Claiming the program was “intentionally leaving out Palestinian narratives,” a group of eight Birthright participants staged walkouts in the middle of their trip on Sunday, in the second such action in less than a month.
The walkouts took place on two separate buses, with six participants leaving one bus and two withdrawing from the other.
Six members of the group, who are in their early 20s, are active at various levels in IfNotNow, an anti-occupation organization made up of young progressive Jews in the US. The other two were sympathetic to their cause and willing to leave the 10-day trip on its sixth day.
On one of the buses, the activists live-streamed their walkout, which took place in Jerusalem outside the Western Wall complex.
Rebecca Oliver, one of the participants in the walkout, announced the decision to leave the group in order to meet with a Palestinian family in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan under the threat of eviction by Israeli authorities.
Left-wing activists pose with a member of the Sumarin family facing eviction in East Jerusalem after they staged a walkout from their Birthright trip. (Screen capture/Facebook)
“This is a real rare opportunity for us to listen and learn and take a stand against endless occupation and for freedom and equality,” she said, reading off a speech written on her cellphone and appearing to be holding back tears.
“I can’t be more clear about what a difficult decision this is for me,” Oliver added, saying her fellow activists had “been having a hard time with the misinformation and the generalizations that we’ve been hearing.”
Unlike Birthright visitors who took part in a walkout that took place last month, the activists were met with largely no opposition from either staff or fellow participants.
While the tour guide said he disagreed with their decision to leave, he made clear that all participants are allowed to do so as long as they are prepared to lose their deposit and pay for their flight, which Birthright fully subsidizes.
He explained that security concerns prevented the entire group from meeting with Palestinians in East Jerusalem, but encouraged the young adults to seek out other narratives after the trip ended.
The tour guide then asked the activists to wait ten minutes until after the rest of the group visited the Western Wall, but they refused to do so.
One of the activists, Elon Glickman, told The Times of Israel that the eight of them had seen the livestream of fellow IfNotNow activists walking off of their trip last month to tour the West Bank city of Hebron with the left-wing NGO Breaking the Silence.
Breaking the Silence Spokesman Dean Issacharoff greats five IfNotNow activists after they they staged a walkout from their Birthright trip to attend a tour of Hebron, June 28, 2018. (Screen capture/ Facebook)
“We were very much inspired by them and their determination to hear the truth about the occupation,” said Glickman.
However, the Los Angeles native asserted that the decision of the eight participants on Sunday was not planned ahead of the trip.
After “very quickly learning that we were not going to get the right message regarding Palestinians,” Glickman said, he got in contact with a fellow left-wing activist who brought the group to meet members of the Sumarin family in Silwan.
The family is currently in a decades-long legal battle with KKL-JNF Jewish National Fund, which claims to have purchased the property in the 1990s from the municipality.
For their part, the Sumarins argue that they have lived in the home for nearly half a century and that the purchase was only allowed due to an unfair application of the Absentee Property Law, legislation that places in state custody all property inside Israel owned by Arabs who were living outside the state at the time of its founding in 1948.
Rights groups say that KKL-JNF is trying to purchase the home on behalf of the far-right Elad NGO, which is dedicated to facilitating Jewish settlement in Arab East Jerusalem.
A decision from the Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court regarding the legitimacy of the KKL-JNF purchase of the home is expected in the coming months.
Later Sunday, Glickman said his group planned on visiting the West Bank Bedouin village of Khan al-Ahmar, which is slated for demolition, to watch the World Cup final later in the day.
View of the Arab neighborhood of Silwan outside the Old City of Jerusalem, on February 23, 2015 (photo credit: Marcelo Sus/Flash90)
They are also hoping to tour the flashpoint city of Hebron with the Breaking the Silence group.
Breaking the Silence publishes testimony of former Israeli soldiers who report on alleged abuses by the IDF in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. The organization has raised the ire of many Israeli officials and drawn criticism from those who challenge the authenticity of its mostly anonymous claims and lament its advocacy work in the international community.
In a statement in response to the second Birthright walkout in less than a month, the left-wing NGO lauded the participants for the move.
“The time has come for the right-wing government and Birthright to understand: As the occupation entrenches, Diaspora Jewry will continue to distance themselves (from it),” Breaking the SIlence said.
Birthright has brought more than 650,000 young Jewish adults aged 18-26 on 10-day trips to Israel since 1999, and strives to connect Diaspora Jews with Israel. On the trips, they tour the country’s highlights and meet young Israelis, including soldiers, who ride with them on their tour buses.
IfNotNow has been conducting targeting Birthright participants as they depart the US.
IfNotNow activists marching to demand that then President-elect Donald Trump fire Stephen Bannon, Philadelphia, November 22, 2016. (Courtesy of IfNotNow/via JTA)
The activism climaxed just over two weeks ago when five of its members staged what they called the first-ever walkout on a Birthright trip.
Then, the activists were chastised by fellow participants as well as the tour guide for coming on the trip with an agenda and not waiting until the trip was over to meet with Palestinians.
As it did last month, Birthright condemned the actions of the eight participants on Sunday.
“We respect the ability of all participants to formulate their own views and opinions, and engage in productive and respectful dialogue. However, we will not tolerate any attempts to use this experience to promote ideological agendas,” the organization said.
“Our program provides educational enrichment and embraces thoughtful discussions on many subjects. We will not allow this effort to be taken over by those motivated to engage in a political campaign given our commitment to providing a non-political educational experience.”
“In order to protect the rights of all participants to enjoy this unique opportunity to explore Israel, anyone who disrupts the experience of other participants or intentionally diverts from the tour’s itinerary without authorization will forfeit their deposit and return home at their own expense,” Birthright’s statement concluded.
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