It was the second Friday night of July, my second Shabbat in Israel this summer. I had just finished services at Kol Haneshama, one of the only Reform synagogues in Jerusalem. I was with a group of fellow rabbinical students, all of us studying at the Hartman Institute as part of the annual Rabbinic Torah Study Seminar (RTS), where 170 rabbis from all over the world gather for 10 days. We had taken to calling ourselves the “Young Girls Club,” three rabbinical students from different progressive schools in the United States, and myself—a half-Israeli, former Hasidic rabbi.
As we walked down the street, someone with us mentioned one of her friends who was currently staffing a Birthright trip, and was having a hard time with a few participants who she said “kept on challenging her” with questions about Palestinians and the Israeli occupation. The consensus among us is that the Birthright guide’s “hard time” is clearly a result of what happened earlier that week: Eight Birthright participants walked off two different trips to meet with Palestinians in East Jerusalem. Five other Birthright participants had walked off their trip a few weeks earlier. We all agree that the credit for these walk-offs goes to IfNotNow. My friend wondered out loud: “What do they want? What is their goal? This is not the way to go about it,” and so on. I’d heard these arguments dozens of times.
For the first time at Hartman I “outed” myself. I said: “Well, I am myself a part of IfNotNow.” I heard a silent gasp from a member of the group, but I continued, “I have followed this campaign since its inception. While I’m personally not as involved as I would like to be, I wholeheartedly support the Birthright: #NotJustAFreeTrip campaign.”
I went on to explain my position. Birthright simply cannot credibly claim to be an “apolitical” free trip to Israel while it shows its participants a whitewashed, sanitized version of Israel, erasing and avoiding the occupation. That is political. Our generation cannot afford to be silent.
My friends were skeptical, but they listened, and nodded along as I said my piece. This is something I find more and more with rabbinical students in the United States: People who are not part of IfNotNow seem more and more open to our ideas.
That was one of many times throughout my 10 days at Hartman, and my month in Jerusalem, that IfNotNow was mentioned. Some rabbis agreed partially, some were terrified, some demonized us. But everyone agreed: The American Jewish landscape is changing.
It’s not hard to see the proof of that change from the leaders of the American Jewish establishment: Steve Wernick, the head of the Conservative Movement, compared Israel’s anti-Democratic actions to that of Saudi Arabia and Iran in a public statement about the “canyon” between Israel and the Diaspora. Rick Jacobs, the head of the Reform Movement, feels so much accountability to millennials that he responded to an open letter from a 17-year-old Union for Reform Judaism member within 24 hours; and the theme for the Jewish Federations of North America’s annual conference—happening in Israel for the first time in five years—is, “We Need to Talk.”
I can talk more about all that is wrong with Birthright, with Israel’s increasingly right-wing government, the Jewish establishment approach, the occupation, and more. The amount of articles and op-eds written on that in the past few weeks and months and years are numerous. I am not one to follow the crowd, because if I was I would still be wearing a shtreimel today.
I want to share a more personal reflection.
Toward the end of my four weeks in the Middle East, I took a two-day tour of Jordan, which I call the only stable country in the Levant. I have been following Queen Rania of Jordan, and her work to advance the rights and lives of women and children, for a while. I have been reading about how a country that is an absolute monarchy—in a region where that is usually synonymous with theocracy and dictatorship—is moving toward democracy, led by an ambitious king and queen. I followed their de facto legalization of LGBQ relationships, and the rise of Jordan’s own LGBTQ publication, My.Kali. There is one clear feeling that one gets from reading about and going to Jordan: The country is moving in the right direction. Far from perfect, but getting there.
On the way back from Jordan, I told my friends, the same ones from above: It feels like Jordan is moving toward more democracy, while its neighbor Israel is moving further and further away from it. This time, even they agreed in dismay. Israel is on the wrong track. The effect of years of discrimination against Palestinians—51 years of military occupation—is slowly making its way inside the Green Line.
I would have loved to love Israel.
I might not be religious, but I love Judaism. I love our culture and spiritual traditions. I love our foods and languages. And I really wish that I could love the country where all of this is visible on the streets.
I am angry at the Israeli government for not allowing me, and us, to love the country.
I am half Israeli. My father was born in Jerusalem, my grandmother was born in Jerusalem. My family’s roots in the city go back to my great-great-great-grandmother who lived in Jerusalem and is buried on the Mount of Olives. Several of my direct ancestors going back to the 17th century—whom I can trace my lineage to in my sleep; I grew up hearing their names—lived, and are buried in the Galilee. My family’s connection to the land predates Zionism by many years.
A few people told me I shouldn’t get into Israel-Palestine-related activism, because it would hurt the work I am trying to do to advance LGBTQ rights. But I can’t be silent while Israeli democracy is dying and the occupation grows ever more entrenched. Not because I hate the land, but because I love it and the people that live there.
There are those who claim other countries in the region are worse, who talk about how Hamas and Iran kill LGBTQ people. There are those who say the leaders in China, Russia, and North Korea are all more oppressive than Netanyahu. I agree, there is injustice everywhere, and I speak out against these abuses—even as I roll my eyes at the comparison and how low it sets the bar for Israel, often referred to as the only democracy in the Middle East. But I have no personal relationship to those other countries.
I call out abuse wherever I see it, but I will fight most fiercely when it is my own home.
I used to have hope in coexistence between all the people who have righteous claims to the land: Jews and Muslims and Christians, Israelis and Palestinians. Israel was never a utopia, but now I am losing hope.
And for that, I mourn.
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Abby Stein is a Jewish educator, speaker, and trans activist.