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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

It began reintroducing the programs -- part of a "social diversity module" that focuses on encounters between participants and Israeli Arabs, Druze, Ethiopian Jews, Haredi Jews and other members of Israeli society -- in December 2017.

Birthright said its participants are required to engage in programming that addresses "the complex issues of the Middle East" and doesn't endorse any specific agendas, opinions or beliefs.

Co-founder Charles Bronfman noted that the program includes four hours devoted to discussing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict -- in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza -- as impartially as possible.

"I don't see the issue not being addressed," he told Israeli newspaper Haaretz.

In fact, the program is "not really meant to be an immersive educational experience about the ins and outs of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict," said Siamak Kordestani, an assistant director at the American Jewish Committee's Los Angeles office who attended Birthright in 2004.

Others who have taken the trip said that -- with or without formal programming -- meeting Israeli Arabs comes organically.

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Houman Hemmati, one of the first people to attend Birthright in 1999, decided to extend his visit after the tour ended -- an option many participants take advantage of. Birthright pays for a return flight even if an attendee chooses to leave at a later date.

Hemmati made his way to the Muslim Quarter in Jerusalem on his own, spending time with a family who lived in a home carved out of stones. The family members showed him around, he said, and discussed their daily lives.

"I wanted to explore things from a different perspective," Hemmati, 42, said. "The trip was focused on cultural and national, and to some degree, religious things. It was less so focused on politics and conflict. That wasn't what it was billed to be."

To him, the act of abandoning the tour was disrespectful.

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