don’t you ask me about my interest in Judaism as a form of intellectual inquiry? About how high I aim my tzedakah with regard to Maimonides’ eight levels of giving? About how it was I who made sure to record my grandmother’s famous latke recipe so that I could be the designated cook when she was no longer able to travel on a plane to make them for us herself?

Those are tests I’m sure I could pass.

Once we arrived in Israel, I realized my mistake in thinking that I was going on a trip to Israel. I was going on a tour, which meant there was no time or space for personal exploration, no ability to meander or take your time, and that type of mandatory fun irks me. It was being around a bunch of underage college students who were more excited about being able to drink than seeing historical sites.

It was eating junk food at truck stops where everyone in the restaurant on their lunch break had their machine guns sitting casually on their laps. It was having a tour guide who started his introduction to his great adopted nation (he had made aliyah from the United States many years before) by making a joke about how the best thing about being close to Syria was… [pause for laughter about how Syria is the worst place ever amirite lol?!] and then regularly making comments that conflated “Arab” with “Muslim” with “terrorist” without even the remotest sense of nuance or recognition of the hypocrisy of being a member of a marginalized group and not having any empathy for other marginalized groups.

One of the tenets of Judaism is that you don’t proselytize. This is my second favorite thing about Judaism. (The first is the idea that to be Jewish is to question things and look at them from many angles — the saying goes, “two Jews, three opinions.” I cannot remember the topic of my favorite sermon I ever witnessed, but it was my favorite because the rabbi ended with “any questions?” and then engaged in a 10-minute friendly debate with a congregation member.) What I didn’t realize was that proselytizing is absolutely okay when it comes to preaching to fellow Jews about Zionism. Every day I was told how much I was required to love Israel and support it in every way. That it was my job to promote its interests when I returned home — unless, of course, I made the better choice and made aliyah myself.

As I understand it from talking to other Birthright alumni, I had a singularly awful tour guide, and others did not talk incessantly or scream into the ears of people who had the audacity to fall asleep on bus rides. Okay, fine. A fluke.

But it’s not excusable when you’re sitting in a hotel room in Jerusalem, trying for the eighth night in a row to be accepted in a group of 40+ people (literally none of whom spoke to me the entire half an hour or so that I was in the room), and you watch as everyone decides that it would be the funniest thing in the world to fashion a fake turban for the brownish guy in the room and take pictures (it’s hilarious to be Arab, you know?). If I left the room, would someone put on blackface next? is all I could think.

Every day I was told how much I was required to love Israel and support it in every way.

There was a part of me that thought that maybe I would learn how to be a little more religious, and that I would actually enjoy going to services again, learning a little Hebrew, and relearning the songs and prayers I knew by heart as a child. Then I met the Shabbatevador.

I named it that because it’s an elevator that stops at every single floor on its way up and down — for 24 hours — so that you don’t have to press the call button. I also named it that because it helps you evade the mitzvot of Shabbat.

Apparently there is a thing where wealthy people in Israel go to a hotel over the weekends so that they can technically observe Shabbat (you are not supposed to do “work” of any kind, from flipping a light switch to cooking to your actual job during the Sabbath) while letting other people do work for them. Call me cynical or intolerant, but I can’t see how wasting electricity when we already treat the planet badly, or how letting other people serve you all day long in order to avoid technical “work,” makes you righteous.

It’s disheartening to hear the people on your bus determine that they are going to become more religiously observant when they get home as a result of this trip, and for them to look at you with disgust when you say you wish more of the trip could have been dedicated to cultural history and philosophical points of interest and not just political ones. (I noted in my journal that one documentary we saw on the Six-Day War was “profoundly uninteresting” and that our tour of “different perspectives” on the event excluded the perpetual bad guy — Syria — but then again, I am a pacifist.) Or for them to imply that you’re some sort of traitor anytime you say that something in Israel reminds you of any other place on the planet that you’ve been to, as I did.

Everybody around me, all white and upper-middle-class, mostly conservative, mostly b’nai mitzvah’d and a part of a strong community of fellow Jews, was having the time of their lives.

I tried to connect, but any time I said anything that came from a place of being a person of color or from being a person of cultural and intellectual Judaism more than faith, I felt hated or invisible.

Everybody around me, all white and upper-middle-class, mostly conservative, was having the time of their lives.

I was literally stepped upon in a hallway — twice. I was an idiot because I didn’t know what shwarma was and hadn’t had it before (it’s meat shaved from a gigantic rotisserie stick and put into a pita, and it’s delicious). This “learning experience” in Israel seemed to require an innate familiarity with Israeli history and politics that I did not have. It didn’t matter that I knew more Yiddish than many of the other people on the bus or that I had studied Sephardic ethnomusicology a semester ago or that my grandparents were involved in the labor movement. None of that was the right kind of Jewish.

There were some good things. Floating in the Dead Sea is an experience like no other, hiking Masada is well worth three days of calf spasms, and even I was swept away by the collective joy of arriving in Jerusalem near the end of the trip, when all of the buses in our cohort arrived and sang and danced and hugged each other. I made two solid friendships that lasted through the rest of college — ones that didn’t fail, but just naturally faded as we started different lives post-graduation.

But what dominates my memory is the witnessing of racial and ethnic jokes, religious hypocrisy, militant everything, and the constant demand that I give up my learned Jewish traits and assimilate into a single one that did not welcome any part of me. Certainly social interactions are hard, and I can’t expect everyone to want to be friends with me or to want to be friends with everyone. Certainly some things I didn’t like about Israel are things that have to do with me, not Israel.

Some.

What dominates my memory is the witnessing of racial and ethnic jokes and religious hypocrisy.

I came back from my Birthright trip ashamed to be Jewish. Ashamed to be a part of a group that I had seen being cruel, unwavering, militant, and unwelcoming.

It took me a long time to re-identify myself as a Jew, and that self-identification is still very separate from feeling a part of a Jewish community. I’ve considered joining synagogues and balked when I get stared at or told that “it’s sweet” that I’m converting. I bought a teach-yourself-Hebrew book and pick it up and put it down again because seeing Hebrew letters reminds me of being in Israel. I have not set foot in Hillel since I finished my fellowship, even though I have been back to campus countless times. I’ve been asked out by guys who think my race makes me “exotic,” but are pleased that they can still tell their mother they’re dating someone Jewish. And I’ve been told that by Orthodox standards, I’m not really Jewish, so none of this matters.

I can’t say I’ve found a Jewish community that wants me in it, or that understands who I am and how my identities as a woman, person of color, adoptee, reform Jew, pacifist, activist, and scholar can intersect.

I’m still looking.

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