Since returning to Washington at the end of June from her Birthright trip to Israel, Bethany Zaiman’s story of abandoning the group with several other participants on the last day of the tour has brought her fierce criticism.
On social media, she been called a “fake Jew,” a “Roman” and someone “whose parents would be ashamed to have you as their child.” And there’s still the chance Birthright will bill her for the full cost of the trip — about $3,000.
But as Zaiman, a 25-year-old doctoral student in anthropology at American University, sat in a Friendship Heights café last week, she said she has no regrets about joining four fellow participants in leaving their free trip to Israel. She said they felt an obligation to protest Birthright’s unwillingness to incorporate the Israeli-Palestinian conflict into the trip. (In addition to the condemnation, the stance has brought Zaiman and others accolades in far-left circles.)
“I didn’t do this to be fun. I didn’t do this to be flashy,” she said of the walkout, which was livestreamed on Facebook. “I did this because I felt it was morally reprehensible to wrestle with Israel as a place, as an identity and the way it intersects with Judaism, and not talk about Palestine.”
Zaiman said she knew Birthright did not include encounters with Palestinians in its itinerary before the trip started on June 18, a key fact central to criticisms of those who walk out as “entitled brats,” as Allison Kaplan Sommer wrote in Haaretz. But Zaiman hadn’t been to Israel and wanted to see the country. She figured she could spark discussion by asking “uncomfortable” questions of staff and participants.
Zaiman and the four other participants who walked out of her trip are also members of IfNotNow, which stages demonstrations to oppose Israel’s presence in the West Bank, and has protested outside Jewish community organizations, such as Jewish federations. That fact has led many to question their motives.
“It took me a lot of thoughtful reflection to decide Birthright was the right choice for me,” she said. “I had spent the last few years exploring my Jewish identity and Birthright’s one of the major ways that American Jews can do that. The questions I brought with me about Israel and Palestine were ones I wanted to ask Birthright and the participants.”
Those questions included: Why wasn’t East Jerusalem and the West Bank denoted on the maps Birthright hands out to trip participants? Why do Birthright groups typically avoid interacting with Palestinians? What do Israelis think about the recent violence on the Gaza border and the implications of the American embassy move to Jerusalem?
“I knew that I was going to ask questions that others weren’t going to like,” she said. “I didn’t know that I was going to be walking out of the trip.”
Zaiman said she and four other women typically sat in the front of the bus and asked the tour guide, Golan, a hot button question each time the group visited a new site. She said Golan’s response to these questions was typically that “this isn’t the time or the place,” to discuss such issues, or, “There’s nothing we can do. We can’t change the occupation itself, so why are you asking these questions?”
Zaiman said she doesn’t know Golan’s last name, and Birthright would not provide it to WJW.
Zaiman said she and the others also asked to visit with Palestinians during a “free day,” when nothing was scheduled, but that Golan told them that no foreigners could visit their group. When they asked to visit the West Bank, she said his response was, “If I walk into the West Bank, I’ll get shot in the head.”
One-on-one conversations with other trip participants were constructive, she said. But when the five women asked questions in front of the group, others became annoyed and urged them to “let it go.”
Zaiman said the five women, despite all being members of IfNotNow, didn’t know each other before the trip, but by the fifth day they had bonded and decided that walking out was the best option.
The video posted to Facebook shows Zaiman grabbing the microphone on the tour bus and explaining why she and the others were leaving. Golan argued with the women, accusing them of having an agenda and disrupting the other participants’ experience.
“You are trying to impose your opinions on everyone on this bus and that is not acceptable,” he said in the video. “You cannot be a tyrant on this bus when I’m here. End of story. Get off the bus please, and we’ll deal with this when I have time to deal with it.”
Birthright would not deal directly with questions surrounding the walkout and another among IfNotNow members on July 15. But a Birthright spokesperson, who declined to provide a name due to company policy, wrote in an email to WJW, “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.”
A separate statement from Birthright provided to The Forward stated that the video of the walkout does not tell the entire story.
“We encourage Birthright Israel participants to analyze the complexities of the Middle East,” it read. “Yet this video omits the portion where the troublemakers repeatedly berated trip leaders, attempting to actually take over the trip from its leaders. That is the opposite of respectable debate and consideration of divergent views.”
After leaving Birthright, the five women toured the West Bank, guided by members of Breaking the Silence, a group composed of Israeli military reservists who speak out against Israeli military policy in Palestinian areas.
Sitting in the café in Friendship Heights, Zaiman was asked what her parents thought of what happened. “They had a lot of questions, but were very open to the conversation,” she said. “They understood why I felt like I needed to walk out.”
While many Birthright participants are simply looking to see Israel’s most iconic sites, Zaiman said a tour of Israel must be more than that.
“My Jewish identity is deeply rooted in social justice and tikkun olam,” she said. “That informs who I am as a Jewish person, and I can’t put that aside to learn about the Dead Sea or Masada.”
Asked if she would discourage others to participate in Birthright, Zaiman said she thinks those already signed up should go on the trip, but be prepared to ask the same questions that she and her fellow women did.
“I am asking them to push, be uncomfortable and make Birthright uncomfortable,” she said. “Because I think it’s necessary to grapple with the reality of the occupation. [And] If you haven’t signed up for Birthright, I don’t know that I would.”
When asked whether she would return to Israel, Zaiman hesitated.
“Umm, I think I need a little time,” she said. “But I met some awesome Israeli activists on the ground there and I’d love to learn more about the work they’re doing to end the occupation.”