My Taglit-Birthright Israel experience: 'Outing' myself on a kibbutz

Earlier this month, activist Rachel Marcuse spent 10 days in Israel as part of the Taglit-Birthright program -- a fully sponsored trip for young North American Jews to learn more about the country. She went to bear witness and ask questions about the Israeli state's treatment of Palestinians, and to learn about other complex issues in Israel today. After the program, she spent another 10 days elsewhere in Israel and the West Bank of Palestine talking to Israeli Jews, Arab Israelis, international activists, and Palestinians. This is the second of a seven-part series on what she found. Read the first part here.

Day 3

We wake up to a breakfast of amazing tomatoes, cheese, yogurt, bread and eggs on Kibbutz Efik in the Golan Heights area of Israel/Syria. Some of my fellow participants complain about the Israeli custom of having "salad" for breakfast, but the tomatoes are much tastier than Canadian ones and I'm thrilled, save for my exhaustion.

Upon arrival at the Tel Aviv airport the previous day, with very little on-board sleep, we were driven to numerous stops in Central Israel including Caesarea and its Ralli Museum (which has some unexpectedly great Latin American art, though we were too tired to really appreciate it). We didn't arrive at the kibbutz until 8:30 p.m. -- more than 48 hours after I left Vancouver. This becomes an underlying theme of the trip: exhaustion to the point of near dysfunction.

After a tour of the fully-automated Robotic Dairy Farm (for real!), our Ukraine-born tour guide, who made aliyah 15 years past, tells us the story of Eli Cohen, the Israeli spy hung in Syria, while we sit on a mountain peak overlooking Syria and Lebanon. (Several other Birthright tour groups near us are probably being told similar tales.)

"The nice green is Israel," our guide tells us, "and the dry yellow area is Syria" -- failing to mention that Israel monopolizes water supplies in the region. We are told that "archaeological history shows the presence of Jews in the Golan heights," an assertion which is loosely linked to her explanation of the occupation of the Golan after Israel's land grab in the 1967 Six-Day War.

We leave the Golan to go "rafting," which is really more like floating down a stream. Slowly. A couple of local boys grab onto our boat and splash around, flirting with us. My boatmates are less than impressed and scream to get "the Israelis" off the boat.

We arrive back at Kibbutz Efik for Shabbat, the Jewish day of rest. As this is the most secular of the Birthright trips, it is to be "our Shabbat," and there is very little pressure to do anything that could be construed as religious. Only two of the some 20 men of our group wear yarmulkes, the head covering signifying humility and religiosity.

After dinner, we all sit outside in the lovely courtyard of the kibbutz hotel (the accommodations for our trip are all shockingly comfortable...and expensive), and are asked to share comments about our connection to Judaism -- "or whatever," our leader quickly adds. Many of the participants come from inter-faith families and consider themselves "culturally" or "spiritually" Jewish as opposed to religious. I decide to "out" my politics. But gently.

I describe myself as not religious, perhaps spiritual, but note that the term seems to be a catch-all these days. I describe my parents meeting in Israel in the 70s, when working for dance companies in Tel Aviv, the history of my family in the Holocaust, and mention that the most religious person in my family was originally Catholic and converted! I say that one thing I like about Judaism is the focus on asking questions.

I tell the group that I make no secret of my problems with the politics of the State of Israel, but that I'm approaching the trip with a desire to question how oppression operates within Israel and Palestine and want to invite others to do the same. (This may be the first time anyone has said the "P" word on the trip. Most references are to "the situation" or "the conflict.") My contribution shifts the conversation slightly, but it then moves on to talk of Jewish stereotypes and the importance of dialogue.

After the discussion, relaxing at the kibbutz bar, a couple of other progressives "out" themselves to me, thanking me for saying what I said. Eventually, we become a four to eight person propaganda-debrief group, huddling together after some of the more particularly problematic "pluralist" sessions. While I don't think any of the participants would describe themselves as "activists," we do become a critical mass of folks able to provide some support to each other, and, to a lesser extent, to the group as a whole. This night becomes the first of many heavy drinking/bonding evenings with a group of 40 surprisingly interesting people. During the trip, I come to realize that nearly all of my prejudices, assumptions and snap judgements about individuals on the trip have dissolved. I don't go to bed until 4 a.m.

Day 4

We wake up Saturday morning excited to have our first and almost-only downtime. After a tour of the "new-style" kibbutz, we get some pool time and hike to some natural springs overlooking the Sea of Galilee, lying below in biblical splendour.

While exploring the kibbutz, we are told that 80 per cent of kibbutzim are the "new style" where people earn different wages and pay for services like meals. Essentially, most of the kibbutzim have been "privatized." Some lament the passing of the "old style" kibbutz where everyone earns the same, eats together in the dining hall, and all decisions are made democratically by the group. (I remember from conversations with my Father that the Hebrew word "kibbutz" actually means "group.")

Back from our hike, I teach a short yoga class on the grass to a larger-than expected contingent of the group -- it turns out I'm not the only one stiff from our long time on the plane and bus.

We arrive late to our next group session and get a pretty serious scolding -- a little strange to receive at age 26. Then begins some of the actual propaganda -- it had all been so gentle up to this point. Our tour guide is clearly the expert; we are the students. There is little space for dialogue as she starts to talk about the "conflict," telling us that she is "not a politician," thereby arbitrarily separating history from politics. There are times when our expert expands on her subjectivity as an Israeli...and then switches to "the facts." I try to challenge her on the issue of "disengagement" with Gaza, but I don't want to get into an extended back and forth with her in front of the group. This session is the preamble to our forthcoming "co-existence seminar" so we're all "on the same page." We are encouraged to read extreme viewpoints from both sides. By the end of the session, I am shaking.

This session is the first of many in which I struggle to open up space and -- despite my continuing exhaustion -- to be critical and to ask questions, all while not being "that girl." It becomes even more complicated when the soldiers join us on the following day.

Rachel Marcuse is a Vancouver-based activist, facilitator and apparatchick. The executive director of the Coalition of Progressive Electors (COPE), a municipal political party, she also freelances, focussing on facilitation skills, youth-engagement and strategic planning. Her views do not necessarily represent the positions of any organization whatsoever. She can be found on Twitter @rachelmarcuse.

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