My Taglit-Birthright Israel Experience: Batmitzvah'd in Jerusalem

| August 11, 2010
Everyone on the bus is exhausted by the relentless pace of the tour of Israel. Photo: Rachel Marcuse

In July, 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 fourth of a seven-part series on what she found.

Day 6

Today is our midway point for the Taglit trip and my personal breaking point. I haven't slept. At all. After our "night out" in Tel Aviv with a 1 a.m. curfew (ridiculous for 26-year-olds in a big city like Tel Aviv), which included a midnight swim, I'm wired, a little nauseous from dinner at the "Speedo" branded beach bar and unable to sleep. In the morning, shaky, I get on the bus with the crew to go to Independence Hall. One of our new Israeli friends, Or, brings me sage tea.

The day passes in a blur with a trip to the beautiful port city of Jaffa, located outside of Tel Aviv, described by our tour guide as "filthy and dark" before Jews settled it. During our short free time, I nap under a tree. It's amazing to be alone and I realize the extent of the control and scheduling we'd been experiencing -- programmed from 7 a.m.-11 p.m. nearly every day. This is very different from the kind of independent travel I'm used to -- it's like I don't even really need to take responsibility for myself. (After Birthright, I correctly predict that for the first couple of days I will forget to feed myself.)

Day 7

I'm a real live human being again. After some unnecessarily complicated negotiations, I had skipped out on the last activity of the night and slept for a full eight hours. The intense day passes with a beautiful walk in a desert gorge, a visit to Ben Gurion's grave and a trip to the air force museum. We are told in an "informational" video made between the first and second Intifada (no one seems to know that actual date), that the Israeli air force has a "success" rate of 41:1 and that it is "small, fast and efficient" -- "just like me!" quips Hannah. Fast and efficient? Perhaps. But small? A single F15, we are told, costs $100 million just for the shell -- paid for, in part, by American military subsidies. We proceed to take inappropriate pictures on said planes.

We arrive at a Bedouin camp, which a bunch of us have renamed "Bedouin Disneyland" as it's clearly an exercise in effective touristy marketing. A camel ride, communal dinner, hippy-scarf-buying, and social cohesion circle later, we wander out into the desert in the pitch black dark. I always find the desert brings on epiphanies; I have one of those "everything is connected" moments and feel a lot of love for the remarkable, respectful and diverse group I find myself in. Other people share their thoughts after some moments of silence. One of our group leaders videos these reflections without letting people know and I wonder if they will be used as part of a Taglit-Birthright testimonial video. Tacky.

Days 8-10

The next couple of days pass quickly in what we've come to call the "Birthright Haze." We wake up at 3 a.m. to visit Masada -- "think of it like Waco, Texas," says Or, unimpressed -- the magical Ein Gedi oasis and the Dead Sea.

We visit Yad Veshem, the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem, and on the way are told that there are lots of rich Palestinians past the fence and are pleaded with: "Don't let the media fool you!" The museum is, as expected, overwhelming, though not enhanced for me personally by our session the night before which aimed to bring home the idea that the Holocaust wasn't just "any" genocide. (Apparently, Jewish suffering is more important/unique than other suffering. We are the "chosen people" after all....) I am a crying mess, though I try to find some hope for humanity in the organizing that took place in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising and the group of women who managed to help blow up a crematorium as part of the Auchwitz-Birkenau revolt. I look up my family in the database and learn that 238 people with my last name, many whom were related to me, died in the Holocaust, most in Auschwitz.

The Israeli students and soldiers leave us after a trip to the military cemetery with some sadness for ending friendships and love connections -- though some can't stay away and return to our hotel for Shabbat. There are lots of telephone numbers exchanged for those extending their trips -- about half of the group, although only two of us visited Palestine in the end.

We spend the next day in Jerusalem, beginning the day with a secular bar/bat mitzvah ceremony (led by one of our American group leaders who is very much not a Rabbi), for those who want to renew their commitment to the Jewish community or for participants who want to go through the rite of passage for the first time. There are five people in the group participating. They talk about what it means to them to be Jewish and I'm moved. I spontaneously decide to participate (causing another person to join as well). I talk about what being Jewish means to me. I return to the importance of asking questions in Judaism, as I described in the second night of Taglit. I talk about community -- but remind myself that Jews don't have a monopoly on community (or suffering, for that matter) and talk about the need for different communities to work together. I talk about my ambivalent relationship to my Jewishness and how easily the oppressed can become the oppressor. I make the bat mitzvah my own -- renewing my commitment to anti-oppression work -- and, in doing so, do come closer to terms with an element of my identity I've struggled with. (While this isn't a judgment on anyone who participated, days later, out of the Birthright haze, I do question my decision to participate in the ceremony.)

I text my mom that I just got bat mitzvah'd. My parents are simultaneously surprised and amused, though seem to get it when I explain the anti-oppression context. I'm on a strange high from doing something so "not me" as we spend the rest of the day in the Jewish quarter (Taglit will not allow us in the Arab quarter) and visit the women's side of the Wailing Wall. The men, we learn, have an area three times as big and also get an underground section of the wall which is -- get this -- air conditioned, where they can peruse the Torah in comfort.

The day ends with a visit to a bustling Jerusalem market -- my favourite place to visit in any city -- and Shabbat.

Day 11 (final day)

As it's the "day of rest," we get some sweet, sweet sleep before attending our "Israel Update" session, which has some of the only substantive politics of the trip. The speaker, from North America, both a contracted public speaker and, as it turns out, an aide to President Netanyahu's advisor, does an excellent job in laying out the history of "the situation." He's clearly been told to focus on me, which is later confirmed by our tour guide [who also tells me later that while she disagrees with me, "you (meaning me) know your shit," which I take as a strange compliment.] I try and avoid the back and forth in front of the group as there is no space for discussion yet again, though the all-American accountant from Baltimore next to me nicely whispers that I ask good questions.

Instead, I interrogate our speaker over lunch. It turns out his politics are really much more centrist than those of his rightwing boss, but he gets away with this contradiction by pre-empting all statements to the media with "it's the government's position that...". He is clearly quite brilliant. And ethically dubious.

Our Denver-born, no-nonsense director returns for our wrap-up session. I corner him after the session and ask him the question I have continually raised -- if this is a "pluralistic" trip, why no Palestinian perspective? "It's not the donor's agenda," he responds quickly. I am floored. This is not the directness I am expecting. He immediately backtracks when I ask what the agenda is and he talks about the diversity of opinion from the founders and donors -- how, for some, the program is about making aliyah (which seems to be Israelis' notion of why the program exists) and having lots of Jewish babies, but for others it's just about strengthening Jewish identity and realizing that one's assumptions about Israel might be wrong and that "it's complicated."

Thus, I expand my birthright equation: Jewishness + Community = I heart Israel > "It's complicated" > make aliyah (or at least support Israel at home).

Is the donor's agenda successful? In general, I would say yes. Very. The Taglit program is very intelligently run and must be showing results to justify the millions of dollars spent -- I mean, I got batmitzvah'd! Me!

The program uses classic techniques like sleep deprivation, control over agenda and movement (even timing when we could pee!), culture shock, isolation from media, and tightly controlled contact with people from outside the group, all of whom, as I've described, were not exactly a representative sample of Israeli society. There was little space for dialogue, little context about the history of the state and the occupation for those who had less of a background, and formats that made it hard to be critical with the group present (which was especially tough because everyone was so exhausted). These techniques were likely much more successful than trying to convince us on real politics -- of which many of the participants weren't interested in too much anyway.

Nearly everyone in the group I talked to now felt a connection to Israel, where many had felt none prior to the trip. Taglit-Birthright hopes this will translate into support for Israel policy at home in the U.S. and Canada. For most, I think, it probably does -- especially for the younger (18-year-old) groups who go with higher-propoganda trip providers, of which most of the Taglit trips are. Birthright plays into our legitimate desire for community and exaggerates emotional reactions to people and places due to the high-intensity experience. Even I had to continually remind myself that what we were experiencing, we were experiencing as people, not just Jews. And then we'd all go out and get trashed.

At the Kibbutz bar that last night, we drink. A lot. There are an astonishing number of hook-ups, including many a what-happens-in-Israel-stays-in-Israel mantra for partnered participants. A "baby soldier" (as many participants describe the young fighters) -- 21 -- tells me he finds me interesting: "Maybe it is your eyes," he says. The Kibbutz bar has a more accurate sample size of young Israelis who I talk more with over the coming days in the post-Birthright portion of my trip....

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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Comments

Rachel.. what you call tacky is what you are doing. Your dishonesty with the group in that you failed to tell them that you are writing about their experiences, their comments, and as such violating their trust. Not once did you tell anyone what your true agenda was. Its tacky that you come with such a closed mind and when something occurs it conveniently fits your checklist of preconceived notions. Yet at the same time you benefit, co-opt and distort the entire experience.. either you are the only one in the history of birthright to see through this or you are the odd duck out that cant see the because of the filters you bring...Tacky Tacky. 

I beg to differ. Rachel's pieces aren't tacky at all. Upon reading them all, it strikes me that the author does indeed have an open mind, and allowed her preconceptions to shift. Sounds like Rachel was very upfront about her views, questions, and concerns with the group. But to have declared that she intended to write about the trip would have been quite risky. Nothing she has written has violated anyone's privacy or identified them. These are very thoughtful posts.

I find this to be a very refreshing take on birthright! Thank you for writing this. Going into my trip I didn't really know that much about Israeli politics, so I wasn't in position to identiify a lot of the bias. I'm glad that there are people out there who were able to understand this! Thanks again! I do have one small quip with this post, though. I don't think "small" when referring to the air force is the same as "inexpensive". I just think they meant they have a small air force in comparison to some other countries, which is true coming from a country of only 8 million people. Other than that I think your posts have been exemplary.

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