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Flap over young Jews' visits to Holy Land

After free trips to Israel, some activists stay on in the Middle East - to work for the Palestinian cause.

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About 10,000 young Jews from 29 countries will enjoy a generous gift this winter: a vacation to Israel - with the Israeli government and Jewish philanthropies picking up the tab for transportation, food, and lodging.

Those who fund the trips say the opportunity to experience Israel is the birthright of every Jew. But to donors' chagrin, handfuls of young activists have used the trips in recent years to volunteer for pro-Palestinian organizations in the West Bank - some of which directly oppose the Israeli government and Zionist ideology.

The small movement has some in the Jewish community wondering whether the Taglit-birthright Israel program is being hijacked. But as the Holocaust shifts from memory to history, it also points to efforts of young diasporal Jews to define their own ideologies, symbols, and institutions within a religious tradition that has long been at the forefront of social change.

"They have the right to explore" all sides of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, but not using the money given "to explore certain values," says Allyson Taylor, with the American Jewish Congress's Western Region. "You have the right to buy a movie ticket, but do you sneak into another theater to see a different movie?"

While some American Jews say the issue is much ado about nothing, others see a premeditated attempt to defraud the Israeli government and Zionist advocacy groups. Some young Jewish leftists, meanwhile, say volunteering in the occupied territories is in keeping with the goals of Taglit-birthright Israel: It is an essential part of their Israel experience.

"For me, being a Jewish person means supporting social justice. For me, being Jewish doesn't mean supporting Israel," says Jessica, who traveled to Israel with Shorashim, a Birthright travel organizer, during the summer of 2004. "The lessons of the Holocaust and the lessons of Jewish history mean we need to stand up for people's rights. Otherwise, who's going to stand up for us?" Jessica asked that her last name not be used so as not to jeopardize her work on behalf of Palestinians.

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