June 20, 2018

Birthright, sexual assault, and #metoo

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The magnifying glass of the #metoo movement looked in on Birthright Israel trips and uncovered troubling behavior on the trips. In a long story with multiple personal accounts, Jewish Currents took a look at the “often-fraught sexual and gender dynamics on the famous free trip to Israel,” and their reporting paints Birthright Israel, trip organizers, participants, and even the volunteer Israeli IDF soldiers in a bad light.

If you are thinking about going on Birthright, have already traveled on the program, or simply care about Birthright and the future of the State of Israel, it’s worthy of your time to read. This is simply too important of an issue to ignore and Taglit Birthright Israel and the trip organizers must take this seriously and improve.

Our experience

We have not personally seen this type of assault, but have no doubt that this kind of behavior happens — I believe the stories in the article and know from my experience and from talking to friends and family that there is, at least, heighted sexual energy on the trip (we will continue to pay attention to this narrative as we talk to more participants about their experiences to share on this blog).

Importance of nuance

Not all sexual behavior is sexual assault; many of the people on these trips are like-minded, (mostly) responsible, young adults, traveling to an exotic destination, and the appeal of a romantic encounter, whether it leads to marriage or a one-night stand is strong. This romantic behavior may not be everyone’s preferences, but it’s perfectly fine for consenting adults. For the sake of the reputation of the program of everyone involved, and even more importantly for the existing and, sadly, future victims of sexual assault, we need to carefully separate these two phenomenon.

We should not conflate “hookup culture” and sexual assault, which we must fight against in all forms on Birthright and beyond. As with many important topics, the nuance is important, and here Birthright has a unique risk factor. The reporting from Jewish Currently appropriately points out that the trip is designed to make participants “feel safe” around fellow Jews, which could cause some to lower their guard — within a sexualized environment.

What does this mean for Birthright?

We still support the organizations and individuals who facilitate Birthright trips for Jews around the world to visit Israel. We also recognize that more must be done to eliminate this type of behavior as part of the trip. Young people will likely always make mistakes when it comes to abusing alcohol and with romantic partners, but Birthright — and similar trips and organizations — should be encouraging responsibility and offering safety beyond society at large rather than encouraging this the environment described in the article. If one person experiences harassment, assault, and the subsequent mental anguish, it’s one too many.

We certainly do not pretend to have the solution to this. We will continue our efforts to speak to the trip organizers, past participants, and trip leaders to learn and share more about previous experiences in order to help future travelers select the right trip, and hopefully help identify the right, and safe, trip environments.

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