In This Desert

What will you tell strangers seated on the hard-packed earth, underneath a never-ending sea of stars? What will you say to these people that you met six days ago, at the Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport? What will you tell these people, some of whom speak Hebrew as their native language, and have spent their whole lives in this country that seems, at once, so foreign and familiar?

In this desert, who will you become?

Taglit-Birthright Israel (or, in Hebrew, תגלית) is a non-profit that organizes free, ten-day trips to Israel for any person of Jewish heritage between the ages of 18-26. This trip, often called a gift, was founded in December 1999 by a group of Jewish Philanthropists. These Philanthropists, led by Canadian Businessman Charles Bronfman and American Hedge-Fund Manager Michael Steinhardt, aimed to bring Jewish young adults together as a community by sending them to Israel.

Nearly 800,000 young adults of Jewish Heritage have received the gift of a Birthright trip. These young adults come from 67 countries, are diverse in language, age, and religious beliefs. Some don’t know they are Jewish until they are told so, as is the case of many Birthright participants from the former Soviet Union. Some have traveled to Israel many times, speak Hebrew fluently, and don Tefillin three times a day to pray.

The only requirement to receive the gift of a Birthright trip is that you be between the ages 18-26, have not visited Israel on an organized tour in the past twelve months, and have at least one parent that is Jewish.

In December 2017, I met these three criteria. Alongside my brother and 38 young adults from the Greater Atlanta Area, I departed the United States for a free, ten-day trip to Israel, that claimed to change my life.

“Take ten steps forward. Do not go further than ten steps. One time, a boy went further than ten steps, fell asleep, and we spent an hour looking for him.”

The instructions we receive as we nervously step away from the group ring in my ears. I do not want to walk ten steps away; I don’t want to walk two steps away. How can I walk away, when you just told me that a kid almost got lost and died? Still, breath hanging in the freezing air in front of me, I walk one, five, ten, steps away towards a small bush and gingerly sit on the ground.

The vastness of the desert is daunting. Who got lost in this desert, walked for days, months, years, before eventually collapsing into the earth and dying? The dirt under my back is hard and unforgiving. I imagine how it must have felt in sandals, or barefoot, the small rocks that have been rounded smooth by millennia of erosion.  

The same voice that tells us not to walk too far, our guide, Ya’acov, tells us to look into the stars and let our minds wander, just as the way our ancestors did when they roamed the desert two thousand years ago.

I look up, and my vision blurs. The scarf that I’ve tucked my chin into is causing my glasses to fog with every breath of hot air, making the stars above look more like headlights in the rain, rounded and duplicated. Gloved-covered hands reach for the frames, wiping them before placing them back on the bridge on my nose.

Before me, a galaxy blooms, the moon illuminating the yellow-orange sand in a wash of pale blue.

For the 40,000 young adults that the Taglit-Birthright Israel program delivers to the desert nation every year, thousands more have critiqued the trip. Birthright is often called propagandistic and racist. Much of the criticism of the trip stems from greater disapproval of Israeli government and army, the Israeli Defense Force (IDF).

A Harvard Crimson Op-Ed from Sandra Korn, a student who went on a Birthright trip, criticizes the inherent political influence of the trip. Korn writes, “Birthright’s idea of engaging with Israel means supporting an illegal and oppressive military occupation, claiming citizenship to a state that deports African immigrants, glorifying ‘the Jewish mind,’ and decrying all Arabs collectively for their hateful terrorist tactics.”

Ellie Shechet, in the feminist magazine Jezebel, provides a different critique of Israel, especially since she had been to Israel previously, and was able to contrast her first visit to Israel as a sixteen-year-old and a trip as a young adult with Birthright. Shechet offers her opinion of the partying, the exhaustion, and the shiny, Disneyland-esque tourism of the trip. She criticizes that Birthright doesn’t provide a comprehensive critique of Israel. Shechet says it is “nearly impossible to come out of it with any kind of unified sense of your own experience, much less a sophisticated take on a society that’s only revealed its shiniest, most digestible bits,” thanks to the “sleepless, jam-packed nature of the trip.”

“Doesn’t Israel want its supporters to be educated enough to hold their own in a debate, even that education brings with it potentially unwelcome ideas and criticisms?” Shechet writes. “From what I’ve seen so far, the answer is no.”

I now see why Ya’acov has warned us against wandering too far away and falling asleep. The beauty of the night sky entrances me, and soon, the exhaustion washes over me, and I feel my breathing lull and my eyes began to flutter shut.

I’m startled awake by someone in my group coughing. We’re so near to each other that I know my new friends will find me. I can’t get lost, not when we’re so close.

The trip takes young adults across a country roughly the size of New Jersey. Most tours follow a general outline that highlights the history of Israel, from it’s founding in an art museum in 1948, the heritage of the Jews in the Internation Holocaust Memorial and Museum, and the natural beauty of Israel, from the mountains to the lakes to the seas.  

My trip started in the Golan Heights, territory acquired by Israel in 1967 after the Six-Day War. The Golan Heights is internationally recognized as Syrian territory occupied by Israel. It is heavily disputed as it contains the Sea of Galilee, the only freshwater lake in the region, as well as most of the arable land in Israel.

As the bus drives through the winding mountains and plateaus, I see landmines, and the members of the Israeli Defence Force detonating them. The bus passes bombed-out homes and shrapnel littering the fertile landscape. Yesterday, the group hiked through a nature reserve and looked in awe at the Galilee glittering in the distance. The next, the group travels to Mt. Hermon, where bunkers are overlooking the Israeli-Syrian border.

As our guide tries to tell us about the Six-Day War, we hear gunfire and bombs from Damascus, visible in the distance. To our right, Irish and Canadian peacekeepers from the United Nations are stationed. I begin talking to the Canadian about hockey when he interrupts me. Israel is conducting training exercises near the border, and they must observe.

I realize that the U.N. Peacekeepers are not there to observe Damascus or Assad or rebel forces. They are there to watch the Israeli Defense Force. Israel, in this instance, is the threat.

It’s only day two of the trip.

There is a rock pressing in the middle of my back, but I am so in awe that I will not move to ease the discomfort.

The moon is so massive that it looks impossibly close, and the condensation on my glasses causes it to twinkle, the light shifting and dancing overhead. The stars are innumerable, and I try to use my rudimentary astronomy skills to pick out the planets and stars I know. I can see Orion’s belt, and if I squint, I can see what I think is either Mars or Venus. For an instant, I think I see a shooting star, but the sound soon catches up to me, and I realize it’s a fighter jet.

Ya’acov calls ten minutes, and numbly, I rise from the dirt and walk back to my group, 47 in total. The group creates a circle, our legs criss-cross, shoulder-to-shoulder.

“What did you think about?” Ya’acov’s comes from somewhere outside the circle, but I don’t know from where.

One by one, my peers begin to share.

Five days into our trip, seven Israelis our age join the group. This experience is called a Mifgash (Gathering) and is ubiquitous to the Birthright experience. Like us, our peers are between the ages of 20-26, love Instagram and Snapchat, and sing along to Cardi B on the bus.

Unlike us, our peers are currently serving in the Israeli Defense Force. Some patrol the West Bank, some fight in Gaza. Some work by gathering intelligence for Mossad, the most notorious spy agency in the world. They dress in green uniforms, berets carefully placed on their heads, their hair shorn or tied back into tight braids and buns.

“37 days until I get out,” Lital, 20, says, a grin stretched across her face. “Then, I’m going to Brazil with my boyfriend.”

There is mandatory conscription for able young adults in Israel. Instead of graduation photos, in 37 days, Lital will take pictures of her throwing her beret into the air and cutting up her military ID card. She is trained to shoot semi-automatic rifles. She hasn’t been to college. She knows how to salute and how to run through the desert with a weapon on her back. Her life is so different than mine.

Lital and I become fast friends, along with Alona, 21, who works with Lital in the intelligence arm of the IDF. The first night of the Mifgash, I room with Alona, and my other roommate asks her about violence against Palestinians. It’s not precisely the getting-to-know-you type of conversation.

“I think there needed to be more serious punishments,” She says, before telling us the story of Elor Azaria, a 21-year-old soldier who shot and killed an already wounded Palestinian while medical help was on the way.

“The guy,” Alona tells us, referring to the now-dead Palestinian, Abdul Fatah al-Sharif, “Came and stabbed Elor’s best friend. The soldiers shot him in the foot, incapacitating him, and called for the Magen David [Israel’s Emergency Services]. I guess Elor got mad and then he shot him in the back while he was down.”

The incident that Alona is referring to made international headlines for dividing Israel politically. Many wanted to see Azaria locked away for murder. Others said he shouldn’t spend a day in jail. He ended up spending eighteen months in prison, a sentence which received criticism across the world.

“I think he should have gotten a longer sentence,” Alona says, carefully. “But I also understand it. He was eighteen. His best friend got stabbed. He was angry. We all do stupid things when we’re angry.”

“Two days ago, one of my campers died in a plane crash,” Leah says through tears, sobbing into the circle. I walked in on her in Tel Aviv, crying in the bathroom, after the news broke that two families died in a plane crash in Florida. Both the kids involved in the tragedy were campers of Leah’s.

Beside her sits Joelle, who also knew the family. Her gloved hands circle the fabric of Leah’s jacket. I can see the tears on their faces, illuminated by the moon above.

Slowly, the blase comment about ‘having so much fun I had no time to write in my journal!’ dies on my tongue. I know that here, with these people, I must be honest. Not only does my friendship with them deserve honesty, but it seems as though the desert demands it.

We hike Masada and swim in the Dead Sea. We sob at Yad Vashem and pray at the Wailing Wall. We sing HaTikvah in the hall where David Ben-Gurion founded the state of Israel and then left stones on his grave. We clutched each other at the military cemetery, Mt. Herzl, as our new friends in the IDF tell stories about their friends who have died while serving. They tell us stories about Americans who have immigrated to Israel and served in the IDF and died. We visit Theodor Herzl’s grave.

We talk about how close we feel to Israel, to our history, to our collective heritage. We cry and laugh and sing. We play endless games of cards on long bus rides and promise to get brunch when we return to the United States. We have our inside jokes, and they go on a t-shirt, which we wear with pride.  

The trip is a whirlwind. It’s how Birthright trips are meant to pass.

Many people will argue that this leaves no time to think critically about Israel’s political situation, it’s colonialism in the West Bank or the state’s crimes against the Palestinian people.

In a hotel, in Jerusalem, a doctoral candidate in Middle Eastern Relations and Policy comes to present the history of Israel and Palestine. He is candid. He cites sources. He provides a detailed, unbiased, view of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. He shows us how maps have changed. He tells us how many times Palestinian leaders have refused to work with Israeli peace offers. He shows us how Israel has committed war crimes.

When antisemitic comments on Facebook call Birthright ‘apartheid propaganda,’ they don’t know about that night in Jerusalem. They don’t know that the soldiers we were with criticized Israel. They don’t know about the nights we spent heatedly debating Israel’s foreign policy, whether or not they should give back the Golan Heights for peace or whether or not Israel should de-occupy the Western Bank. They don’t know that Birthright, for the most part, has tried to become better about presenting a neutral, pluralistic view of the Israel/Palestine conflict.

I am more than aware that Israel isn’t perfect. I’m reminded of the young nation’s imperfections in the media I consume and in the news I read. But on this trip, where I have made friends, learned about my history, grown closer to G-d, and became a Bat Mitzvah, is criticizing Israel really the point?

“I pick at my skin,” I say, my voice wavering, my hand reaching for my back as I do when I am anxious, though the movement is jutted and aborted. “I pick at my skin when I’m anxious, or bored. It’s a form of self-harm that I’ve done since I was diagnosed with depression when I was fourteen. And I was so worried this entire trip I wouldn’t be able to go in the Dead Sea today because the salt would hurt the open sores on my back.”

The group is silent. Beside me, Mitchell, who I met six days ago, holds my hand, woolen mittens clutching my knit gloves. I have never admitted this aloud before, but the desert demands honesty, and so does my love for my friends.

“But when I walked into the Dead Sea today, I didn’t feel any pain. The salt didn’t sting.” A tear falls from my cheek and wets the scarf wrapped tightly around my neck. “I was having too much fun with y’all to pick. I didn’t have to worry about anything. I was never bored. I’ve never gone this long without picking. And I did that because of y’all.”

In the desert, I am honest. And under billions of stars, holding hands with my new family, I am free.

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