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Young American Jews walked off their Birthright tour of Israel. The protest sparked a debate at home

Sarah Parvini, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

LOS ANGELES -- For many Jewish Americans, the question is not whether they will travel to Israel, but when.

Each year, tens of thousands of young people from around the world make the trip -- their expenses paid by Taglit-Birthright Israel, a nonprofit that aims to foster their Jewish identity and a connection to Israel by introducing them to the country's everyday life, culture and history. Participants tour sites such as Israel's Holocaust memorial and the Western Wall, and spend part of the trip in the company of Israeli soldiers their age.

That ritual met with some controversy this year after a few participants walked off the program to protest what they considered Birthright's failure to adequately address the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. About a dozen American Jews abandoned their summer tours and joined up with other organized trips focused on the conflict and meeting Palestinian families.

Though small, the protest reverberated throughout Los Angeles' Jewish community, with some expressing outrage at using Birthright to make a political statement and others showing support for the activism.

Some of the protesters -- members of a group called IfNotNow -- claimed the trip "erased the Palestinian experience."

Elon Glickman grew up in Los Angeles, where he attended Jewish day school, summer camps and youth groups. Still, he said, he was not shown a full picture of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict until he landed at Oberlin College, where he met activists "working against the occupation."

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"They would ask me my stance on settlements or the Green Line (the pre-1967 boundary that divides Israel and the West Bank territories), and I would say, 'What is happening?'" Glickman said. "That was one of the moments that I knew my community was hiding things from me about Israel-Palestine."

Glickman had hoped his tour in July would help him deepen his ties to Judaism and educate him on the conflict. But the 25-year-old walked away from the program on the sixth day.

"I was raised to believe Judaism is a religion of questioning and speaking truth to power," said Glickman, who joined IfNotNow two years ago. "I feel proud to be Jewish because of my role in this."

Los Angeles Rabbi Sharon Brous said the protest reflects a shift in American Jewish society, in which more people are speaking out against policies they see as unjust.

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