What is a Birthright, Anyway

the author on a sunny beach in Israel twenty years ago, wearing big sunglasses and carrying a plaid backpack
Photos courtesy of the author

Two decades ago, at the age of 21, I made several consequential mistakes in quick succession. I cut off most of my waist-length hair, not realizing that an attempted bob would make me look like an outraged Chia pet, and, soon after, persuaded my sibling to go with me on Birthright, one of the oddest rites of passage in the lives of young American Jews. The curious lies of Birthright—what it claims to do, the history it erases, the layered mix of backlash and loyalty it provokes—stuck in my throat for nearly 20 years. I found I could never write about or really process the experience, until the massacre on October 7, followed by the new images of suffering and death in Gaza, both of which opened a trap door in my brain and the whole sorry, strange affair tumbled out anew.

Birthright is a free trip to Israel, open to American Jews between the ages of 18 and 26. Created by two Jewish philanthropists in 1994 in partnership with the Israeli government, since 1999 it has ferried nearly a million of us into the country and, according to one study, injected $1 billion into the Israeli economy. The trip is premised on the idea that, in seeing Israel, young people will connect to their roots, coming away with a new understanding of their history and a new love for the Holy Land. In my experience, Birthright relied on sleep deprivation and interminable tours of sites focused on martyrdom and death, with a dash of pseudohistory, to create a profoundly lopsided view of the country.

While I was prone to bad decisions at that age—the hair, an insistence on wearing dresses over jeans—I wasn’t completely blind. It was possible for me, even then, to spot propaganda when it came bobbling into view. But a free trip was a free trip, and my own Jewish identity did not feel particularly malleable. And so my sibling and I agreed to go together, before one of us aged out of the program. 

a few of the many Bedouin camels photographed by the author

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