Birthright is “so afraid of the occupation that they’re trying to hide it” from young American Jews, said IfNotNow member Clare Jordan, who was one of a group of activists who came up with the #NotJustAFreeTrip campaign.
Meanwhile, Zaiman, who had started getting involved with IfNotNow just before taking the trip to Israel, told NBC News that all her “requests to meet Palestinians were ignored” by Birthright.
A spokesman for Birthright Israel denied the organization had a political agenda.
“All participants attend a geopolitics module where the complex issues of the Middle East are addressed without endorsing any specific agendas, opinions or beliefs,” he said.
Birthright, which ran 24,650 trips for young Jewish adults from North America this summer, is funded in part by the Israeli government and also by wealthy American donors, including its founders, billionaire philanthropists Charles Bronfman and Michael Steinhardt. Earlier this year, Republican mega-donor Sheldon Adelson, a billionaire casino owner, gave Birthright $70 million.
The organization “provides the gift of a free education experience to Israel for Jews worldwide between the ages of 18 and 32 so they can explore their Jewish identities, strengthen their connections to Israel and experience its diverse society,” said the spokesman, who asked not to be identified.
The spokesman said those who walked off were a tiny fraction of the program’s participants, and had a political agenda.
“They chose to leave the trip early as a means to generate publicity for their causes,” the spokesman said, adding that participants are free to extend their trip and travel anywhere in the region before returning home.
Jordan said it was her Jewish identity and values she was raised with that led her to IfNotNow. She and her sister Leah Jordan — a rabbi who is also active in progressive circles — were raised to love Israel, she said. The family attended synagogue regularly and the sisters went to Jewish summer camp.
“I grew up feeling deeply Jewish,” said Jordan, 29-year-old Kansas City native who recently moved to Jerusalem to study Arabic.
But in her teens, Jordan realized that not all was how it had been explained to her at camp and in the synagogue, she said.
For her, a change of perspective came during a trip to Hebron, a Palestinian city with a population of over 150,000 in the West Bank. Hundreds of Jewish settlers, who trace the Jewish presence in the city back to the Old Testament, are guarded by Israeli soldiers who, according to rights activists, regularly and unnecessarily raid Palestinian homes. Over the decades, Palestinian streets have been cleared, shops shuttered and homes emptied, with some areas cleared of any Arab presence.
“All it took was a split second and I realized this was not a conflict — it was a brutal occupation,” Jordan said of her visit to the city.