Wrestling Birthright

If you’ve talked to me at any point in the past month, I’m certain this is how the conversation went:

You: How are you doing?

Me: I’m alright. I’m going to Israel soon.

You: Wow! That’s exciting.

Me: Is it? Because I’m going on Birthright, and historically Birthright has kind of been an Israeli propaganda machine, and I really don’t want to be complicit in that, because I’m JEWISH, but I’m not, like, one of Those, you know? Like, I totally recognize that the Israeli government is fraught with unexamined human rights issues and I don’t want to go to Israel and get brainwashed and come home without the ability to think critically about my own heritage. And IS it my own heritage? Plenty of non-Jewish people were in Israel for a really long time before we showed up and took everything over. Is this really my Birthright? Whose Birthright is it?

You: *Makes a mental note never talk to me ever again about anything ever.*

So. Yeah, for me, to-go-or-not-to-go on Birthright was not the easiest decision I’ve ever made.

There is way too much I could say about my experience. Instead of trying to write a clear, focused post about it, I’m going to jump back and forth between thoughts I had and their impact on my experience. Here’s some of the more critical stuff.

  • Tel Aviv has a ton of graffiti– I wish I could read Hebrew and Arabic so I could find out what the graffiti is protesting, who’s making the graffiti, and what they aim to achieve by making the graffiti.
  • Why had I never heard of Yitzhak Rabin? Why didn’t I know that a head-of-state in the state of Israel had been murdered by a right-wing, Jewish extremist?
  • Shouldn’t we teach this story to American Jews so we don’t grow up with an idealized version of what represents our religion? Shouldn’t all religions teach against extremism?
  • I was always taught that Jewish extremists don’t really exist and that is not really okay.
  • A lot of people in Israel will bring up the British involvement in the creation of the state without critiquing imperialism and their colonialist intentions. They’ll say the British were “there to help” without acknowledging that their presence was symptomatic of a much larger power struggle going on in the world at that time (and to this day).
  • It’s really interesting to see the framing of the Israeli Independence Museum– two Israeli flags flank a huge portrait of Theodor Herzl in the center. Relatedly, Israel is chock-full of Kibbutzim– communal living facilities founded by Russian communist immigrants. It’s just fascinating to me to see all of that Communist imagery and Communist practice, especially in a country that considers itself a democracy (and a country that the United States considers a democracy and supports almost unconditionally when the US relationship with communism and communists has always been, obviously, more complicated than that).
  • A sentence we heard a lot on Birthright was, “This village was built on top of an Arab village.” Okay, so what happened to the Arabs that were living here? I wanted more information.
  • We did overlooks into Syria, Lebanon, and Gaza, which were very informative and put a lot of things into perspective. At the border with Syria, we watched and heard bombs go off within that territory. It was awful, just sitting there, helpless, as it happened, knowing that Israel and the US alike have been reluctant to take in refugees. Countless innocent people have died in the Syrian Civil War, many as a result of those refugee policies– how can I not feel complicit as I sit there and literally WATCH from a distance?
  • Most of the Arab people I met on this trip were service workers– Israelis love to pull out the “20% of the population is not Jewish” statistic, but they don’t like to talk about what that 20% of the population does with their time and energy.

There’s a lot more, but that’s what’s coming into my mind right now.

Here’s some positive stuff.

  • Tel Aviv is beautiful, modern, and super gay.
  • The memorial for Yitzhak Rabin is AWESOME– it physically takes you through the assassination as you follow numbers laid out on the ground. Embodying experience is such an important factor in internalizing experience. Performance Studies Sarah went kind of nuts at the Rabin Memorial.
  • Being in a country where being Jewish is Majority is wild– my high school was very Jewish, but by no means a majority. My college is 33% Jewish, which is a high number, but, again, not a majority. It was kind of nice to have that common ground with everyone I met– including, but not limited to, the people from Bus 1453 that I had the privilege of spending so much time with for 10 days.
  • I seriously think my experience would have been drastically different if I’d gone to Israel with a different group of people– my bus was thoughtful, critical, and unafraid of self-expression. I never was afraid to speak my mind, or to cry, or to make a fool of myself as I slipped down Masada.
  • That being said, I spent a lot of my time on this trip missing specific Jewish friends from school or home. I didn’t really figure out why until, one night in the desert, we had a moment to reflect on ourselves and our experience thus far (I’m super grateful to have had this moment, for a lot of reasons).
  • I realized I missed my Jewish friends because Judaism, at its core, is a love that transcends continents. My Jewish friends are special to me, not just because we get along well, but because we’re from the same tribe. It’s blood. It’s the way we were raised. It’s common ground. It’s knowing we all, somehow, came from the desert, and found ourselves in Jerusalem or Moscow or New York City or Philadelphia. It’s overnight camps, day camps, bagels with lox, biblical names, prayers with common tunes, sneaking into the coat room at Bar Mitzvahs, sneaking out of the service at Bar Mitzvahs, playing Coke and Pepsi at Bar Mitzvahs, being lifted in a chair at Bar Mitzvahs. We come from the same people, and so we are the same people, and so we love each other.
  • The Western Wall was A Lot for me. Arriving there, I was reminded of the long line of beautiful, strong, mentally ill women I come from. I remembered my great grandmother, who became agoraphobic late in a life where she’d been subject to electroshock therapy before it was safe, who never made this pilgrimage. Then I thought about my Mom and my Grandmothers who have defied all fears and Done That™. Making it to The Wall marks so much for me… I can face any fear, look at anything with curiosity and criticism, and love with my whole heart.
  • I’ve never been religious, really. My relationship with Judaism was complicated from childhood. I went to a Hebrew school that stopped teaching women about the religion when we were 10, electing instead to teach us domestic skills while the boys got to study the Torah. I always said that if I’d had a different experience, I would have been considerably more religious growing up. Birthright felt like an opportunity to amend that.
  • I spent a lot of Birthright trying to reconcile what is the truth and what is “what they want us to think” and I didn’t want to take anything at face value. The best part about Judaism is it’s so personal– I remember when I was little I used to ask the rabbi questions about every little thing. He told me once, “The fact that you ask questions about your religion means you’re a good Jew, regardless of what those questions are.” Sitting in Israel, staring at bombs in Syria, feeling like some things are being misrepresented and not being able to do anything about it, I somehow felt closer to Judaism, if not Israel. There’s that story about Jacob wrestling an angel– that’s pretty much all I thought about. I had this holy weight pressing down on every aspect of my being, forcing me to pay attention and be critical.
  • The conclusion I came to is: Judaism isn’t ABOUT taking things at face value. It’s about questions. It’s about a unique relationship with spirituality for each person (and that spirituality doesn’t have to include a God). It’s about a culture, a community, and feeling comfortable within that community, with that common ground. I may not have left Israel a different person, but I definitely left a different Jew. I’m more willing to align with my religion, to love the fact that I’m Jewish, and to passionately oppose a government I disagree with because I do not feel like it aligns with the values I assign to Judaism.
  • You literally have not lived unless you’ve had Israeli “iced coffee” with a falafel pita.

My name is Sarah Jae Leiber. I have chronic hiccups, I love to sing, I’m allergic to cinnamon, and I’m a Jewish woman.


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