By Willa Frej:
For anyone who reads the newspaper, it’s difficult to ignore the reality that Israel is unfortunately a hotbed for conflict. Somehow though, Birthright managed to expose us to everything Israel has to offer without ever fostering a real conversation about this conflict.
The closest we came to acknowledging that there is more than one side to the story was about a third of the way through the trip. We had just picked up the Israeli Defense Forces soldiers who would be joining us for part of the trip, and our first stop was Sderot, a border town with Gaza. Our tour guide walked us through the town, explaining that each house comes built with a bomb shelter. He also described that the IDF has begun implementing new defense technology to shoot missiles down midair in order to protect the families living in Sderot and nearby towns from rockets shot at them by terrorists in Gaza. But that was all the description we got – no brief history of the conflict, no explanation of why the conflict persists.
So we had to wait almost half of our short stay in Israel before there was finally acknowledgment of a conflict, and this acknowledgment didn’t even lead to much, even though we were standing right in front of the barbed wire fence separating Israeli territory from Palestinian territory.
After this, I did not bother hiding my disappointment. I’ve studied the history of Israel and its wars many times, but I was expecting to come to Israel and solidify or adapt my views on the matter after learning more. Meanwhile, I could tell that many of the students I was traveling with were completely uninformed, and were left no choice but to blindly absorb the Israeli point of view and unilaterally support the Israeli Defense Forces without considering the situation from a more geopolitical perspective.
A few days later, we visited the border with Syria. Our guide reiterated how Israel is just a smidgen on the map compared to its neighbors and how hard Israel has had to work to guarantee freedom to the Jewish people. He took us through an Israeli bunker stationed on a strategic hill and described how this bunker was used during the Six-Day war. Towards the end of his presentation, he said that Israel is not at war with Syria, but is not allies with Syria either. He also mentioned that Syria is “dealing with other stuff right now.” But there was no more discussion than that.
On one of the final days, we were brought to a Muslim enclave outside of Jerusalem to learn a little bit about the Arabic lifestyle in Israel. There must have been some miscommunication, because we were instead given a presentation about Islam from an imam (which was completely fascinating, by the way). When we got back on the bus, our tour guide began to complain about how useless the presentation had been. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing – perhaps the religion talk hadn’t been on our itinerary, but who can lament the opportunity to learn more about cultural and religious diversity?
In my opinion, a trip like Birthright should, in its mission statement, attempt above all else to create informed Jewish citizens. It is only by being truly exposed to geopolitics and differing cultural perspectives that American Jews can return home and begin to understand the complexity of the Jewish world as well as the world that lies beyond it.
Willa Frej ’13 is in Pierson College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.