bu_llshit.jpg“If they find out about going to Palestine I’ll get booted off”

That was the germane part of the email sent by one prospective Taglit-birthright israel participant to her worried mother. Sierra was letting her mom in on her planned itinerary and intention to participate in a program called Birthright Unplugged which involved touring in the West Bank in order to get a Palestinian perspective. But the understandably worried mother was not having any of it. She promptly informed Israel Outdoors, Sierra’s trip provider who in consultation with Taglit-birthright israel, dropped the 26-year-old Sierra like a hot potato. Thus began the shit storm. So to speak.

Birthright Unplugged took the offensive and released a mass email and press release on June 1st urging people to tell Taglit-birthright israel what they think of their “attempt to stop people from learning firsthand about the situation in Israel/Palestine.” Other detractors were quick to follow, calling Taglit-birthright israel “propagandists” intent on creating “young Jewish automatons programmed by their Taglit tour leaders to turn them into adamantly pro-Israel supporters of a peculiar Israel-can-do-no-wrong Zionism.” Salon magazine wrote an article titled Come See Palestine that touched on the controversy. In every instance heated debate ensued with some taking umbrage at Taglit-birthright israel’s preceived heavy handedness and others offended at the notion of people using Jewish community funds in order to consort with enemies.

The thing is that ordinarily Taglit-birthright israel allows participants to extend their tickets by up to three months without any questions. Extending one’s ticket is a matter dealt with between EL AL and the participant. One’s birthright israel application process does not involve questions about what the applicant’s post birthright israel plans are. Not only that but Taglit-birthright israel’s agenda is a very broad one, according to Gidi Mark, Taglit-birthright israel’s director of marketing, it’s “to allow Jewish young adults to get closer to their roots.” This broad non-political agenda is witnessed by the involvement of diverse groups as birthright israel trip sponsors, for instance both AIPAC and the Progressive Zionist Caucus run trips; with the same provider no less.

Having led 4 trips as a madrich, I can only reiterate that I was never given any “talking points” in relation to anything, let alone the Palestinian conflict. I have however met many Taglit-birthright israel staffers and they espoused opinions that covered the entire ideological spectrum, with a pronounced leaning to the left.

So what’s the deal then? Why is Taglit-birthright israel so adamantly opposed to Birthright Unplugged’s mission to expand young Jew’s understanding of the Israel/Palestine conflict? Might it have something to do with Birthright Unplugged’s decidedly anti-Israel ideological bias? Might it be that Birthright Unplugged’s program relies heavily on the free ticket to Israel provided to participants by Taglit-birthright israel and paid for by parties who do not agree with Birthright Unplugged’s mission? Might it have something to do with Birthright Unplugged’s confusing, dishonest and possibly illegal nomenclature meant to riff off of the success of birthright israel?

Or might it have something to do with safety issues and the continued viability of Taglit-birthright israel’s program? Sierra’s mother was concerned about her daughter’s safety and that’s what motivated her to reveal her itinerary. Taglit-birthright israel is similarly concerned about the safety of their participants. In the 6 years that the program has been in existence, not one participant has been hurt by any kind of political or terror-related violence. Trip providers are instructed to take strict measures to keep trip participants as safe and secure as possible. Trip participants are not allowed to wander away from the group and every single group is tracked via GPS as they follow pre-approved itineraries.

When Taglit-birthright israel claims that participant safety is their top priority, parents and participants can rely on both concrete measures and a stellar safety record for peace of mind. Absent this, registration would be lower than what it currently is and the entire program’s viability would be in question.

What ought Taglit-birthright israel do when it is informed by a prospective participant’s mother that her daughter’s immediate post-birthright israel plans include participation in a deceptively named program run under potentially dangerous circumstances? You do the mother a favor and drop the daughter. You protect the ongoing viability of your program and do what you can to prevent headlines like “Birthright Participant Kidnapped by Palestinian Gunmen.”

Yesterday, some dumb Jewish/American kid went to Nablus by himself. He was kidnapped by Palestinian gunmen who then made him shoot a video whereby he stated that his captors intended kill him if Israel did not free Palestinian prisoners. Luckily he was quickly released unharmed, but imagine the fallout if he had been even remotely involved with birthright, Taglit, unplugged or otherwise? When the Israeli government strongly advises Jews against travel to the West Bank and Gaza, when even Rachel Corrie’s parents aren’t safe from the threat of kidnap and bodily harm, how irresponsible would it be to passively acquiesce to dangerous plans when informed of them ahead of time. Remember, this has nothing to do with any ideological orientation on the part of Taglit-birthright israel. No one from Taglit would have stopped Sierra from going on a trip that was more attuned to her stated goal of learning “about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict… from different perspectives.”

As Gidi Mark stated:

This organization [Birthright Unplugged] takes advantage of a very successful brand name. It goes around campuses and tells people to take advantage of a gift that’s given by the Jewish people to Jewish young adults interested in getting closer to their Jewish roots and the State of Israel. Birthright Unplugged, has as its agenda nothing to do with getting young Jews in touch with their roots and as such we cannot allow the exploitation of our goodwill. We have a waiting list of tens of thousands of Jewish young adults who would like to enjoy this gift to the Jewish people and these are our target audience – not people who would like to take advantage of our trips in order to meet with people who have totally different agenda.

None of this has anything to do with censoring legitimate study. None of this has anything to do with indoctrination. It has everything to do with safety, maintaining the continued viability of an important program and not rewarding an entity for its dishonest recruitment tactics.

About the author


Founder and Publisher of Jewlicious, David Abitbol lives in Jerusalem with his wife, newborn daughter and toddler son. Blogging as "ck" he's been blocked on twitter by the right and the left, so he's doing something right.


  • CK- well done. birthright had the same problem with people going to Israel to then join the ISM. It seems that those who are against Israel feel it is not theft to lie about ones intentions when accepting the free trip.

    We can propose an alternative trip birthright full-throttle.

    After birthright, students get to be in the army, study in yeshiva, volunteer on kibbutz, help impoverished Israelis, intern at the knesset, learn scuba diving in Eilat— oh thats is called Aliyah.

  • who founded birthright unplugged?
    Adam Shapiro? ,Noam Chomsky?, Norman Finkrlstein?,

  • this is how someone put it.

    birthright is like a first date. On a first date, you don’t reveal all your flaws, unless you want to scare the person off.

    Is Israel perfect? no. Is it correct in the context of a first date/birthright to go into depths on ones flaws? nope. If someone cares about Israel, they’ll eventually learn the complexities of the situation, warts and all.

  • As a participant of the last birthright trip in Israel, I have to agree with what ck wrote, safety is the top priority, and I was feeling safe the whole trip.
    about the whole birthright unplugged thing – I really think it’s “huzpa” of them to use the BRI name, and have people go on BRI trips with different plans than the BRI main idea is all about.. also have people taking advantage of the fact that BRI gives free plane tickets to Israel, and come here (Israel) for another reason other than going on BRI trip as it meant to be.
    is it even legal to use BRI name like that?

    btw ck – we (Israeli participants of the last trip) didn’t get the group mail list so I was hoping u can send it to me – jonesg@hotmail.co.il

  • minor commnet: many times i have seen the so called security more interested in chattin’ up the young girls on these trips than watching out for trouble. my guess is that most of these american kids have never seen a riffle, dont know that it needs a bolt in it to work and i counted 9 rifles with no bolts on day. Better yet most of the parents of these kids have no idea that this so called security is pointless.

    but, come on, do you think these kids dont know about the conflict? where are the living? under what rock? Let them go see what is happening on the other side, but also make them sit in the Tel Aviv bus station all day wondering which guy it about to blow them up. That might be more ballanced…

    The real bottom line here is that American kids have no f;ing idea what conflict is about, what war is about, and what living in a nation that has many times almost ceased to be is all about – anything that can show them this tenuous existance cannot help but appreciate what is Israel – and to run on more – esp. in relationship to the history vs. the modern state.

    but then again maybe I am giving these kids too much credit…

  • Now that they’ve provided a public warning, Birthright should sue any students who abuses the privilege of coming to Israel on Birthright and then goes on Birthright Unblugged. I would also think that they have a case in court for the misleading use of the name. Why not increase their costs a tad?

    What’s amusing about their program, of course, is that it’s run by a lesbian. We all know how welcome lesbians are in Palestinian society. Unblugged indeed.

  • Nathan: I have never seen a medic’s M-1 without a bolt. Medics are there to provide first aid and their WWII era M-1’s chambered for low powered .22 cal ammunition are there more out of tradition than anything else. Never in the history of birthright israel has a medic had to fire his rifle. The real security, the kind you don’t see, is GPS tracking device carried on each bus. Each group is tracked via this device from one central location. This location receives regular security briefings from all relevant state security agencies and has the power to alter any group’s itinerary at a moment’s notice. Furthermore each group has to receive approval for even the most minor divergence from the itinerary and approval for routes taken. That’s the real security. And it’s far from pointless.

    As for medics chatting up women on the trip and not paying attention to their duties, I guess that depends on each individual trip provider. The good ones issue strict instructions to the medics about their roles and about fratrenizing with the participants. Staff members are not allowed to pursue personal relationships with participants during the trip. As to your assertion that American kids have no idea wwhat the conflict is about, I would caution you against making gross overgeneralizations. Some know very little itss true, others know only what they get from the media and others still know a lot. What most have in common is a keen interest and curiosity, and a great sense of empathy and belonging.

    Remember, the trip is not just about the conflict – it’s about the role of Israel and Jewish identity. The conflict is just part of that equation.

  • TM: What are you talking about? Berverts are always weelcome in Balestine! Blease, blease, sit, sit, have a coffee and I will tell you about the day the King and Queen of Balestine visited my family’s Orange grove before the Zionsists invaded and killed everyone in my village except for me.

  • I don’t know what you guys are talking about. She made it clear that none of her “international comrades” have a problem with her preference. And why would they, when this is clearly a Marxist counter-culture movement against the Zionist Man!

    As for the pictures, I have to note that I have been seeing way too many hipsters in kefiahs on the L.E.S. lately. What is this, Toronto? This is what happens when these upscale Canadian owned vertical market factories move into the old neighborhood alongside overpriced restaurants and nightclubs and greedy landlords start knocking down perfectly fine historic tenemants and putting up all this highrise glass bullshit. Barely anywhere left for a Non-Zionist to grab some cheap undergarments and socks and chill out and have a vegetarian split pea soup lunch in peace. It’s a damned shame. These anti-Zionists are everywhere, and think they can just take over everything. The are an elitist, domineering people.

  • I hope Birthright isnt giving in to the wanna be collaborators.David Kelsey did a very good job exposing how balanced Birthright Unplugged is.They are all basically for the one state solution. They support the enemy’s point of view wholeheartedly. CK,is there any way Birthright can really take down these bastards? Any legal action possibly? Also I think its time to deal with them with the gloves off. If they want to see “Palestine and its point of view” they can reserve their tickets with Hamas.There’s no need to be nice and polite.The Rachel Correy wannabees can … well you get the drift.

  • Comment #9 mentions the pictures, and I was wondering about them too. I looked at the Birthright Unplugged website when i was trying to research this issue, and I didn’t see that graphic. Who created it? Did you all? To create a satirical graphic for a group-=-even one you dislike–and then to present it as authentic strikes me as pretty deceptive.

  • The really sad thing is that I’m pretty sure Sierra and others like her are actually really good people for the most part. Sadly open minded and curious individuals with no prior background are easy prey for the hardened and cynical political ideologues that run programs like Birthright Unplugged and the ISM. Legallly I guess Birthright Unplugged is treading a very fine line although I doubt they have the resources to effectively battle a legal campaign. On the other hand this fiasco has given the publicity. Taglit has to weigh the pros and cons of engaging these people. despite a clear violation of Taglit’s good name, any legal victory might by pyhrric given that the people behind Birthright Unplugged will make it seem that Taglit was acting only to stifle dissent. BU will lose a domain name but will gain millions of dollars worth of publicity. Ultimately it may be best to allow BU to wallow in obscurity with their 15-20 participants a season.

  • Wondering: You can’t seriously believe that we meant to pass that graphic off as belonging to Birthright Unplugged?? It’s the Taglit-birthright israel logo rendered in the colors of the Palestinian flag. It’s satirical and is meant to make a point about the deceptive nature of BU’s name. Just for the record: THE GRAPHIC ILLUSTRATING THIS POST IS SATIRICAL AND IS NOT BIRTHRIGHT UNPLUGGED’S LOGO. BU has an ugly ass web site and they could only wish they could produce graphics as slammin’ as mine. Hope that alleviates your concerns.

  • I doubt that you meant to pass it off that way, but a quick spin around the internet offers ample proof that people will believe anything they see. We can all probably name a few examples off the top of our heads of people taking obvious satire seriously. Thank you for your statement above.

    And I have to guess that if the tables had been turned, and a group had made a graphic like that mocking Taglit, the cries of indignation would have been heard far and wide.

  • When I went on birthright, we had this (politically incorrect) running joke about “birthright palestine.” The deal was that you got a free ticket to Israel, but it was one-way only. Sorry. I realize it’s not that funny.

    If you read the site, they said that they can’t take people to/from Gaza “due to prohibitive travel restrictions imposed by the Israeli authorities.” Can you imagine if birthright gave the reason for not going to Ben Yehuda as “prohibitive suicide bombing imposed by the Palestinians”? That would not have gone over well.

    I wish brithright unplugged were what it claimed to be. If it were, I’d probably go.

  • themiddle–Men don’t kiss men and women don’t kiss women on brithright trips? The hell is that supposed to mean?

  • Why must our society resort to providing reasons based on sexual orientation, is this not how the Holocaust occured? Be ashamed of your comments, allow for an equitable treatment of the Israel/Palestinian conflict, if birthright israel is confident in their treatment then how can the organization prevent Jewish youth from discovering the realities of Palesitinian society. I intend to go on this trip and Birthight Israel. My grandfather was on schindler’s List, if I am not afforded the opportunity to go on both trips, I will resort to legal action. Thank you.

  • Hey Alexander Kaminsky. Despite its name, Birtright Israel is a privilege, not a legal right. To maintain its viability, Birthright Israel does all it can to protect the safety and bodily integrity of its participants. If they know or even suspect that a participant in Birthright Israel is going to join Birthright Unplugged it is their right to reject that participant. Should a participant get hurt, injured or killed in the territories the resulting publicity would make parents nervous about letting their kids go to Israel period. Birthright Israel is also offended by Birthright Unplugged’s riff off of their trademark. I mean look, feel free to go to the West Bank. Feel free to explore the nature and cause of the Palestinian conflict from any perspective you like. But don’t expect Birthright Israel to facilitate a course of action that is considered dangerous and ill advised and ideologically biased.

    By the way Alexander Kaminsky, whose your trip provider? You know you could have easily simply not made a public declaration of your intentions and no one would have or could have stopped you. Are you simply looking for an opportunity to agitate? Good job!

  • I dont feel your post warrants a response, and do not speak to me as if you are belittling me. I may or may not go on the program, that is my business, but I would have every right to go on both if I so chose. Do not reply to this post, I do not wish to speak with you. I accidentally wrote my full name, my bad.

  • ck, I don’t know about you, but if a guest in my home were trying to boss me around and shut me up, I’d show him the door out.

  • Hey Alexander Kaminsky! Of course you have the right to go on both programs if you want to. Just as I and any member of the public have the ability to respond to any comment on this blog, just as you have the right to not reply to my reply, just as Birthright Israel has the right to refuse or rescind your participation in their program for any reason they deem appropriate.

    I myself have been to the West Bank on numerous occasions – just last Thursday in fact. And it was as it always is, an edifying experience – mostly because I went on my own and wasn’t restricted from communicating with only a carefully selected group of well vetted, ideologically motivated speakers.

    I’m sorry you feel that I am belittling you. Seriously though, do feel free to go and explore Israel and the West Bank to your heart’s content. At your own expense.

  • I think whoever wrote this article missed the point of birthright unplugged. It’s not anti-israel. It’s pro human.

  • Sure, all the anti-Israel rhetoric out there is pro-human, not anti-anything. We’re so stupid that we don’t realize this and keep missing the point behind all these pro-human activities that are directed towards trying to destroy Israel as a Jewish state so that you can have yet another pro-human state like Syria, Egypt, Jordan, Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Ethiopia, Sudan, etc., etc., etc.

    Isn’t that what the Palestinians are asking Israel to do?

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