A first glimpse of the separation wall. 'You can tell from the water tanks on the roofs that these are Arab villages,' says our guide. She doesn’t mention that Palestinians need them for when Israel cuts off the water supply. Photo: Rachel Marcuse

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 first of a seven-part series on what she found.

Day 1

I arrive at Newark Airport, just outside New York City, at 10 a.m. on a hot day in late June and stumble around — exhausted from the past day of traveling from Vancouver — trying to find my group. I spot a huddle of 20-somethings, some with shockingly large suitcases, sitting near the El Al Airline check-in, and zone-in on Hannah — the only one in the crowd carrying a backpack. We do the standard “What’s your name?” and “Where are you from?” and it becomes clear immediately that we’re going to be friends. I exhale.

Gathered together by the organizers, our first team icebreaker has us tell the group of 40 our names, city of residence and describe the theme of our bar or bat mitzvah. I didn’t have a bat mizvah. “Well, then tell us what your theme would have been if you had had one” one of our friendly 25-year-old group leaders says.

“I’m Rachel Marcuse, or Rachel four of five,” I say, a little shocked that there are five Rachels on the trip; it seems a little excessive even for such a common name. “I’m from Vancouver. I’m the token Canadian bumped from another trip, so I’m happy to be with you guys… um… I guess my theme would have been dancing if I’d had a bat mitzvah.” It turns out I’m not the only one who hasn’t gone through the Jewish rite of passage. For those who are officially Jewish adults, the most popular theme for those born between 1983 and 1985 was unquestionably “under the sea.” Yay, Disney!

At the first El Al Airlines security check, I’m bombarded with rapid-fire questions, all examining my Jewishness. No, I don’t know my Hebrew name. Why am I going on this trip? To see Israel (don’t say Palestine, I repeat in my head to myself). How do I celebrate high holidays? Well, I’m really more culturally Jewish. But, um, my parents met in Israel when they were both working for dance companies in Tel Aviv. The questioner looks dubious. Most participants get one interrogator. I get two. The fact that I’m on Taglit-Birthright seems to be my saving grace.

Taglit or Birthright, as it’s translated from the Hebrew, is my “gift” from the Jewish people. It’s also a free trip to the Middle East — 10 days in Israel, all expenses paid save for some lunches and tips. Taglit is funded by North American Jewish organizations, philanthropists and the Israeli government. (Offering this information wins me 100 shekels for snacks in a Q and A at the orientation session, although, perhaps unsurprisingly, everyone receives the money in the end.) Taglit seems to have the ultimate aim of convincing young North American Jews to “make aliyah,” i.e., to ascend to the “homeland” or at least take a more active role in their Jewish communities at home, presumably in a way that will support the State of Israel.

As a progressive, secular, non-Zionist Jew, I hadn’t thought much about doing Birthright — or at least, figured I could always do it the next year. Now 26, however, it’s the last year I’m eligible. I struggle with the decision to go — it’s free for me, but do I even want to contribute in a small way to the Israeli economy? (We later learn that our contribution isn’t so small — Taglit injects some $500 million U.S. into the Israel economy each year.) I go into the experience with an intention to bear witness and ask questions — after all, what could be more Jewish?! I’ll write about Birthright and extend my visit to Palestine… and see if I can be of some use. Plus, it’s a free trip…

So, here I am, on El Al on my way to Tel Aviv. Amazingly enough, economy class is full and I’m bumped up to executive class. I figure it might be good travel karma for my bad trip the day before, a day of luggage delays and a missed flight. Sadly, I don’t get to partake of the excessive booze options — even ice wine is served! — as Birthright prohibits drinking on the plane. I figure it’s too early to start being a troublemaker.

I’m incessantly hit on by my seatmate, an Israeli real estate developer who upgraded from economy because the Taglit kids in the back were so loud. The El Al first officer joins in the flirtation. They warn me that Israeli men will be very aggressive and comment on my sleep drool. I blush. They comment on that, too.

Day 2

We arrive in Tel Aviv at 7:30 a.m. and are hit by a wall of heat and humidity upon leaving the plane. Customs is remarkably easy and we get on the bus. It will be pretty much be our home for the next 10 days.

We’re driven to an outdoor shop and greenhouse just outside of Tel Aviv for orientation. We’re met by the director of the trip provider that has organized this particular tour. He’s a gregarious, no-bullshit American who made aliyah eight years past. I’m worn out from the two days of travelling and soften to him quickly. He asks how many of us are worried about being on a bus with 40 people for 10 days. “How about with 40 Jews for 10 days?” he asks, only sort of joking. Finally, he asks how many of us are worried about being bombarded by Israeli propaganda. A couple of people raise their hands. It seems that I’d ended up, somewhat accidentally, on the most moderate of the Birthright trips.

According to the straight-up Denver-born director, this Taglit trip provider prides itself on “plurality.” Apparently, this is the only trip provider that builds in a visit to an Arab village to talk about “co-existence.” There will be no visit to Palestine itself, though, and no Palestinian perspective included in any shape or form. I immediately sense that there will be many attempts to out-reasonable us. There will be no obvious brainwashing here.

I start to think about when I might “out” my politics. It turns out, it will happen the next 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 at rachelmarcuse.