This week, the "birthright israel" program, which provides free ten-day trips to Israel for Jewish youth, is celebrating its 100,000th participant since the tour group’s founding. But Sierra, a 26-year-old resident of California, will not be participating in the celebration.
The reason? Sierra was dropped from the program last week when birthright officials learned that after participating in their program, she planned to join another group in a trip through the Palestinian territories.
On May 31, 2006, one week before Sierra’s planned departure for Tel Aviv, she received a call from Birthright Israel trip organizers telling her she was no longer welcome on their free 10-day tour of Israel, because she planned to join a 6-day tour called ‘Birthright Unplugged’ through the West Bank after the first trip was finished.
Birthright Unplugged was founded last year by progressive Jewish Americans interested in offering fellow Jews an opportunity to see the side of Israel that ‘Birthright Israel’ doesn’t show them: the Palestinian Occupied Territories. ‘Birthright Unplugged’ offers opportunities for mostly young Jewish North Americans to meet Palestinians and learn about daily life under occupation. The trip takes participants through Palestinian cities, villages, and refugee camps, and organizes formal and informal meetings with a variety of Palestinians and Israelis.
According to Birthright Unplugged co-founder Hannah Mermelstein, “We started this program to put trip participants in conversation with Palestinian civil society, to learn firsthand about the situation in Israel/Palestine, and to use their knowledge to make positive change in the world. By denying Sierra the opportunity to have this educational experience, Birthright Israel is further proving the need for our existence.”
Since 2000, Birthright Israel has sent 100,000 Jewish people, ages 18-26, on free trips to Israel. Participants are encouraged to extend their tickets beyond the dates of their Birthright Israel trip, which is exactly what Sierra intended to do. "Apparently, any desire to meet Palestinians living under occupation is reason to disqualify one from Birthright Israel’s trip", added Mermelstein.
In a statement from Sierra, she says, "My name is Sierra. I signed up with Birthright Israel to learn about my background and to develop a deeper understanding of my ancestry and heritage. But I was removed from Birthright Israel’s trip because of their opposition to my planned tour with Birthright Unplugged, an educational group touring the West Bank.
I’m biracial and grew up in a multicultural environment at home with my parents. My mom is African-American and my father is European-American Jewish. I am sensitive to cultural conflict and my particular vantage point has shown me through my life and my community that building bridges across such conflict is possible.
"I want to travel to Israel to learn about and increase my connection to Jewish culture and religion. I was very much looking forward to this trip with Birthright Israel. I was excited to take advantage of the fantastic opportunity provided by Birthright Israel and committed to participating fully in all their activities and learning from these experiences during their ten day tour. I also want to learn about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. I know that there’s a human rights issue going on in Israel/Palestine, a conflict with people suffering on both sides. I don’t want any organization or the media to tell me what to think; I want to see for myself and learn from different perspectives. Participating in Birthright Unplugged’s upcoming tour will provide me with this opportunity.
"Israel/Palestine has always seemed like an inaccessible place to me, both because of the historic violence and because of an almost otherworldly nature that the region has due to its religious and spiritual importance.
Over the past few years I’ve had a couple close friends go and come back, and they’ve made me realize that it’s a real place; it has layers and is not only accessible, but is a phenomenal region of the world. I was excited to partake in my first trip and still hope that I can go.
"Wednesday morning, May 31st, I received a phone call from Tel Aviv with Avi Green, the director of Israel Outdoors, on the other line. Israel Outdoors is the trip organizer contracted by Birthright Israel for the trip that I joined. He called me bearing ‘unfortunate news.’ According to Mr. Green, it wasn’t meant to be a value judgment on Birthright Unplugged, but I must be removed from the pending Birthright Israel trip due to my anticipated participation with the Birthright Unplugged tour. When I asked if my removal was caused by an email sent to Birthright Israel, informing them of my planned trip with Birthright Unplugged, he said that he was not able to discuss that topic.
"I asked him about the trip waiver form that I signed. It didn’t refer to the West Bank or Birthright Unplugged; in fact it stated that the decision to extend my plane ticket and participate in another program is mine:
Says the waiver:’Furthermore, and without derogating from the above, you understand that should you decide to extend your ticket and remain in Israel longer, or should you participate in a program which goes beyond the days in which BRI participates financially, the decision to do so is yours, and the said extension is in no way part of the program for which any funding or assistance was provided by BRI and/or by BRI Funders.’
"Mr. Green said that Birthright Israel is a serious organization and mustn’t be taken trivially. I continue to agree with him and my actions and intentions are very serious. I was excited and looking forward to learning about Israeli and Jewish culture from Birthright Israel, just as I am excited and looking forward to learning about the Palestinian and Israeli conflict with Birthright Unplugged. I simply want to learn about the conflict and learn about Israel. I do not believe this is mutually exclusive or a reason to remove me from Birthright Israel’s trip. I hope that I can continue my plans to participate with Birthright Unplugged’s tour and fulfill my dream to learn about my Jewish ancestry and learn about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict."
Jewish individuals have already stepped forward and offered to contribute towards the purchase of a plane ticket for Sierra in the hopes that she can still participate in Birthright Unplugged and in order to send a message to Birthright Israel that the quest for knowledge is a value held by many Jewish people.
“Birthright Israel does not have a monopoly on Jewish people’s relationship to Israel/Palestine,” said Mermelstein. “As hard as they try, they will never be able to stop people from pursuing knowledge and breaking down walls and barriers.”