For years, Birthright has been taking participants into the occupied territories, usually without their knowledge or consent. ‘At the end of the day, we Israelis always have been less than truthful about where those lines and boundaries are for tourists,’ one former tour operator says.
Before Zachary Popkin-Hall embarked on his Birthright Israel trip in December 2016, he went over the itinerary and Googled the locations he would be staying in. He noticed that one spot was not in Israel at all, but in the occupied West Bank: Kibbutz Almog. Because of its proximity to both Jerusalem and the northern edge of the Dead Sea – a staple destination of every Birthright trip – it is convenient for tour groups to stay in the guesthouse in Kibbutz Almog, an Israeli settlement established in 1977.
Popkin-Hall mentioned this to a few participants before they arrived, and word spread fast. “Once some people figured out where we were, they were uncomfortable about it,” said Popkin-Hall, adding, “I was uncomfortable because it had not been explicitly stated.” From what he remembers, someone approached one of the tour guides, who brushed it off as no big deal. Popkin-Hall, who was on a culinary-oriented trip run by Birthright tour operator Israel Experts, said he does not remember if any of the staff confirmed that the group was in fact residing for two nights in a settlement in the West Bank.
While rarely spoken about openly or reported on, Birthright – a nonprofit that provides free trips for Jews to Israel in an attempt to foster Jewish identity and a connection to Israel – has been taking participants over the Green Line (Israel’s pre-1967 borders) for years. Whether driving through or staying the night, these trips quietly normalize travel to the occupied territories and the Israeli settlements in them. Trip operators often do so without the participants’ knowledge or consent. The impression from the dozen participants I interviewed – all Jewish Americans, some reached by social media – is that what bothers them most is that they were not informed of their whereabouts at the time, and thus had no say in the matter.
Canada Israel Experience, which operates Birthright tours for Canadian participants, specifies on its website that it does not enter the West Bank, but an itinerary seen by +972 Magazine shows a stay at Kibbutz Kalia, a West Bank settlement near the northern shore of the Dead Sea, not far from Almog.
A number of Birthright participants have staged high-profile public walk-offs over the past year, many as part of IfNotNow’s “Not Just a Free Trip” campaign, protesting what they described as a skewed perspective of Israel’s occupation and erasure of Palestinians. Many progressive American Jews avoid traveling to the occupied territories, as a way of protesting Israel’s military rule and settlement project there.
Listed as in “the Jerusalem area” on one of the itineraries seen by +972, Kibbutz Almog is a 30-minute drive east of Jerusalem, past the Green Line, near the Dead Sea in the Jordan Valley. Most Israelis, and certainly the Israeli government and its tourism industry, consider the Jordan Valley part of Israel, even though it is territory Israel occupied in 1967. Netanyahu said in 2017 that the Jordan Valley will always remain part of Israel and just last month, while touring the area with President Trump’s National Security Adviser John Bolton, Netanyahu reiterated that Israel will continue occupying the area.
Rae Axner also stayed in Kibbutz Almog for two nights on her Birthright trip in January 2012, operated by Shorashim/Jewish National Fund. Axner told +972 Magazine she had no idea she had been in the West Bank until after the fact. “After the trip, one of my friends from the trip looked up where we were on Google Maps and realized that it was in the West Bank. There wasn’t any communication during the trip or with the trip staff about it. They acted as though we were in Israel the whole time.”
Mayanot, another tour operator, also regularly takes groups to stay in both Almog and Kalia, as evident from the hotels listed on its website. Mayanot makes a point of specifying that “Our trips do not travel to or through Gaza, or East Jerusalem, other than the Jewish Quarter of the Old City,” but makes no mention of the West Bank.
Allie Levin has staffed two Birthrights trips with Israel Experts, and on both trips, she stayed in Kibbutz Kalia. According to Levin, she did not realize Kalia was in the West Bank until the second time she was there, in February 2018. The group was getting ready for a discussion ahead of a visit the next day to Yad Vashem when some of the participants on the trip approached her about a “rumor” that they were in the West Bank.
“Participants came up to me and asked, is this true? And I said ‘what?!’” They then confirmed it on their phones. “More than a few participants were visibly uncomfortable, occupying space in occupied territory, not having the option to remove themselves. When the tour guide opened the floor to thoughts, about half of our group spoke up about their discomfort.”
Levin said the tour guide confirmed that they were technically in the West Bank but then tried to “normalize it,” explaining that Highway 90, a main thoroughfare that bisects Israel north to south, crosses in and out of the West Bank many times, and that avoiding driving through the West Bank “would be too inconvenient.” While Highway 90 does go from southern to northern Israel, over 100 kilometers (60 miles) of it are entirely in the West Bank.
It appears Almog and Kalia are the primary spots in the West Bank that Birthright trips regularly visit. One exception is a trip run by another tour operator, Sachlav, which has taken its participants to Alon, a settlement between Jerusalem and Almog.
According to Roi Bachmutsky, he had Shabbat dinner in Alon on his Birthright trip in the summer 2011, at the home of Sachlav’s founder and CEO. He said he does not recall there being any discussion of where they were. “It was assumed to be kosher, as we were at the CEO’s house ‘in Israel’ – nobody knew any better.”
Joe Perlov, who founded the Israel-based tour company Israel Experts and served as its CEO between 1999-2016, told +972 Magazine that he’s spent over “100 nights” in Kalia and Almog as part of his work on Birthright trips. “They are in the Israeli consensus,” he said. “It is common knowledge in Israel’s tourism industry that crossing the line is not a question of where the line really is but where it is perceived.”
Perlov said he doesn’t believe it is a vindictive Birthright policy, but that it is simply part of the Israeli narrative. “At the end of the day, we Israelis always have been less than truthful about where those lines and boundaries are for tourists.”
Perlov is referring to the fact that most Israelis take for granted that East Jerusalem, the Golan Heights, and some areas of the West Bank are part of Israel. After over half a century of control, most Israelis don’t know, or don’t care where the Green Line is, especially in East Jerusalem, which Israel de facto annexed a few weeks after the 1967 War. Almost all Birthright trips go to the Golan Heights and East Jerusalem, with no mention of their status as occupied territory.
Considering the nightly weather forecast on Israeli TV includes the large West Bank settlement Ariel, and the fact that Ben-Gurion Airport hands out tourist maps of Israel with no demarcation of the occupied West Bank, it is not surprising that Birthright trips – whose routes must all be authorized in real time by a “situation monitoring room” within the Education Ministry – follow the norm of creeping, de facto annexation that has taken hold in Israeli consciousness and practice.
That is why no one bats an eye that one of the most popular tourist spots in Israel – The City of David, where many Birthright trips go – is in fact not in Israel but in occupied East Jerusalem, in a Palestinian neighborhood that suffers from discrimination, neglect, home demolitions, and displacement that are sustained by military violence.
+972 Magazine reached out to six separate tour operators that take Birthright trips to these Israeli settlements near the Dead Sea: Israel Experts, Israel Free Spirit, Mayanot, Shorashim, Canada Israel Experience, and Sachlav. Five replied that they are not authorized to speak to the press, referring our questions to Birthright. Sachlav’s director declined to comment.
Birthright outsources its media requests to a PR firm called Goldin Solutions. In its response to +972 Magazine’s single question – What is Birthright’s policy on taking participants to Israeli settlements in the West Bank? – it did not provide an answer. Instead, it boasted that since 1999, Birthright has brought 700,000 participants on a “holistic 10-day educational trip to strengthen Jewish identity and foster a love for the land,” and “[f]or those young Jewish men and women who want to focus most of their attention on the conflict, there are trips which may be well-suited to their interests either after or in lieu of a Birthright Israel trip.”
Due to an editing error, a previous version of this article stated that dozens of Birthright participants have staged walkoffs over the past year. While the phenomenon is highly documented and was widespread, there is no reliable number available for how many participants walked off. The article currently states that ‘a number’ of participants have staged walkouts.